Teaching Children to Ride a Bicycle

bicycle ridingThis is a follow-up to our prior post on Teaching Children to Ride a Tricycle. Once your little one has mastered tricycle riding, we can turn our focus to the two-wheeler, the bicycle!

Riding a bicycle is a complicated skill that requires trunk stability and strength, balance, coordination, motor planning and body/spatial awareness. A child also needs a well-established vestibular and proprioceptive system. In comparison to the tricycle, pedaling a bicycle requires more force and strength, while the higher height of the bicycle and two-wheel base of support call upon a greater level of balance and body/spatial awareness.  

Many times we recommend beginning with a balance bike. Before children are able to utilize a conventional two-wheeled bicycle either due to their strength, balance or their motor planning abilities, a balance bike can be a great piece of equipment to practice climbing on and off, forward movement, weight shifting and steering/navigating around obstacles. Find a balance bike that meets your needs as well as your child’s. It is important to ensure the proper fit of the balance bike for each child.

When shopping for a Balance Bicycle keep in mind:

  1. Adjustable Seat: As child grows, bike should be able to accommodate! Child should be able to sit on the seat with both feet touching floor.
  2. Adjustable Handlebars: Child should be able to comfortably grip both handlebars with shoulders relaxed and elbows slightly bent.
  3. Durable Materials:
    • Wood bikes are eco-friendly, but do not usually hold up as well over time.
    • Steel bikes are durable, but usually heavier and more susceptible to rust.
    • Aluminum bikes are durable and lightweight.
    • Composite bikes are also durable and lightweight.
  4. Frame Weight: Ideally a frame should weigh less than 40% of child’s body weight. Lighter bikes are easier for children to maneuver and for adults to carry!

Our Favorite Balance Bikes Include:

bicycleSchwinn Balance Bike: offers foot to floor frame, adjustable seat and handlebar height and air-filled tires. bicycleStrider Balance Bike: offers lightweight frame, adjustable seat and handlebar height, provides both mini-saddle and larger saddle size to accommodate child as they grow!                                      bicycleRadio Flyer Balance Bike: offers traction tread tires, adjustable seat and sturdy frame.

Once your child has mastered the balance bicycle and shows a real interest in the pedal bicycle, you can begin practicing riding a bicycle. The initial set up and fit of the bicycle are important. Here are some features to be mindful of when shopping for a bicycle:

  1. Seat Height vs. Inseam Height: We recommend buying a bike in which your child’s inseam is at least equal to the bike’s minimum seat height.
  2. Geometry & Center of Gravity: When at rest or at slow speeds, a bike is very challenging to balance. A bike with a lower center of gravity is easier for teaching new riders.
  3. Handlebars & Maneuverability: Handlebars that are placed higher up on a rider’s body provide for a more upright body position, but the lack of arm extension for the rider can also lead to difficulty steering. Handlebars placed lower on the body are recommended, as they help to lower the center-of-gravity as well as provide for the proper arm extension, leading to better overall control of the bike.
  4. Wheelbase Length & Stability: The longer the wheel base of a bike the more stable the bike is, allowing it to be easier to maneuver and handle for the child.
  5. Weight: Ideally a child’s bike should be less than 40% of their body weight. 
  6. Child’s Posture & Positioning: An upright body position has several benefits over a more forward leaning body position. An upright body position allows a child’s weight to be centered over the seat of the bike, which allows children to more easily and more naturally balance their bikes.
  7. Bike Width: Many children’s bicycles are too wide and require kids to splay their legs in order to pedal. Higher-end bikes designed with components specifically made for kids are generally much narrower than other bikes.
  8. Braking Mechanism:
  • Back-Pedal Brakes: Back-pedal, or coaster brakes can be difficult for balance bike graduates learning how to pedal. When learning to pedal, kids naturally pedal backward on a bike when they lose their balance on a bike. On a coaster bike, backpedaling will cause unexpected stops and loss of balance. In contrast, on a freewheel bike (a bike without a coaster), backpedaling can help child regain balance and allow them to keep riding. As a result, freewheel bikes are better suited for balance bike graduates transitioning to a pedal bike as well as experienced riders riding hills.
  • Hand Brakes: If a bike does not have a coaster, kids need to be able to properly activate a hand brake. To test whether a hand brake is easy to use, pull the brake lever with your pinky finger. If the brake is hard to activate with your pinky, it is likely poorly designed and will be a challenge for your child to use. On the contrary, well-designed brakes are very responsive and can cause kids to stop much faster than they anticipated, which can also lead to a crash. As a result, allow child time to acclimate to braking mechanism, walk next to the bike and have them activate the brakes to stop the bike while walking. By doing so, they can get the feel for the brakes and determine how much pressure is needed (or not needed) to stop the bike.

