If you don’t know us already we’re the Warburton family. My wife and I have six beautiful children all of which love to ride. Over the years we’ve taught them all to ride and we’ve created this blog to help you do the same.
We’ve found the best way to get a Kid started on a pedal bike is if they’ve had a balanced bike first. This way they have already learnt the act of balancing and steering a two-wheeler, without the complication of pedalling and taking your feet off the ground at the same time.
In this article we’ve discussed our approach to teaching your kid how to ride a bike correctly.
The Traditional Approach
The traditional way of learning to ride a bike is to teach your child using training wheels. From our experience we wouldn’t recommend this approach for most children, as it isn’t the optimal way to learn.
The stabilizers hold the bike in a rigid upright position and don’t allow it to lean. Therefore, if your kid is learning with training wheels, in theory they’re simply learning to ride a tricycle.
A tricycle requires quite a different weight distribution than a normal bike. On a tricycle you turn the handlebars and move your body weight in the opposite direction to stop it tipping up. On a bike you just lean, and the bicycle goes with you.
So, what your child is actually learning to do on training wheels, is something very different to that what they will need to do when you remove them. At this point they would have to unlearn what the tricycle or training wheels have taught them and start again.
That being said I do think training wheels have a purpose in teaching kids and would never be afraid to put them on if your child is struggling to pedal once on their new bike.
Using a balance bike from a toddler will help them to make the natural development necessary to have the potential to learn to ride a bike with pedals normally between three and five years old.
Expectations when teaching your kid to ride
As parents we need to make sure our kid understands, as our expectation can be too high sometimes, that before we begin to try on a new bike with pedals, we’re not expecting something unreasonable. If at any point your kid appears not to be ready, we stop and revert to the previous methods.
You’ll be able to tell if this is the case as it’s quite self-evident. Their legs will flail off the pedals and they won’t be finding their balance.
If your kid has seen other children cycling before then they’ve usually got some sort of idea about turning and pedalling. If they haven’t then just the action of turning the pedals themselves can be quite alien to start with. All of us are hardwired to learn how to walk and run but we’ve invented cycling so there’s no genetic desire or understanding of how to do it.
If pedals are alien to your kid, a good method to start with can be if you hold the foot on one of the pedals and just trace the circles that your kid needs to do. After all they don’t even know whether they should be pedalling forwards or backwards.
If they’re ready to learn to ride, they will understand the forward circular pattern you are creating to pedal fairly quickly. On the opposite hand if they’re not ready they won’t grasp this bit and that’s the time to think ‘yeah, we’ll just leave this for a week or so and we’ll give it another go at a later date’. Your kid’s confidence is key to learning so don’t start them on the back foot.
Best place to learn to ride
When you’re ready to start to learn on the bike itself, it’s important to choose a suitable area. It’s very tempting to go for soft grass when your teaching a kid because it makes for a softer landing. It’s actually much harder to learn to ride on grass.
You’re looking to get some rolling momentum for the bike because that’s when it starts to balance more easily. So, a smooth tarmac surface and ideally a nice open space, so that the child is free to wobble and wander is ideal.
Your kid will need to learn how the bike responds to their body movements so ideally away from traffic and any obstacles and please make sure they are wearing there helmet at all times. Take a look at our blog about helmets here
Setting up the bike
Before we put the child on the bike you need a bike that’s the right size. Too big is a real no no. Too small isn’t ideal but it’s better than too big. Check out our guide on how to get the right size bike here.
You’ll need to set the saddle height initially so that the child can just get the balls of their feet on the ground. It’s tempting to go for flat feet because it feels safer for your kid. That makes the pedalling action more difficult and the knees are coming up too high, which then interferes with the steering and makes gaining balance in these early stages more difficult.
Positioning yourself to teach
Working out how to support the child is an important thing to begin with. Whilst it’s tempting to hold on to the saddle and the handlebars, don’t! You’re actually interfering with how the bike leans and responds to the riders’ weight and that’s an important part of the learning experience.
We found it’s best to stand behind the bike, so you can wedge the rear wheel of the bike between your feet and calves to hold it up and support them under the armpits. This way they’ve got complete control and feel for the bike. It’s easier for you as you won’t have to bend over and then as they get going you can gradually release.
You’ll need to keep your hands in place to catch that wobble or if you get that feeling that it seems to be going out of control. Keeping your hands here but not holding means if they really have a violent wobble you can actually just pick the child up from the armpits and let the bike fall away.
When you’re running along with the child with your hands under the armpits this is a perfect time to teach them how the bike responds to leaning. Turn them around in a circle or in a series of ‘S’ bends by guiding their body, as this will help them understand how the bike is responding. Tell them to start leaning one way or another and see how the two-wheeler responds to it.
It’s helpful if when the child’s pedalling forward you can provide a bit of propulsion; you can do this by pushing. When they pedal backwards or stop pedalling you stop pushing. This will create and reinforce the association between forward pedalling and forward motion.
If your kid was ready to learn to ride, you’ll find that they’ve got their balance and will be pedalling forward usually within one session. A half an hour or so of the ‘S’ bends and you can be running along ready to catch but not actually supporting the child anymore.
That’s the first wow moment for parent and child.
Usually getting the pedalling and balancing without supporting first is the very best way to go about it. It gives some positive reinforcement for your kid and a sense of having achieved something before moving on to the other elements.
The starting position
You need to position the pedal in what we call the 2 o’clock position or in line with the down tube of the bike. It’s best if you do this to begin with for the child and get them to put their foot on the top and explain to them that they need to push hard with that foot at the same time as push on the ground with the other leg.
It’ll take quite a few practice goes to get that bit of coordination together, it’s a bit more complicated than just riding. You can then show them how to put that pedal in the start position themselves by putting the foot under the pedal and lifting it into position.
Teaching them how to stop
For stopping it’s sometimes easier to introduce the concept of the brakes without them riding the bike. One idea would be to get them to walk along with the bike and pull the levers on and feel that it stops when then do so.
Do that a few times and they will usually grab pretty hard at first. Teach them this isn’t what you want them to do, unless an emergency, as you don’t want them to do this when they’re riding, as they’ll stop so suddenly that they might not get their feet down in time.
While they’re walking, you can then encourage them to break in a more controlled way by pulling the brakes gently or squeezing slowly. Once they seem to have the hang of that then you can get back on the bike and have a few goes with you there to catch them.
They’ll usually get the breaking right pretty quickly but they won’t put their feet down. So now you need to then teach them as it stopping, they need to get ready to put their feet down.
Confidence is key
Your kid will piece all this together usually fairly quickly but maybe not all in one session. You might need to try over a few days or a few weekends to get them more and more confident. Enough so that you won’t need to be running alongside anymore.
Every child’s different when they reach the point at which they’re ready to learn to ride. I’ve taught six of my own now and all varied. I think for particularly keen cycling parents like ourselves, where we’re itching to get them going, just be wary of turning it into a stressful experience for you child.
We don’t need to desire to have a champion cyclist at the age of three. Be patient and just wait till they’re ready and then watch them go!
As promised take a look at this video to illustrate our teaching method