There’s no dark art to teaching a child to ride a bike. With a few simple steps and lots of encouragement, most kids can be taught in less than an hour, says Ruth Chiat, a Sustrans Bike It officer. Most of the time you can stop using stabilisers too.
“I think some kids will get it in half an hour, though others might take a bit longer,” Chiat told BikeRadar. “Obviously it takes time and you want to go through the braking step, because that’s laying the foundation for them being safe. But, once they start, they pick it up very quickly.”
Here are Chiat’s top tips for teaching children the intuitive act of balancing while moving.
1. Learn to stop before you start
Start by standing the child beside the bike. Get them to hold the bar, walking along and practising pulling on both brakes. It’s an important foundation that helps the child feel that they are in control.
“They just need to get into the habit of using both brakes, and it’s important to really get that into their head,” says Chiat.
2. Drop the saddle and take away the pedals
Now it’s time for the child to get on the bike. Chiat says dropping the saddle and removing the pedals to make the bike handle like a scooter is an important second step. It helps build a greater feeling of control and means they worry less about wobbling.
It also gives them leverage to push off and gain their own momentum. Chiat advises that, as youngsters push along under their own steam, it’s important to encourage them to keep their feet off the ground for as long as possible:
“In most cases kids just realise that the bike will stay up when they’re moving because something – a feeling – just kind of clicks into place.”
Teaching youngsters how to ride is child's play
3. One pedal at a time
Once the child has scooting sussed and can go a good distance without putting down a foot, Chiat recommends refitting a pedal on the youngster’s leading leg – usually the right – and continuing with the scooting. The pedal means the rider has a prompt of where to put their foot. It also means they can also scoot for longer distances as their confidence grows.
Chiat says: “It means they’ll be scooting a bit longer and they get used to where their feet need to be. Once you’ve got both pedals on they need to learn to set off independently.”
4. Ready for launch
With pedals back on the bike, it’s time to get pedalling. To start, Chiat recommends supporting a child by holding their back or shoulder and walking alongside them as they start pedalling. Sometimes the gravity offered by a slight downhill gradient can also help.
And voila, after a little practice, the beginner will be pedalling under their own steam. As they get the knack, Chiat says it’s important to keep asking the child to stop and start so they’re reminded to use their brakes.
“Every time you ask them to stop, walk back a little bit so they think they’ve gone a little bit further than they have, just to encourage them,” Chiat explains. “Most importantly it’s just about being really positive.”
The last word on stabilisers
“A lot of the time I do discourage parents from using stabilisers because it encourages the child to feel they can sit on the bike without balancing,” says Chiat. “It doesn’t encourage them to actually get a feel for what it means to ride a bike. But, then, the flipside of it is that having stabilisers means kids can build up pedalling strength, which they don’t do on a balance bike. So they’re not all bad.”
For more information on the Sustrans Bike It school cycling project see www.sustrans.org.uk.