Tips to Encourage Independent Bicycle Riding:kids bicyclePractice Weight Shifting with Child’s Feet on Ground: Start with low seat height to allow child’s feet to rest comfortably on ground.  bicyclePractice Weight Shifting with Child’s Feet on Pedals: With child’s feet on pedals, support at back of bicycle gently shifting from side to side. Allow child to shift weight accordingly, gaining awareness of body position in space, trunk strength and dynamic balance.kids bicycle trainingPractice Turning in Direction of Weight Shift: Weight shifting in conjunction with turning requires high level of balance and motor planning. Allow child to practice directional shifts with support at back of bike.
Ride Downhill: Raise the saddle high enough to allow a slight bend in your child’s leg when the pedal is at the bottom of a stroke. Start partway up a small hill with flat ground beneath. Have child pedal downhill and using momentum continue pedaling on the level area.bicycleRide on Level Terrain without Obstacles: Once child has gained confidence and balance maneuvering bicycle on hill, we can address initiating pedal motion on level surface and propelling bicycle with controlled fluid movements.bicycleStop & Start/Navigating Obstacles: Once child is proficient with independent pedaling on level surfaces, you can introduce small obstacles to practice safe navigation as well as stopping and starting getting comfortable with braking as needed. Colored cones are great obstacles to practice with!

Other Helpful Tips:

  • Safety is Key! Don’t forget your helmet! Starting with safe habits at an early age is important! It is important to teach children about bicycle safety and riding rules.
  • Practice riding with supportive shoes. Rubber soles of shoes will help keep feet on pedals, and provide more stable base to push off from. For shoe recommendations check out our post here!
  • Proper clothing is helpful! Avoid baggy clothing and tuck in shoelaces if necessary. Cool, comfortable clothing will allow the child’s legs to cycle freely without restriction.
  • Ride with Purpose! Once child has developed the necessary skills to balance and propel bicycle, it may be helpful to give a child a task or a destination, be it real or imaginary. Focusing on the comprehensive task can help to allow for awareness of environment around them, an essential part of independent bicycle riding!

Our Favorite Bicycles Include:

kids bikeDiamondback Bicycles:

  • Lightweight frame, low saddle, allow for smoother ride
  • Sturdy and durable design

best kids bicycleRoyalBaby BMX Bicycles:

  • Multiple size options
  • Handle at back of bike seat for ease in training
  • Padded seat and easy grip handlebars

best bike kidsSchwinn Koen Bicycle:

  • Offers lighter frame, cranks and pedals are positioned forward, & gearing designed for easier starting
  • Has narrower pedal positions, smaller grips and seat
  • Easily adjustable to grow with child

It is important to note that conventional bicycles are not appropriate for all children. Adaptive options such as hand powered bicycles and recumbent bicycles all offer a sense of independence and freedom while enhancing mobility.

We would love to hear from you! What are your experiences with bicycle riding and your favorite bicycles?

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  • great article.

    I am a big fan of the Woom bikes for kids. They have a whole line that allows them to learn on a balance bike and then graduate to a larger size as they grow.

  • I noticed there is no comment in regards to training wheels, yet some bikes recommended have them pictured. What is the thought behind training wheels. Use them? Don’t?

    • Thank you for your comment! It really depends on the child. If you are transitioning from a tricycle you can usually forego training wheels and follow the steps listed above to work on independent bike riding. You can use training wheels to help the child grow accustomed to sitting on a bike and using their legs to pedal, but they will not help them learn to balance. So usually they are a short term fix! Feel free to email us directly at info@dinopt.com if you have any questions!