The time had come—my daughter was going to learn to ride.
However, there was one small issue. How do I explain the principles of balance, braking and steering to a four-year-old?
I fully understood that if I made a complete mess of it, she could become frustrated and lose all desire to be on two wheels.
Happily, it wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated!
Here’s how to teach a child to bike—without tears, accidents or tantrums.
Top Tips for Teaching a Child to Ride
- Use positive reinforcement.
- Keep it fun at all times.
- Ensure they wear a cycle helmet.
- Prepare with balance bikes.
- Wait until they’re ready to learn.
What’s the Ideal Age to Learn How to Ride a Bike?
Theoretically, as early as possible—but with some caveats.
Cycling is an amazing skill to possess—and once your child has it, as both science and the old saying indicates, they'll never forget how to ride a bike. Don't worry, you can still learn to ride as an adult if you missed out.
Giving your little one the ability to be on two wheels means that they will be more likely to carry on riding as an adult. Furthermore, the sooner they can cycle, the earlier you can ride together as a family—something which provides immense rewards.
In the broadest possible terms, kids are ready to learn at around 3.5-4.5 years of age—but some may not be ready until as late as seven or eight years.
And that’s where the key lies—being ready.
Why You Should Listen to Your Child about Learning to Bike
Understanding how to teach a child to ride a bike means ascertaining whether the child is both physically and mentally ready.
From a practical perspective, your tiny tot should have the strength and coordination to handle a bike. Otherwise, you and your child's efforts will be in vain.
However, over everything else—they need the desire to learn.
You may think it’s time for junior to be pedaling around your yard—but if he or she has no interest whatsoever—you’re fighting a losing battle.
As a parent, you know how difficult it is to get your child to do something they don’t want to—whether that's going to bed, having a bath, or eating their veggies.
Let me tell you something.
I was lucky with my daughter. She saw me riding my cycle every weekend, and naturally, she wanted to be just like mommy—convincing her to get in the saddle wasn’t that tricky.
However, swimming was a different matter. The little madam was adamant she didn’t want to learn—yet as soon as she was in the pool—her attitude completely changed and considered it the best day out ever.
So, by all means, gently guide your tot onto two wheels. But if it doesn’t stimulate their interest—leave it for a few more months and try again.
Above all, listen to your child—this applies to all stages of how to teach a kid to ride a bike.
If they tell you they want to cycle—then begin training as soon as possible. While learning, if your child says they’ve ‘had enough’—then stop. And finally, after the session has ended, listen to your little one’s feedback. If they’re proud of themselves, shower them with praise—if they’re downhearted as it didn’t go so well—build up their confidence with positive reinforcement.
Kids, unlike adults, aren’t great at hiding their emotions.
This means even if they don’t vocalize their feelings—it’s not difficult as a parent to ‘listen’ to their demeanor, mood and attitude and respond accordingly.
Introducing Your Child to the World of Cycling
In addition to your little one nagging you to learn to ride—there’s one other simple way to see if your child is ready for the two-wheeled world.
Get them on a bike.
It’s one of the easiest ways to ascertain their interest, or alternatively, stimulate their curiosity.
And, one of the most budget-friendly and effective methods is to kick off with a balance bike.
The Value of Balance Bikes
As I discovered with my daughter, balance bikes are an excellent introduction to riding.
These simple machines, basically a bike without any pedals or brakes, are inexpensive and lightweight—yet teach children the most crucial cycling skill—balance.
Their most attractive feature is—you don’t have to explain anything—which is a lifesaver. Try and read any article on the physics behind balance—and I guarantee you’ll wonder how you even manage to stand up without falling over.
As their learning process develops, you can use a balance bike to guide and refine skills. But in the early stages, just let them enjoy themselves. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly little ones grasp the idea of holding the handlebars, sitting and scooting around.
Research from Dublin City University demonstrates that not only do these simple ‘toys’ teach balance—they also help to develop enhanced motor skills that affect all areas of their little lives.
Stabilizers—Should I Use Them?
