Your child has mastered crawling, walking, running, and jumping, and now they’re ready for the next big challenge: riding a bike! After learning the basics on a tricycle, your growing kid is finally ready to test their skills on two wheels.
Every child is different, but most kids are ready to tackle the “big kid” bike around 4 years old.1 But before you run out and buy them a new set of wheels (likely donned with their favorite fictional character), pump the brakes! (Pun intended.)
They say you never forget how to ride a bike, but it doesn’t hurt to freshen up on important safety tips and bicycle basics to get your child started. Here, we’ll take a look at what experts have to say, along with tips from real parents who have mastered the bike-riding milestone.
Choosing a Bike for Your Child
The most important step: Choosing a safe bike for your child is crucial, so which is the best type to buy?
“The best kind of bike for kids to learn on is an upright bike with at least one hand brake,” says Susan McLucas, who has been teaching bike riding for over 30 years and is the head teacher at Bicycle Riding School in Somerville, Mass. The hand brake, she explains, is necessary for keeping your child safe.
“Most kids’ bikes have a coaster brake that lets you stop with your feet, and that’s OK, but bikes with only a coaster brake are not safe. If a kid does not have their feet on the pedals, they have no way to brake,” she says.
She also recommends a bike small enough for your child’s feet to touch the ground: “To learn to ride, you want a bike where the kid can sit on the seat and have their feet flat on the ground. Later, this will seem too low. Serious bikers like their tip toes touching, but I tell my beginning riders to keep the balls of their feet on the ground.”
Balance Bike or Training Wheels
Whether you choose a balance bike or training wheels for your child is a matter of preference. There are benefits from either option, but more and more parents and instructors are beginning to lean toward balancing.
“We always recommend that children start with a balance bike,” explains Sydney Sotelo, the education program manager for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). “A balance bike teaches children the most basic skills necessary for learning how to ride: balance, coordination, and how to shift your weight from side to side.”
McLucas agrees, saying, “Balance bikes are the way to go…Most kids will discover the fun of gliding and balancing.” She explains that if you choose to go the training wheel route, start with them touching the ground and gradually raise them up as they get more comfortable. “This way the kid is encouraged to learn to balance,” she says.
Another option is to remove the pedals and training wheels from a regular bike and have your child balance that way.
What Parents Are Saying
The choice can be a difficult one, so it helps to see what other parents have opted to do for their kids.
Mary-Elizabeth Hightower, a Maryland mom to a 5-year-old boy, ran out to buy a balance bike when he was 3 years old after seeing another child in the neighborhood zooming around on one. “Balance bikes have no pedals so kids have to use their feet and learn how to balance while riding. It’s genius,” she says. “He started riding his balance bike at Christmas time that year and by that next summer, he was riding a big boy bike.”
Related: The 8 Best Balance Bikes of 2022
Christine Plunkett, a Virginia mom of two daughters, ages 8 and 5, also resorted to balancing bikes after having issues with training wheels. She explains, “The training wheels made the bike wobble from side to side and [my first daughter] felt unstable [and] off-balance.”
Because the switch to a balance bike was so successful for her oldest, she did the same for her younger daughter and skipped the training wheels altogether. “[My oldest] is 8, and learned to ride without training wheels at 6. [My youngest] is 5, and learned to ride without training wheels at 4,” she says.
On the other hand, Kristin and Sean Whitten, parents of three kids, ages 8, 11, and 14, started off with training wheels. They explain, “We let them ride with [training wheels] until they were about 4 or 5, then we took them off. We would hold the back of the seat or both the seat and one handlebar while they were learning to balance…then we would gradually start letting go.”
Ultimately, the choice is yours, and whether to use a balance bike or training wheels may even differ from kid to kid.
Balance Is Key
Whether you use a balance bike, slowly remove training wheels, or take off the pedals, learning balance is necessary for riding a bike.
“The key to balancing a bike is to turn the way you’re leaning and to not try to go straight,” says McLucas. “When you can go a long way (down a gentle hill or with someone pushing you) without any feet on the ground, you can put the pedals back on. I require five stretches of 60 feet each for people to earn their pedals.”
You can encourage your child to start with smaller stretches of balancing and riding, and slowly build up to where they’re getting off without a hitch.
Learning To Stop and Turn
When teaching your child to stop the bike, McLucas recommends having them gently use their foot or handbrakes at first to get a feel for them. “They may want to practice the brakes one by one (hand and foot) but, ideally, they will do both at the same time.”
When it comes to steering the bike, she says the best way to learn is to have your child ride around, any old way. McLucas explains, “Gradually, without anyone knowing how it happens, the bike will most likely start going where the kid wants it to.”
Learning to stop and turn is one thing, but what terrain to teach your child on is another. “Don’t go on a place like a sidewalk or a bike path any time soon,” she says. “Stay in an open space like a parking lot and see if the kid can stay within a 6-foot wide path any time soon,” she says. “Stay in an open space like a parking lot and see if the kid can stay within a 6-foot wide path. When they’re good at that and stop when needed, you can try a path, if it doesn’t have too much traffic.” You can also take your kid to a large, flat, grassy area to help soften any falls while they learn.
Before jumping on the bike, Sotelo recommends doing a thorough maintenance check. Make sure the tires have enough air, test the brakes, and, if the bike has a chain, make sure it’s on and moving smoothly when the child pedals. Also double-check your child’s helmet to ensure it fits properly.
“Small mechanical issues can be a safety hazard for riders of all ages,” she explains. “If you are unfamiliar with how to do small fixes on a bike, bring it to a shop. Mechanics can answer all of your questions and ensure the bike is safe to ride. Youtube is a great resource as well.”