Monday, March 21, 2011

Learning to Ride a Big-Kid Bike

After two years of regular balance-biking, we've started helping Big get the feel of a big-kid bike.  Choosing a balance bike for Big when he turned two was a no-brainer for us.  As a teacher, I've heard a lot about the benefits of balance activities for children's development.  Did you know that the more intelligent a species is, the more its young play balance-oriented games?  And does this mean that cyclists are a more highly evolved group of humans?  (Obviously I'm joking, folks.)

Helping Big learn to ride a pedal bike has been a little more challenging than I remember balance biking to be in the early stages.  Big has always been on the slower end of normal in terms of his mastery of gross-motor physical milestones (walking, running, etc.), so I'm not certain that he's completely developmentally ready for pedal biking right now.  (I've read that most kids are ready sometime between 4 and 6 years of age.)  He absolutely loves working at it, though, so we're doing our best to give him lots of opportunities to practice.  We've been reading tips from other parents on the internet, asking friends for advice, and improvising a little here and there to see what seems to work.

Our basic strategy has three simple parts:
  1. Continued balance biking for fun, for maintaining a sense of balance, and for teaching new skills
  2. Practice with pedaling when his bike is connected to mine via the Follow Me Tandem coupler
  3. Practice pedaling and balancing on gentle slopes with a parent running alongside (usually holding the back of the bike most of the way)
There's a spot near our house with a nice little slope to it where we like to go.  One parent runs alongside Big, mostly helping him get the feel of pushing off with his feet and then starting to pedal.  We do hold his bike with one hand (typically on the back of the saddle) to help him feel more confident and get up a little speed.  Once he's had a few minutes of practice, we'll start to let go for a few seconds at a time.  We always let him know before we start that we're going to begin letting him balance the bike on his own.

In my view, the most important thing we're helping Big do in these practice sessions is build confidence and an image of himself as a bike rider.  As with teaching children to read, I believe it's important for early experiences to be pleasant and build an identity of competence.  We try to offer him lots of specific, positive feedback about his efforts to help him feel more confident.  He's proud to be on a big kid bike, so it's easy to keep him feeling good.

One tip we gathered early on was to help Big learn how to lean into a turn.  When I asked Paul Adkins for advice about teaching kids to ride, he mentioned that this could be a tricky skill for kids to master.  (He and his wife Monica have taught three of their own children to ride bikes, so they have had plenty of experience.)  We help Big get the feel of turning on the pedal bike, but he actually gets the most practice with leaning into turns on his balance bike.  On our way to the park, we seek out driveways with a gentle slope, and Big bikes to the top.  He then glides down towards me (I stand at the bottom of the driveway, right in front of him), and turns to avoid me and get back onto the sidewalk.  He loves this game!  Neighbors on our route, I hope you don't mind all the hubbub in your driveways.

I think that the most important thing I can do at this point is to figure out a routine for pedal bike practice that works well for our family.  We don't practice as often as we'd like to, mostly because we need two adults to really make this activity work (one to help Big, one to occupy Little).  One downside to Austin's graduate studies is that our time all together as a family is more limited than we would like it to be.  My friend Heather and I are both helping our boys practice with their pedal bikes at the moment, and when we compare notes, we always remind ourselves that consistent practice is what our boys most need.  Short of giving Little some kind of really unusual treat to keep him busy, I haven't yet figured out a way to keep him happy while Big and I practice riding together.  Heather, maybe we should have some bike-practice playdates at the park?

If you're looking for more information about teaching children to ride a bike, I recommend you check out some of these resources:
  • Sheldon Brown wrote a nice tutorial about teaching children to ride bikes.
  • Kathleen Wilker wrote for Momentum Magazine blog about making a homemade balance bike for her daughter, and about how her daughter learned to ride a bike on her own.  (Kathleen, if you're reading this, I didn't realize that your blog is called "Families on Bikes" until after I had begun my Friday Family on Bikes interviews!  Oops.)
  • I enjoyed reading this article from The Exploratorium (a fantastic science museum in San Fransisco and a fixture of my early childhood) about what really happens when we steer our bicycles.
    While I'm figuring out ways to support Big as he learns to ride a pedal bike, I also get to enjoy watching Little discover the balance bike.

    I hope you've been enjoying your bike as much as my two little fellas are enjoying theirs!  And if you have a favorite trick for teaching kids to ride bikes, please send it my way.


      1. How fun! And he looks so cute on his big kid bike! :) Thanks for all the links and resources on this, I'm bookmarking it for when our little one is there. Good luck with the learning process!


      2. Thanks! We're having a great time in our practice sessions. How fun to be planning for your little girl's biking future!

      3. I remember riding my bike down the hill we lived on in Beaverton. That was some crazy practice. I learned the importance of wearing a helmet.