I know, it’s really tempting.
Having stabilizers, or training wheels, on your child’s cycle means they can sit on it straight away and ride. And, at the back of your mind, you’re thinking—one day, I’ll take them off, and they can learn to ride properly.
But that’s the issue—one day they’ll learn how to cycle.
Shooting around the streets or your yard on a stabilized bike may be fun—but your tiny tot is learning nothing—apart from how to sit on a saddle.
Here are the downsides of using stabilizers:
- Your child isn’t learning how to balance—remove the stabilizers, and your child will fall off straight away. It’s like you learning to drive in an automatic car, and then expecting you to cope with a stick-shift.
- They learn nothing about leaning—even at slow speed, you naturally lean in to turns—stabilizers prevent kids from discovering this essential skill.
- Useless on uneven terrain—stabilizers only work on flat ground—throw in a few bumps, and they become unsteady and may topple over.
- They’re noisy, add weight and cost, and eventually will make their way to the landfill.
Most of all, training wheels can be disheartening for your child. They’ve been merrily cycling around with friends—you remove the stabilizers—and now they’re back to square one. This can lead to feelings of failure and may deter your child from being on their bike.
Preparation of the Cycling Equipment
How to teach a kid to bike without them losing interest? Preparation!
If your kids are anything like mine—patience isn’t one of their virtues.
When training them on two wheels, you don’t want to be constantly fiddling with seats, adjusting handlebars and removing pedals. You’ll quickly lose their attention, and they will disappear to do something much more stimulating.
So, take care of all the fine-tuning and equipment at least the day before your lessons begin!
Ensure the Child’s Cycle is the Correct Fit
You wouldn’t take junior for a walk in shoes that didn’t fit—and the same applies to cycling.
A correctly sized cycle increases comfort, reduces the risk of accidents, and makes it easier for your child to learn.
Top Tube Clearance
Your tot should be able to stand astride the top tube with both feet flat on the floor.
If not, there’s undoubtedly going to be a groin accident—and that means tears.
I know that it can be tempting from a cost perspective to purchase a bike slightly too large for your little one. Admittedly, they will grow into it, meaning you don’t have to replace it as quickly. However, if it’s too big, they’ll find it difficult to control.
A child that knows it can step off the pedals and stand upright is more confident—which will increase their chances of learning.
Check the Handlebar Reach
When in the saddle, your infant should be able to easily grasp the hand grips without leaning forward too much.
Furthermore, if the cycle has hand-lever brakes, ensure they are within reach of their fingers, and that they have the strength to operate them.
Get Them Familiar with Wearing a Cycle Helmet
I don’t want to put a downer on things—but let’s face facts.
The best way to get your child to wear a helmet is by example. If you don headgear every time you head out on two wheels—your kid will be more willing to follow suit.
And, allow them to choose their helmet.
Sure, you might want to buy head protection that looks ‘sensible’ to you—but if your little one hates it—you stand no chance. As long as the helmet conforms to national safety standards—it doesn’t matter whether it’s adorned with Barbie, Spiderman, Minecraft or whatever the latest fad is.
Here’s how to ensure the perfect fit:
- Helmet sizes relate to the circumference of the head. So take your child’s measurements from just above the eyebrows.
- Place the headgear on your child—it should sit in the middle of their forehead, no higher than one-inch above their eyebrows.
- Slightly adjust the side straps—so that you form a ‘V’ under each ear.
- Secure the buckle on the chin strap—although not so tight that it cuts into their skin. You should be able to put one finger comfortably between the strap and chin.
- Some helmets have a twistable rear adjuster—if so, turn to ensure a tight fit.
- Get your child to rock their head back and forward and from side to side. If you’ve fitted it correctly, it shouldn’t move or slip.
Additionally, ensure your child has some suitable riding clothes:
- Use shoes without laces, or if unavailable, tuck the laces out of the way.
- Avoid anything loose on the lower half that may become trapped in the chain.
- Wear long socks, such as football kit types—which can protect the shins from cranks and pedals.
