There can be a lot of fear and worry amongst parents and children when teaching a child to ride a bike. This fear is understandable, but actually learning to ride a bike only needs many of the same skills as walking. It is about holding yourself upright whilst your legs take it in turns to take control of pushing you forward. In this post we’ll provide you with the knowledge to get your child cycling safely and confidently.

photo credit: 藍川芥 aikawake Child | Yellow Bicycle and Little Girl via photopin (license)

To help with this fear, we have to make sure that the child feels in control at all times. Knowing how to use the brakes to slow down and stop will give the child the ability to control the bike. Before the child gets on the bike I ask children to walk next to the bike and stop it by squeezing the brakes. They will often grab hard and let go, so I teach them to squeeze gently and find the point at which the brakes bite. It is important to find a good flat location with no obstacles, has a smooth surface and is not restrictive – as a narrow path can be. My local tennis courts are perfect.

There are 5 principles that will help your child to ride a bike:

  1. Always sit upright with fingers resting on the brakes.
  2. Look ahead (not at the hands, feet or the ground)
  3. To balance easily your speed needs to be faster than walking pace.
  4. Whenever you brake to a stop hold onto the brakes and keep the bike upright.
  5. Let the child be in control of the bike as much as possible. By handling it they will get to understand how it all becomes easier when the bike is held upright.

Balance bikes are a brilliant first stage in learning how to feel comfortable balancing whilst going along. So if your child has been on a bike with stabilisers then when you take off the stabilisers also take off the pedals and try out using it as a balance bike. Some of the very first bikes ever made were balance bikes on which your legs push you along. Balance bikes teach you to sit up straight and steer to keep your balance. When your child can push itself along then hold their legs in the air for several metres and using the steering to keep their balance, then it’s time to put the pedals back on and try riding with pedals.

Balance Bike Method

The saddle must be low enough so both feet can be flat on the ground.

  1. Try them sitting upright on the bike looking ahead, with both brakes on, lift both feet off the ground to see how long they can maintain a balance. You can stand in front holding the ends of the handlebars the first few times.
  2. Demonstrate “walking the bike along” with all your weight on the saddle then lift both feet off the ground for several seconds, visibly steer around corners Show how you use the brakes to stop the bike (not your feet). Show how by leaning into corners and steering in the same direction as you lean you keep your balance. This can be on your bike – or amusingly on theirs.
  3. Ask your child to copy you. At first they will often walk without sitting properly on the saddle if so repeat stage 1. They may take a while to be confident enough to achieve the fast walking speed necessary to freewheel with the legs in the air easily. Keep reinforcing and praising good habits – Head up, sit up straight, fingers on brakes, steering. Encourage curves and twists in each journey. When your child is comfortable coasting with feet off the ground for 4-5 seconds, they are ready for trying to ride with the pedals.

Riding with Pedals Method

Raise the saddle a little so the heels are just off the floor when sitting on the saddle.

Getting on and setting the pedal.

Stand on the left of the bike

  1. Squeeze the brakes.
  2. Lean the bike over.
  3. The right leg goes over the back wheel and into the saddle in one move (not in front of it).
  4. Scoop up the pedal to the starting position – So the pedal is level with the diagonal down tube at 45 degrees from upright. This “Set Pedal” position is essential for a strong push with the right leg when setting off. NB The brakes should be on for the whole of this time.

Setting off – Method 1

The parent can support the child with a hand on either shoulder allowing the child free movement of the handlebars (much easier on your back than holding under the saddle). Make sure the child is looking ahead.

  1. The fingers relax on the brakes (but keep covering them)
  2. The right leg pushes hard and the left leg must catch the pedal at the top and push.
  3. Go along for a few metres and then ask the child to brake to a stop. They must hold the brakes on and keep the bike upright.
  4. Repeat many times.

When the child is holding themselves upright while riding then your hands should be very light on the shoulders, allowing them to control their balance. If they manage this consistently then your hand can move to the centre of the back. If they manage this for a quite a few metres and they are in good control maybe you can slow down and let them ride away from you.

Praise every good act even though they may be failing to ride. If the child is leaning on you, remind them they have to sit up straight. If the child is looking at the ground or feet ask them to put their foot on the pedal without looking at it while you hold the bike from the handlebars. If the child is using their hips to steer with the bike not quite upright encourage more steering with the arms. If the child isn’t pushing on the pedals get them off the bike to do a few step ups on a high step.

Every 10 mins trying ask them to get off and watch you riding. You should be showing setting off by pedalling and turning in an oval and coasting before you stop. Show how your arms straighten when you brake so that you stay sitting in the saddle with both feet on the pedals until you stop. If the child is getting tired take a break or come back again for more practice the next day.

Setting off – Method 2

Rest one foot on the pedal and scoot the bike along until the speed and balance is good enough to get the scooting foot on the pedal. Again sitting up straight, steering with the arms and keeping the head up is important for balance.

Braking confidently is essential to feeling and having good control.

  1. Freewheel for a few meters whilst travelling in a straight line.
  2. Squeeze the brakes gently keeping the feet on the pedals until you stop. Brace the arms straight so that you stay in the saddle and keep holding onto the brakes when stopped. Letting go of the bike as you stop is a recipe for minor injuries.

Freewheeling or coasting

Going along without pedalling is one of the best things about cycling. Practice pedalling then travelling along without pedalling then resuming pedalling. When coasting keep the feet on the pedals and try holding your feet in the set pedal position. Then practice stopping with your feet in the set pedal position, so you are ready to go again.

Moving on

When a child can ride for a minute round and round in circles on a tennis court they are ready for more challenges. You can ride with them for many of these mini challenges:

  • Stopping on a line.
  • Looking around while riding.
  • Ride with your child a few metres in front of you along paths around your local park, dealing with gentle ups and downs, avoiding potholes and pedestrians.
  • Following the lines on the tennis court.
  • Tapping the handlebar or waving a hand while riding. Only do this when the child is comfortable doing all of the above.

Remember that each child has to learn at their own pace, but remind them that if they do as you ask it will get easier.

What to wear

I suggest long trousers and long sleeve top with trainers. (Make sure the laces are tucked away so they can’t snag in the chain) Fingerless cycling gloves can be good to take the sting out of any falls.

Seeing your child ride along on their own for the first time is almost as good as seeing them take their first steps as a toddler. The reward of their pleasure when they do get it is massive. It is a real confidence booster and yes riding a bike is a brilliant buzz for most people. Check our Riding as a Family guide.

Post by Will Embliss

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