Getting your child into bicycling

Plunk, plop and roll.

Perhaps you’ve already introduced your children to bicycling by using a bike trailer or carrier: plunk on a helmet, plop them in a seat and away you roll! If so, you’ve done a great job making them familiar with helmets and getting around on two wheels. Now, it’s time for them to learn to roll on their own. 

Here are some tips for teaching your child to ride, with thanks to Rebecca Gomez, with the City of Minneapolis Bike Walk Ambassadors, for her expertise.

Getting started

According to most medical and physical activity experts, the ideal time to begin teaching a child to bike is between the ages of 3 and 6. At this age range, children are most readily receptive about bicycling. Though kids are physically able to ride and handle a bike, they are not ready to make traffic decisions until the age of 10, and should be supervised while riding.

Getting the right size (and type) of bike and bike helmet is vital. Children are not tiny adults; kids do not benefit by learning how to ride an adult-sized bike. In fact, when kids ride ill-fitting bikes, they’re more prone to crash and injure themselves and others.

Instead, invest in a children’s bike suited and sized for your child. Be sure your child can easily stand over the bike and can easily reach the handlebars while sitting on the bike. A retail bike shop can provide expert counsel on getting the right size of bike. In Northeast, for instance, Recovery Bike Shop, at 2555 Central Ave NE, has refurbished bikes in prices ranging from $30–$75, while Behind Bars Bicycle Shop, at 208 13th Avenue NE, has new bikes and kids’ helmets. You also can find used children’s bikes at garage sales, online or at second-hand stores.

Equally vital is obtaining the right size of helmet. When wearing a bike helmet, the rule of thumb — literally — is for the helmet to sit level on the head and come about a thumb’s width above the eyes. Your child should be able to see the edges of their helmet and the chin strap should fit snug but not tight under the chin.

Riding safely

The best location to teach bike riding to a child is one that is traffic-free, relatively level, large and paved. A quiet sidewalk with a slight incline is ideal. Going downhill is great for learning to balance and a slight uphill is great when mastering pedaling.

Be sure the bike’s tires are properly inflated and that the seat is at the right height. When first starting out, your child should be able to sit on the seat with feet flat on the ground. You can gradually raise the seat as your child gets more comfortable. The optimal height can be measured by having your child sit on the bike while you hold it upright. There should be a slight bend in your child’s knee when the pedal is at its lowest point. 

Think of teaching bike-riding 

in stages

Stage 1 – Balance: It’s no longer necessary for you to push your child up and down the street and strain your back. Grab a wrench and remove the bike’s pedals. Note, however, that many children’s bikes are equipped with coaster brakes and removing the pedals will also remove the brakes. Instruct your child to sit on the seat and walk or run the bike. Your child’s steps will gradually get bigger until suddenly: “Look, I’m balancing!” Once you see coasting down the street with feet pulled up, your child is ready for steering and pedaling.

Stage 2 – Steering: While coasting, have your child practice turning in big, looping circles. Set up cones and ask your child to steer around them. Bikes will usually go where the rider is looking, so remind your child to look toward the intended direction —not at obstacles to avoid.

Stage 3 – Pedaling and stopping: Once coasting and steering are mastered, your child can begin pedaling. Reattach the pedals. Note that the right and left pedal are threaded differently to ensure they don’t fall off in use. They are usually stamped R and L. Ask your child to repeatedly start and stop (using the bike’s coaster brake or hand brake) until he or she can do so without the bike wobbling.

Stage 4 – Road Rules: Review and enforce with your child the basic bicycling rules of the road. Children should be careful at all intersections: driveways, alleys and streets! 

Some kids take to bike-riding more easily than others. If your child isn’t immediately interested, don’t force it. Taking the pedals off allows each child to learn at their own pace and gives them complete control. If your kids are well into their school years, or even teenagers, and have not learned how to bike, it’s still possible for them to do so following these same steps. 

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Bike Walk Twin Cities.