- No open-toed footwear.
- Consider using shin, elbow and knee pads.
Prepare the Cycle for Training
A correctly prepared bike means you are giving your little one every chance of a successful first lesson.
The vital areas to address are:
If you’ve followed my advice, hopefully, there are no training wheels on the cycle. However, if you’ve been rebellious and given them a try—now is the time to take them off.
Remove the Pedals
Even if your child has enjoyed success on a balance bike, I recommend removing the pedals from a ‘proper’ bike for the early stages of cycle training.
This helps the transition between the two bikes—and allows your little one to get the ‘feel’ of the new hand grips, riding height and saddle.
Adjust the Seat
Position the saddle so that your infant can sit upright—while still having both feet flat on the floor. This helps to provide a mental ‘crutch’ for your child—they know, if needed, they can plant their feet on the ground to prevent dismounts.
Inflate the Tires
Check the tire walls for the correct operating pressure—and fill or empty as they require.
The proper pressure means a smoother ride for your little one and reduces the effort they need to propel the cycle.
Select a Training Location
Unless you have an expansive yard—you may need to look elsewhere for your training ground.
Ideal locations include a school blacktop, basketball or tennis court, or empty parking lot. The perfect cycling area should have the following characteristics:
- Smooth and flat surface—preferable paved or tarmacked.
- No loose gravel.
- Mostly free from obstacles such as road signs, street lamps, trash bins and bollards.
- A lengthy and wide area which doesn’t require frequent turning around.
- Free from traffic, other cyclists, pedestrians and animals.
Just a quick piece of advice.
It can be tempting to try and teach your child on grass—as it provides a much softer landing surface should they fall off.
However, it requires a lot of effort for an adult to ride on grass—so think how a kid’s little legs are going to struggle. Furthermore, it may look flat, but unless you're cycling on a putting green, they’re much more uneven than they first appear (don’t cycle on putting greens—it tends to annoy golfers for some reason).
Time to Get Going!
Hopefully, your child is now chomping at the bit to get on and ride. So let’s not hang around any longer!
Practice Mounts and Dismounts
It may seem a little silly—but it’s not as easy as it sounds.
If this is your child’s first time on a cycle—it will feel very strange.
Climbing onto a bike involves a remarkable amount of coordination—holding the handgrips, tilting the bike to one side, stepping over or through the frame, straightening up again and then sitting in the saddle.
And then, you have to do it all in reverse to dismount!
Repeat until they’re entirely confident at this procedure.
Begin with Scooting and Gliding
If your infant has already been using a balance bike, this will be second nature to them, and will just be a case of becoming acquainted with the different feel of a proper cycle.
However, if this is their first time in the saddle, it may take a little longer.
There are two key steps, the scoot and the glide.
First, you need to get them to just push themselves along—the time their feet are off the ground being kept to the minimum.
There are a couple of methods to try out:
The Bouncy Castle or Moonwalk
This prevents your child from ‘shuffling’ along. Instead, they’re going to move using one foot at a time.
Explain, and demonstrate, how to take long, striding steps while seated in the saddle—as if traversing a bouncy castle. Alternatively, use the analogy of moonwalking—that is, as in Neil Armstrong, not Michael Jackson.
Show your little one how to move themselves forward, by using two parallel feet simultaneously—akin to a rabbit bounding along.
Try out both methods to find out which they find easiest and most comfortable. Watch out for them ‘walking’ the bike instead—and correct if necessary.
From the very beginning of their scooting instruction, encourage your child to keep looking forward—not at their feet. Explain that keeping their head up prevents them from falling off and assists with avoiding obstacles.
If they continue to look downwards—turn it into a game.
As they scoot—walk backward in front of them—and point to a part of your body. Ask your little one to shout out what you are indicating—such as your ears, nose or tummy.
Once your infant has mastered scooting, it’s time to encourage them to take their feet off the floor after every push—and glide. I’d suggest a demonstration with you on a bike first—showing them how you can keep moving with no feet on the ground.
