Monday, August 16, 2010

From training wheels to two wheels -- how to teach your kid to ride a bike without breaking your back

One of my favorite people, KAL of Autism Twins, recently suggested that I put together a post about teaching your child how to ride a bike without training wheels. Over the past two years I have been regularly conducting bicycle clinics in my community and have picked up a couple of tips and tricks that you might find useful if you want to teach any young child to go from training wheels to two wheels. It is a very low anxiety method and good for kids with all kinds of challenges. I put together these clinics mainly for kids with disabilities but normally there is a pretty good mix of kids who show up and parents are always so happy that they don't have to spend many back-breaking hours teaching their kids.  And I don't have to tell you how important I think learning to ride a bike is for any kid!

So, here is a brief run-down of things you should do and think about:
1) Make sure that you have a properly sized bike for your child. The child should be able to sit comfortably on the saddle while both feet are flat on the ground. Adjust the seat if necessary. Many parents buy a bike that is too large thinking that the child will grow into it, but this will make it very challenging for a child to make the transition from training wheels. If your child's bike is too large, see if you can borrow a smaller one.

2) Remove the pedals and the crank arms from the bike. This is usually not difficult if you have a pedal wrench or even just a regular wrench. If you aren't tool savvy, you can probably take it to your local bike shop and have them removed. It only takes a second and they probably won't even charge you. (**note: some children's bikes can be slightly more complicated, requiring removal of the chain and chain guard. This is also pretty simple but might warrant a trip to the bike shop if you don't feel confident that you can put it back together again :-)

3) Teach balance. The next step is to teach the child to use his or her feet in a gliding pattern that move them forward. The goal here is to teach balance. Eventually, you will want your child to be able to take long strides, building a gliding pattern as he goes. Some children start off very slowly, almost at a walking pace. This is fine. Remember, you can't make your child discover how to balance on the bike! Let him take it at his own pace. I have known kids who get this in a half hour and others who have worked at this stage for 3-4 months.

If your child is really struggling with this, try finding a place where there is a very, very slight hill for him to practice on. Gravity will help with the momentum.

Also, it always helps to demonstrate rather than explain -- especially if your child has any kind of processing disorder! When I teach a clinic I always bring Sami and Oliver along so that kids can see what this gliding technique is supposed to look like. A child who already knows how to ride a bike would work well.

4) Change his center of gravity. When your child is able to consistently glide over long distances (15-20 feet), challenge him to raise his feet up and place them on the frame of the bike, lifting his center of gravity to where it will need to be when you add the pedals back on. Many kids start off in the gliding process by keeping their legs straight down in a kind of downward "V". This is fine in the beginning but eventually they should be able to place their feet on the frame.

Don't be afraid to spend too long on this stage. Parents frequently want to rush to the next stage of putting the pedals back on the bike. But gliding (balancing) is a new skill for your child -- and it is FUN! Let your child develop confidence here -- it will make it easier to incorporate adding the next skill: pedaling. Also, it will save you and your child any frustrations if you realize that you've put the pedals on too soon and you have to take them off again!

5) Put the pedals back on. When your child is comfortable gliding and can do so consistently, it is time to put the pedals back on. The transition from balancing and gliding to balancing and pedaling is usually pretty quick. You will want to make sure your child knows how to use the brakes. If he doesn't, don't worry -- just be prepared to do a lot of running :-)  When the child starts on the bike with the pedals for the first time, you may have to help him get started by resting your hand on his back and possibly pushing a tiny bit. At this point it is generally a confidence issue -- he has already demonstrated that he has the ability to balance. Now it is a matter of adding in another kind of movement with the pedals.

The whole process is probably much easier than you've feared it might be. But just remember that the most important this is to have fun! And don't forget to be safe: make sure your child always wears a helmet. If you don't have one, many communities have free helmet programs for kids; check with your local police station or bike shop to find out what is available in your area.


  1. Great post! We used this technique with Baxter and it worked beautifully. Lyle had a much harder time with it on day one and cried for the training wheels to be put back on, but that wasn't a problem with the technique, just where he was at that moment. ;-)

  2. Anonymous7:29 AM

    I dream about the possibilities of this, but for now, I can't even get my son to sit on a bike, let alone learn to ride one... so I dream.

  3. Like Kristen said, this has been a challenge for us ... with both kids, for various reasons. Granted, we haven't worked on this as much as we probably should have this summer. (The heat has played a big factor.) But, I will definitely be saving this post! Thank you!

  4. i'm checking in to see if you've watched playtime yet. there will be a test following the film, so i hope you're prepared. hee, mostly i just wanted to say hello. i hope you're well.

  5. Reading this brings back so many memories of early Jim and Charlie bike adventures---and of me leaning over to help Charlie keep his feet on the pedals!

    Way to go!

  6. Anonymous8:27 AM

    Reading this makes me realize that Charlotte's bike might be too big for her. I'm not sure she can sit with her feet flat on the ground.

    She has little interest in bike riding but we were really going to start pushing it this fall (when not so darn hot out). I think I may do this technique with both girls. I've heard of it, but not read a step-by-step approach like this.

  7. Thanks for posting this, Christine! I think it's a pretty smart way to teach our kids and I'll let you know how it goes for Sam. John may take a little longer, but I feel emboldened to try.

  8. gosh this is awesome

    This is a big one for me

    I remember in one of your earlier posts you had talked about how big this bicycling goal was for you and I had so empathized with that

    But the problem with R is that he cannot seem to even do with training wheels

  9. You make it sound so easy here. I tried to get the pedals off today and couldn't, so I gave up. I fought with Andrew for a while trying to get him to wear his helmet. He finally put it on and wanted to get on his bike. He pedaled down the driveway (with training wheels still on) then got off, took the helmet off and wanted no more to do with it. I WILL get those dam pedals off tomorrow and try again though!!! Not sure how much I will fight the helmet for now though.

  10. Oh, and by the way, how old is Sami in that picture? This was taken last year right? Was he only 3 or 4 when he learned how to ride a bike? I wonder if I should start with this method with Kaitlyn now too. She is really still getting the whole pedaling thing down with her training wheels.

  11. This is a great post. I'm actually right now reviewing Glide Bikes, which are bikes made for exactly this purpose. They're like regular bikes, but without pedals. I was just working with Jack today on this and he was having a tough time, so reading this and realizing that it can take a lot longer was actually really encouraging. Thank you!!


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