Skip the Trikes & Training Wheels: Teaching Toddlers To Ride

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

As a mother of four young sons and a college professor who teaches motor development, I have become an advocate for the use of balance bikes when teaching a child how to ride a two-wheel pedal bike. Both research and practice support the use of balance bikes and give plenty of reasons — physical, cognitive, and social-emotional — to skip tricycles and training wheels.

Our story began when my sister gave our oldest a balance bike for his 3rd birthday. A balance bike sports no pedals or chain. After a few months of use, and before his 4th birthday, he transitioned to a two-wheel pedal bike (sans training wheels), setting the bar for his siblings. Since then, each sibling and cousin has continued to improve on the family record.

Children first walk with a balance bike and then build up to a run and glide. They learn to balance and steer first, and develop pedaling afterward on a traditional two-wheel bike. In Charlie’s case, after a summer on his balance bike, he learned how to ride a two-wheel pedal bike within an hour. The pedaling was nearly automatic and learned almost instantaneously; within minutes he was bursting with pride and confidence.

From a motor development point of view, the traditional methods of teaching bike riding, such as tricycles and training wheels, don’t actually teach the necessary skills for riding a two-wheel pedal bike. Tricycles teach children to pedal, but a typical trike doesn’t go fast enough to require much steering sophistication nor any balance. Training wheels also allow for pedaling and perhaps more steering, yet require no balance, either. Training wheels are also often used on bikes that are inappropriately sized for children, creating even less likelihood of learning balance, agility, or coordination. The science behind a balance bike supports the belief that balancing is the most important aspect of learning to ride a bike, followed by the ability to steer, and then pedal.

A recent study at the University of South Dakota found an increase in balance (better stability) in 3- to 5-year-old children within two to three weeks of using a pedal-less balance bike. Furthermore, “the children were able to pick up their feet more often and glide without the use of their feet, demonstrating their new skill development with confidence within the first two weeks.”

Benefits of Young Bike Riders

  An introduction to early bike riding promotes healthy motor development in physical, cognitive, and social-emotional ways. Physically, bike riding promotes balance, coordination, and agility, all of which are conducive to healthy locomotion. Early bike riding also allows children to have a family-friendly mechanism for increasing physical activity. A family bike ride is great exercise!

Another key benefit is psychomotor development, the connection between mind and body. As the University of South Dakota study suggested, children increased their confidence with practice time on the balance bikes. A child who is able to learn a physical skill, such as bike riding, is able to develop confidence and other associated cognitive skills. For example, an early bike rider is exposed to problem-solving and decision-making opportunities such as stopping, changing direction, following the leader, observing traffic patterns, and practicing road safety. My children have learned how to follow along, stop at intersections, listen to the crossing guard and more, at very early ages.

The boost in confidence may be a cognitive attribute, but increased self-confidence also has a social-emotional component. For instance, our now 3-year-old is able to bike with his older brothers (ages 5 and 7) on their way to school. Bike riding is one of the few physical skills he can do at a level comparable to his older brothers. This capacity to fit in with them socially gives him a great sense of pride and belonging. He is also learning to be independent, since bike riding is now something he can do all on his own. Perhaps, the greatest social-emotional benefit of all is the newfound ability to accept and overcome a challenge. Transitioning from a balance bike to a two-wheel pedal bike was a perfect opportunity to accomplish a challenge, connect with older siblings, and build self-confidence.

In healthy motor development, the physical, cognitive, and social-emotional domains can be best developed when children demonstrate “readiness” for a task. Occasionally, I’ve heard parents mention that their child didn’t take to a balance bike or show much interest in them. Like most things in life, timing is everything. In many of these cases, the children were introduced to the balance bike too early or too late. Professionally, I advise introducing a balance bike when a child is able to run, meet the minimum size requirements (feet can comfortably touch the ground), and is young enough not to be concerned with the absence of pedals. Readiness for a balance bike typically occurs between 2 and 4 years old.

If your child is older and not setting any family records for early bike riding, consider modifying an age-appropriate two-wheel pedal bike. A local bike shop can help ensure a proper bike fit and temporarily remove the pedals and chain. Allow older children a few weeks to practice balancing, running, and gliding on their bike in a low-pressure environment. Once a child demonstrates stability and the ability to glide, it is time to reattach the pedals and chain. If you are handy, you can even save yourself a trip back to the bike shop. Your child will be pedaling in no time!

In order to position your children for the optimal benefits of early bike riding, considering the following guidelines for best practice:

1. Bike size: Whether you are purchasing a balance bike or modifying a pedal bike, be sure the bike is the proper size for the child. The ball of the child’s foot should comfortably touch the ground. The professionals at your local bike shop are a valuable resource when determining bike fit.

2. Bike weight: For younger riders, lightweight balance bikes, such as Strider bikes (6 pounds), are ideal for maneuvering (and easily portable).

3. Bike helmet: Unlike our own childhoods, it does go without saying that a bike helmet is a necessity. Consider upgrading to a high-quality helmet, sized to fit by a professional. With early bike riders, a snug fitting, reliable helmet is well worth the added expense.

4. Timing: When children demonstrate the ability to run and glide on a balance bike with confidence, they are likely ready to transition to the two-wheel pedal bike. In our family, once there are signs of showing off on the balance bike, it’s time!

Our family has reaped the benefits early bike riding has to offer. Only time will tell if son number four will break the current family record. Either way, I have no doubt he will enjoy being along for the (bike) ride!