Every child will learn things in their own time but learning to ride a pedal bike before 5 years of age is a reasonable aspiration for parents and early childhood teachers to have for children.
It is a significant event in life that most of us can remember so it is worth making it a rewarding experience for a child.
The benefits of learning to ride a pedal bike for a young child
- Confidence, pride and self-esteem that comes from a sense of accomplishment
- Knowledge that practice and perseverance really does pay off.
- Goal setting
- Good fun exercise
- Independence to roam, explore and take in more of the environment
- Self-awareness, self-responsibility and empathy - consideration of other footpath or park users
- And lots more…
Trikes, balance bikes and scooters
The 3-wheel plastic push along, balance bikes and tricycles are all good fun, great learning opportunities and excellent preparation for a pedal bike.
Some parents report that riding both a balance bike and tricycle helped their child learn a pedal bike more easily as they learned balance and gained pedal strength and technique.
Scooters too are great for learning balance. Expect a tricky transition from a 3-wheel to a 2-wheel scooter - and it helps to have only the 2-wheel scooter on offer and be ready to support a possibly frustrated child with patience, time, praise and encouragement.
Find the right bike – whichever it might be
It can be one of those mysteries of the universe why a child might prefer the beaten up old bike over the new expensive one you just bought.
Before introducing a bike check everything is working okay, e.g. the tires rotate smoothly. Some plastic bikes with solid, airless tires can be quite difficult to ride. A heavier, sturdier real bike may look ominous to an anxious parent but it might enable better balance, rhythm and flow.
If you have more than one bike on offer it is usually best to go with the child’s preference but if progress is slow then could show the child the bike’s faults, show them why another one is better and eventually have only that one on offer. However, be careful not to encourage a child to blame the bike if things aren’t going well.
Helmets and shoes
For safety, it's probably a good idea to introduce an expectation early on that shoes should be worn - shoes that won't fall off and won't catch.
There is some debate on the necessity of a helmet if children are not on the road and are using a trike or plastic bike.
Many early childhood educators however are more comfortable about the safety of a child if the child is wearing a helmet, that is properly fitted when balance is needed (e.g. a 2 wheel-bike).
When children are encouraged to go fast, wearing a helmet can make it safer especially when the child makes a mistake or comes off their bike for what ever reason.
Ready? Set? Go!
Here’s an approach to get started that we call the ‘Ready? Set? Go!’ method.
A child who has aced the balance bike and can pedal on a trike is now ready to learn a pedal bike. By virtue of getting this far means the child likely has a genuine desire and interest. Most children will be self-motivated having seen parents, adults and children all about riding pedal bikes. If needed motivation can be increased by simply going to where a child can see lots of pedal bikes being ridden or invite some older children over to play with their bikes.
Does the child want your help? Ask the child.
If yes, then set and agree on a goal. Do this by explaining:
"Riding a bike is so much fun”
- “We need to practice every day” (or once/ twice a week will do)
- “It is tricky and sometimes we fall off”.
- "If we get up and keep trying then we will get better, just like you kept trying and made the lego tower” (jigsaw puzzle, rode the scooter, etc)
If the child is still keen then agree with each other how often you will practice – everyday or once day a week, etc.., call it ‘bike practice’. Once or twice a week is enough as the child will instinctively start from where they left off.
The trick now is making sure ‘bike practice’ happens regularly just as you both agreed. Some children may lose motivation as their confidence and body gets knocked from falls. Frustration can set in.
Consider the lost learning opportunities and perhaps the wrong kind of learning if you both give up. You both have committed to an agreed goal. Here are some tips to keep that commitment:
- Do ‘bike practice’ as agreed - even if just for a few minutes or 3 or 4 attempts.
- Make bike practice an expectation – Only after bike practice can child watch movie, go on playdate, play the IPad, etc. There could be tears but follow through… you both made the commitment.
- Show off scratches and bruises with pride
- Compliment a child on a ‘good’ fall
- Praise how good a child is at persevering “Awesome, I really like how you keep trying and practicing. Good fall… can you pick yourself up?”.
- Praise progress, “I can see you are getting better and better”.
Note that some children will learn by themselves without much if any adult support because of whatever reason, e.g. they’ve seen older siblings or friends. But, most children will benefit from some adult assistance.
If your child is ready, the goal is set and you both follow through on the commitment you might be surprised to find it takes just 3 or 4 short practices.
Don’t you get frustrated
You the adult must appear calm which means not showing if you are getting frustrated, annoyed, angry, worried, nervous, panicky, anxious or impatient.
Don’t push too hard or too soft
Just 3 or 4 attempts can be enough for a ‘bike practice’.
Don’t use trainer wheels
They cause as many problems as they solve limiting or delaying further improvement, e.g. difficult to learn to take off by themselves, hard to turn or stop without falling (child’s feet often can’t reach the ground).
Prevent learning about the flow, rhythm and balance of riding.
Wrong type of learning (cheating) - devalues practice and perseverance the key attributes for learning or skill acquisition.
Don’t do too much for the child, e.g. always hold the bike, push around on the bike, pick up and put on bike, etc.
Push the child around on the bike perhaps as a taster but it is best for a child to get there themselves so can experience the reward from their blood and tears (literally). It will make their accomplishment all the more rewarding - don’t take that away from them.
You will have the same effect a set of trainer wheels delaying progress by doing too much for the child.
Don’t panic and rush in when a child falls
A child seeing you worry will worry too.
Stay where you are and stay calm.
Say, “that was a good fall, well done. You’re good at falling and picking yourself up. Are you ok? Do you want me to come over and look? You’ve got a scratch to show your Dad and friends. We all fall off our bike when we learn. Can you pick yourself up? That’s it, slide your feet out and stand up. Rub your arm. Can you pick your bike up? Try again? Shall I hold it for you a little bit this time”?
Two top tips – break down into steps and voice your instructions
Breaking things down into steps can help reach the big goal.
Use your calm voice to give instructions and explanations as you help position feet and pedals. Voicing your instructions enables the child to learn the relevant vocabulary, e.g. ‘handle bar’, ‘pedal’ and ‘brake’.
Here are perhaps the first two and most important steps to support a child with:
1. Sitting or standing stationary on the bike
A good first step to learn. Helps with taking off (step 2) and to stay on bike without falling when it stops.
- “Pick up the bike, that’s it, put your hand on this handle bar and that handle bar, good.”
- “Shall I hold the bike so you can sit on it? Oops, try again, nice one”.
- “Now, lean this way and put your foot out so you can keep up on the bike. You can keep your other foot on the pedal here see”.
2. Taking off – getting the bike moving
Perhaps the most rewarding step to master as gives child complete independence and control. Get this right then a child has basically mastered riding a pedal bike.
- “Good, you’re leaning on this leg so you won’t fall over”.
- “Use your other foot to bring this pedal up higher, I’ll help you… try to have the pedal up here. Good, now keep your foot up on this pedal.
- “Now, push off this leg and then push down on the pedal with your other leg really hard. I’ll hold the bike for you. Now bring this leg onto this pedal and keep pedalling. Great, look, I’ve let go. When you stop put your leg out to stop you falling”.
Once a child has mastered riding a bike ‘then’ you can get worried… stay close (while walking or running alongside or on your bike especially if you leave your home or preschool area) and watch them like a hawk! But have the best fun ever!