Is it just me, or does parenting a child from ages 4 to 6 seems seem like a disproportionately packed stretch of “teaching?” It’s in this tiny window when we’re told many of our children are “ready” (read: expected) to master the basics of an extraordinary number of life skills. Swimming. Swinging. Skating. Tooth-brushing. Buttoning. Writing. Reading. The list goes on. No wonder kids this age seem tired all the time.
For our Pre-K’er, the skill du jour is riding a bike. He’s clearly outgrowing his 12-inch training-wheeled number, and his penchant for endless loops around our driveway makes me think he might be ready to ditch the training wheels. But I don’t know if I’m ready—at least if this move will precipitate the tears and panic that characterized his older brothers’ graduation from four to two wheels. So I turned to Curt Hinson, Ph.D, a physical education expert and a Happy Healthy Kids adviser, for guidance. Dr. Hinson, who consults school P.E. departments around the country with his Dr. Recess program, has taught hundreds of kids to ride a bike, and usually after just several minutes of instruction. Here are his expert tips.
- Skip training wheels. I had a feeling this was a miss on my part, and Dr. Hinson confirmed it. “They actually keep the kid from learning because they balance the bike for the rider,” he says. The key is to get their core engaged from the get-go, to make it easier to shift to a big-kid bike. For 3- and 4-year-olds learning to ride, he recommends a pedal-less bike (a.k.a. “balance bike”). “The rider sits on the seat and propels himself forward with his feet
on the ground. This enables the child to balance the bike on his own and steer it, which are the two keys to learning to ride,” Dr. Hinson says. A really good one recently on the market: the 12-inch Starfish Balance Bike by Cleary Bikes. It’s pricey—starting at $199—but with a leather seat, special sealants to protect the paint, and (almost unheard of in balance bikes) a hand break, it’s one special piece of engineering. Find it at clearybikes.com or here at amazon.com. Another good, more affordable option is Tauki Kids 12-inch Balance Bike, available for $80 at amazon.com.
(And don’t forget a helmet, of course: The Bell Zipper has some great designs, and has been recommended in Consumer Reports’ safety ratings.)
Kids between 5 and 7 are a little too big for these little balance bikes. In their case, start with a regular two-wheeler that’s sized appropriately for them. This chart from the International Bicycle Fund is a good starting point to figure out what to buy.
What Size Bike is Right?
Age Inseam size (from crotch to foot) Wheel diameter (bike size) 4-6 years 16-20 inches 14 inches 5-8 years 18-22 inches 16 inches 6-9 years 20-24 inches 18 inches 7-10 years 22-25 inches 20 inches
- Lower the seat and have them practice “walking” the bike on grass. Having their feet flat on the ground at first is helpful. Encourage them to walk the bike while sitting on it. “The child should walk his feet on the ground, moving the bike, making turns and circles,” says Dr. Hinson. ” The goal is for him to get the feel of what it takes to steer the bike and balance it. Since their feet are on the ground, it’s fairly easy, and falls are eliminated.”
- Do the same thing on the pavement. Once the child seems comfortable making turns and circles on foot while seated on the bike, progress to the driveway or a parking lot (preferably something flat, smooth, and with a lot of room to go off course). Have him try walking while making turns and circles on the pavement, until he’s comfortable.
- Raise the seat back up to a proper height to try pedaling. “Many people want to keep the seat low and have the kid pedal with the seat low—they think this is safer because the kid will be able to put his feet on the ground if he begins to fall,” Dr. Hinson says. But once they are past the “walking” stage, this is a no-no: “Having the seat low makes it really difficult to pedal, as your legs are never fully extended, and when beginners sense they are falling they don’t always put their feet on the ground, but rather let go of the handle bars and basically try to jump off the bike—it’s just instinct, they all do it.” Move the seat up so there’s about a 10-degree bend in their knee when the pedal is at the bottom of the pedal stroke—their toes should just barely touch the ground.
- Lightly support the rider as they start push off one foot and start pedaling. “People try to hold the seat, but that’s just balancing it for the rider—the same thing as training wheels,” says Dr. Hinson. “I typically will either grab the rider up under both armpits or grab a hold of his shirt in the center of his back and bunch it up in my hand. Then run along side of the rider—that’s the difficult part. It takes effort, stamina, strength and compassion (no yelling allowed!).”
- Keep the mood light, too. Some kids will be riding capably in a few minutes, others will take more time. For slower learners—often the kids who are little more risk-averse—be sure to not put on too much pressure, which will just make them more anxious. Take a break and try again later.