Again, making a game out of the lesson helps to keep your child's attention. Here are a couple of ideas:
Flaming Hot Lava
Using some chalk, draw parallel lines on the ground at around 8-10 feet intervals. In the spaces between these lines, draw some flames and tell your child this is hot lava—which will burn their feet if they touch it.
Explain that they need to gain some speed as they approach the lava, and then must lift their feet and glide to avoid incineration. Alternatively, you can replace the theoretical lava with crocodiles, spiders, dinosaurs or whatever stokes your child's interest (or whatever you can draw convincingly).
As they improve, increase the length of the hazardous areas to encourage gliding over a longer distance.
Tell your child they need to glide for five seconds. As they push off, count loudly, so they have a target to aim for.
Once successful, tell them they’re going to try and beat this record by aiming for six seconds, then seven, etc.
Alternatively, you can begin to sing the ABC’s song—and see how far along the alphabet they can reach before their feet touch the ground.
In either scenario—praise, praise and more praise!
Every time they travel further over the lava, or increase their timed glides by a second, it’s an achievement. So tell them how well they’re doing!
Gliding Combined With Steering and Turning
Once your little one is adept and gliding—it’s time to introduce steering.
If you have some small safety cones, set up a ‘course’ and ask your child to glide in, out, and around them. Should you not have access to these markers, you can use anything else you wish—as long as they are small and unlikely to cause accidents—such as upturned plastic plant pots or empty ice cream tubs.
In the early stages, make certain there’s a significant distance between the markers—you can reduce this as your child’s competence and confidence grow.
Additionally, join in the fun yourself and have a game of follow-the-leader.
Cycle around on your own bike (naturally, wearing your own helmet) and ask your little one to follow you. Keep it slow and simple and ensure your turns are wide and sweeping.
As long as your child can glide, look ahead, and steer, it’s time for the next stage—pedaling!
Keep the saddle in precisely the same place as for the gliding and reattach the pedals. By now, your child will be able to balance—so don’t put on the training wheels!
Let’s get down to it.
Becoming Acquainted With the Pedals
The pedals will initially feel a little unnatural to your child—as so far, they’ve been absent from the cycle. So, to begin, all we’re going to do is accustom them to placing their feet on the pedals and becoming used to how they feel under their soles.
- Get your child to climb onto the saddle as before, both hands on the bars, feet planted on the floor and looking forward.
- You should stand astride the front wheel, clamping it between your inner calves to keep it stable.
- Hold onto the center of the handlebar for added security.
- Ask them to look at your face.
- Get your little one to lift both feet off the floor, and by touch alone, position them on the pedals.
- Ask them to remove them again and replace them on the ground—while still looking at you.
- You can make this into a little game by telling them every time you say ‘Hot Lava!’ the floor becomes dangerous and they need to place their feet on the pedals.
- Repeat until they’re comfortable.
Learning the Brakes
Knowing how to teach a child to cycle also means understanding how to get them to stop!
Seeing your little one merrily pedaling along may fill you with immense pride and satisfaction—but that will soon turn to panic when they’ve disappeared out of eyesight as they have no idea how to halt the bike.
Hence, spend some time to allow your infant to get the feel of the brakes. Depending on the cycle design, this could be a coaster brake or hand levers.
- Coaster brakes—while holding the bike steady, have them push gently backward on the pedals.
- Handbrakes—get your child to walk while pushing the cycle, keeping a couple of fingers on the brakes. Every so often, ask them to squeeze the levers to feel what it's like to bring the bike to a stop.
Starting from a Stationary Position
Here it comes—real riding!
One of the crucial questions is, should you support the bike or your child as they begin to ride?
In my experience, try to avoid this. Junior has already achieved perfect balance, so that shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Furthermore, however much you want to help, touching the child or the bike can worsen stability.
Think about it—even as an adult, if someone was to come behind you while you're riding and grab your sides or handlebars—you're going to wobble.
Wherever possible, allow your child to cycle on their own.
