First riding a bike marks a magical moment during many people’s childhoods: After plenty of falls (and likely a few scrapes and bruises), the handlebars and pedals finally stayed under your control, you figured out how to balance, and—wheeee!—you were actually moving along on two wheels. Beyond the triumphant feeling of accomplishment, riding a bike also marks many a kid’s first true taste of independence, opening vast new horizons of pedal-powered exploration. Learning to ride is an important life milestone for many—and, not surprisingly, one that most parents are eager to share with their children.
However, teaching a little one a new activity has its fair share of challenges—especially one that requires the balance, practice, and patience of riding a bike. But the payoff is well worth it: family rides along flat trails, afternoons exploring the neighborhoods alone, and if you’re lucky, a lifelong love of cycling. These expert tips and tricks will have your little riders in the saddle, pedaling like pros, and smiling from ear-to-ear in no time. Here’s how to get rolling.
Know Your Kid
Many experts say that generally, the best age to introduce riding a bike is between four and six: Any earlier, and they might not have the physical coordination necessary, and any older, learning to ride can be more difficult. But it’s important to take your child’s mental and physical capabilities into account. Children do not develop at the same pace, and some kids may not be ready at an earlier age.
From a mental standpoint, make sure they actually want to learn. Learning to ride is one of the first times they will have to actively overcome failure, and if they show no interest in biking on their own, don’t push it. If they aren’t determined to succeed and comfortable with the learning process, it will be far more difficult to have them riding on their own.
Choose Their Wheels Wisely (and Let Them Help)
If possible, make the child part of the bike-buying process. Not only will this get them excited about riding, but it will also help ensure a proper fit. A local bike shop is a great starting point: Take advantage of experienced employees who understand specifics on fit and sizing. Resist the urge to get a bike that’s too big and awkward for them to handle. The general rule is that they should be able to straddle the top tube with both feet on the ground and easily move the bike around.
And for most kids, aesthetics are important. As best you can, let them make the decision on what they want other kids to see them riding. What’s most important is that they are excited and eager to ride a bike they feel comfortable on.
Set a Reasonable Goal
Instead of haphazardly tackling the process, open up a conversation with your kiddo about when they will be riding solo. If a birthday or holiday is approaching in a few weeks, get them determined and enthusiastic about riding on their own by then. If they are showing the potential to be up and riding in a week or just a couple days, map out a plan to achieve it: Set aside a certain amount of time (an hour or so, max) to practice every day. For kids learning when they are a little older, it may not take as long, and having a set goal will give them something to aim toward.
Be a Stickler About Safety
If you learned to ride a bike circa 1960 (or earlier) through the free-wheeling 1980s, chances are, you didn’t wear a helmet (and you may have resisted wearing one as you got older). But times have changed, especially when it comes to bike safety. Now is the time to instill good habits, and wearing a helmet tops the list. Add knee and elbow pads if you like, but absolutely do not let your kid get on a bike without wearing a helmet. Making it a non-negotiable from day one will make it much easier to instill a habit, and choosing a helmet that they like, in fun colors and kid-centric patterns will make wearing it less of a chore. Make sure the helmet fits properly according to the manufacturer and is comfortable to wear.
Pick the Right Place for Getting Started
You may look forward to the days when you and your kid share the trails and zoom down hills together. But while they’re just getting comfortable on the bike, find a quiet, flat place where they have space to move, without the distraction and fear of other riders (or car traffic), and get to work. The ideal surface is flat and smooth, like a school track, tennis, or basketball court, or an empty parking lot. And avoid grass: It may seem like a safe option, but it will be far more difficult for them to maneuver on than a paved surface.
Find the Right Balance
It’s likely that your first bike had a pair of training wheels, which may have been slowly raised as your balance improved. This method is still an option; however, the process of learning to ride has evolved. Cycling experts recommend ditching the pedals and focusing on the balancing aspect of riding first, then adding the pedals once their balance is mastered. In addition, some parents opt for what’s called a balance bike for tots as young as one or two years old. These models don’t even have pedals and are solely designed to develop a child’s balance.
A good first step for a regular bike is called scooting, in which pedals are removed, and the bike seat is lowered. To move, the rider pushes the bike forward and gains momentum using their feet. This method helps the child develop balance while becoming comfortable controlling the bike. Once scooting is mastered, you can move on to coasting. Coasting is simply taking their feet off the ground when they have some momentum going, and leaving the legs stretched out to the side. It’s a good idea to demonstrate both scooting and coasting so they will have a visual to help understand the method.
At some point early in the process, you’ll also want to introduce the concept of braking with the bike’s actual brakes, not just their feet. Whether the bike has coaster or hand brakes, a good way to start to develop braking skills is to place a small object nearby where a child can stop.
Make the Turn
After your rider-in-training is comfortable with coasting and becoming more familiar with the bike, introducing turning by setting up some cones or obstacles. Keep it easy with big loops, and turn this into a game by setting up an obstacle course to move through while scooting and coasting. Join in the fun, and keep encouraging and give positive feedback.
Add the Pedals to the Mix
Once your child has developed a solid foundation of balance and control, it’s time to get them moving via pedal power. Get them familiar with the pedals as you steady the bike by the back of the seat or by holding onto their hips or shoulders. Resist the temptation to grab the handlebars, which throws their balance off and can throw a wrench into the whole learning process.
One recommended way to get them moving is with one foot on the ground and one pedal raised. Remember to adjust the seat from the coasting position if needed. As they press the pedal down and gain momentum, lend a steadying hand on the seat or a shoulder. They may have trouble at first, so offer encouragement, and it won’t be long before they are confidently cruising off alone. Keep rides short and sweet, and on mostly flat surfaces, before moving up to gentle hills.
Get Ready to Hit the Trail
It won’t be long before your up-and-coming cyclists will be ready for a change from parks and pavement, and fortunately, Alabama has plenty of beginner spots for hitting the trail. Many of Alabama’s state parks have trails that are safe for kids and beginners, including the Family Bike Trails at Monte Sano State Park, and the Ironworks Loop at Tannehill Ironworks State Park. And a favorite among pint-sized pedalers is the Lake Trail at Oak Mountain State Park, which is wide with a hint of elevation variation, no major obstacles, and plenty of stretches perfect for pedaling.
Written by Hap Pruitt for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.