By all means, follow close behind, ready to grab them beneath the armpits should they fall. But you are there to catch them, not re-balance them!
There’s no right or wrong way to begin, but I’ve found that there are three very helpful techniques. In all examples, start with your child seated on the bike, looking forward, feet flat on the floor, and holding the handlebars.
The Pedal Push
Have your tiny human raise one pedal to the eleven or one o’clock position (depending on which side of the bike you’re looking at).
One foot should be on this elevated pedal, the other on the floor providing stability. Teach the child to start moving by pushing downwards, then lifting their other foot to sit on the empty pedal.
The Scoot Start
Start with one foot on a pedal in its lowest position, and the other on the ground. Use this foot to make a scooting start, pushing them along.
As they begin to move, get them to put their foot on the empty pedal.
The Hop Start
Remind your child how they did the bunny hop scoot.
Get them to push off with two feet at once—once they have sufficient momentum—have them locate their feet on the pedals.
This may take a little time for your child to become comfortable and competent. Don’t lose heart—and most crucially—ensure your child doesn’t become disheartened.
With every small success—give immense congratulations and approval.
Deciding when to introduce braking into their cycling is a judgment you have to make yourself.
Like riding a bike—it’s all about balance.
When they first begin to pedal on their own—concentrate their attention on looking forward, remaining upright, and keeping hold of the handlebars. Throwing in another element, such as braking too early, can be to the detriment of the other skills.
However, equally, you don’t want them to become so competent they begin careering away at an uncontrollable speed.
So when you feel the time is right—it’s time to address the brakes.
Make it a game where they have to stop on command and explain the necessity of slow and steady braking. And, although it sounds obvious, make it clear that they need to take their feet off the pedals and place them on the floor once they have come to a halt.
Again, make this into a game.
Draw a line on the ground, and tell your child this is the edge of a cliff. They need to cycle up to this line and stop as close as possible—without going over it. Otherwise, they’ll fall over the edge.
When they’ve mastered stopping, have them reduce their speed by using the brakes, but not coming to a complete standstill.
Repeat until your child is competent.
Pedaling Combined with Steering and Turning
The final stage!
Your pride and joy can pedal, balance, and stop—just steering to go!
Practicing the earlier skills will already have instilled some grasp of turning, it just needs a little fine-tuning.
Firstly, ask them to cycle away from you, and when you shout return, they ride back to you by making a large and wide turn—without stopping or placing their feet on the ground.
Then allow them to do some ‘confined’ riding. Mark out a large square on the floor, and have them ride around without going outside the boundaries.
Finally, set them (within reason) loose to do some ‘free’ cycling—completing large circles and ‘figure-eights’ as they wish—all the time without touching the ground or coming to a halt.
If you have the space, you can mark out with chalk a ‘mock’ sidewalk or road for them to ride along.
Not Completely Perfect? Practice, Practice and Practice!
I’ll be honest—teaching biking with children won’t always go as well as you plan.
Your child will learn to ride at their own speed, don’t try and push it. There will be times when you tell your child what a fantastic job they’re doing—even though inside you’re thinking that you’re the worst bike-teaching-parent ever to walk the planet.
Patience, praise and practice—that’s all that’s needed.
Concentrate on the areas in which your child is struggling—but try to adapt. Invent new ways of teaching any problematic skill to keep your little one’s interest.
Furthermore, watch out for non-vocal signs that your infant is bored or frustrated. They may not want to disappoint you, and so may not say when they’ve had enough. Take the signals and make it your decision that it’s time to finish for the day.
How to Teach a Child to Bike Conclusion
Forget about smartphones, tablets and Playstations—the best present you can give your child is the gift of cycling.
Not only are you giving them a skill that they will have for the rest of their lives—but also you’re allowing them to enjoy time on two-wheels with their friends—and most importantly—with you.
Furthermore, the teaching element is highly rewarding and promotes strong bonds between parent and child.
Just remember, teach them when they’re ready, ensure they always wear a helmet, and keep the training fun!