How to Teach a Child to Ride a Bike
Five Basic Methods: Pros & Cons
Holding the Bike
Just because folks have been doing it this way for over 130 years is little reason to think there’s no room left for improvement. No doubt, more than a few of you have tried this method once or twice already with your own children, only to find yourselves here, looking for a better way. Luckily, recent years have seen a profusion of bicycle training aids come to market claiming to be just that. One such improvement, there exists a class of products we’ll call simply “Bike Training Handles” designed to help you hold onto the bike, but these — as you will learn — fall short of any real improvement.
- It Works… eventually
Likely, most of us who have learned to ride a bicycle, did so with someone, mom, dad, big brother or sister bent over, holding the bicycle seat behind us. Given time and persistence, it works, but not without undue frustration, back-strain, pain and suffering, for student and instructor alike.
- Ignores the Physics of Riding
Trouble is, holding the bicycle can hinder the process of learning to balance, because doing so ignores the laws of physics which make riding possible.
No matter how you hold the bicycle – whether by the seat or some kind of Bike Training Handle – doing so tends to prevent new riders from experiencing successful correction turning the handlebars into the direction of a fall. At best, Bike Training Handles promise to minimize the back-strain that comes with running along, bent over holding onto the bicycle seat. This perceived benefit is generally offset however, by the pendulum like weight added to the back of the bike. Altering the natural center of gravity, this further hinders the rider from learning to balance once the instructor has let go. Like a tail wagging its dog, the longer and heavier the pendulum, the greater will be the unwanted force at the back of the bike. Add to this the cost, the time and the tools required — first to install, and then to uninstall them — and you’ll see that Bike Mounted Training Handles are a poor investment. In short, don’t waste your money. There is a better way (or three or four).
The Parking Lot Tilt
Balancing a bike means controlling centripetal force. In short, this is a method for learning how to ride a bike, with a focus on science and physics. Devised by Denver based decision scientist Reginald Joules, this method helps new riders overcome the natural impulse to turn away from the direction of a fall. Instruction — performed in a wide open paved space like an empty parking lot — is composed of two basic drills which Joules’ calls the Tilt and Turn and Random Rock drills.
- Rooted in Science, and Easy Too
Dubbed “Pedal Magic” Joules method is rooted in an understanding of centripetal force, operant conditioning, game theory, and geometric probability distribution. Luckily, you don’t need to know about any of those things. Just watch his Pedal Magic Video. If it helps – and I truly believe it will – consider slipping him a few bucks for his trouble.
- Assumes the Rider Can Pedal
This method can’t help a new rider who has not yet learned to pedal. Time and again I find myself working with young riders who’ve not already learned to pedal either a tricycle, or a bicycle with training wheels. I marvel as they struggle, needlessly prolonging their learning process. In his video, Joules comments at length on the pitfalls of training wheels, ignoring the fact that they remain the number one tool by which young riders learn to pedal, a skill required by his approach.
- Painful Bending May be Required
This method does not lessen risk of back-strain for the instructor. Note the instructor’s body position as the video describes performing the Random Rock drill with larger students. Perhaps if you’ve already plunked down hard earned cash for one of the aforementioned Bike Mounted Training Handles, this would be good use for it.
The Grassy Knoll
This recent popular approach calls for instruction while rolling down the side of a gently sloping grassy hill. Freeing new riders from worry of having to pedal, some suggest removing the pedals altogether. One step further, there is now a class of bicycle training aids available known as “Balance Bikes” or striders. Just small bicycles without pedals, we’ll discuss these in more detail later, under method #4. For now, suffice it to say, while this method works reasonably well, it is not without its shortcomings. As you shall see, there remains room for some measure of improvement.
- No Pedals Required
Where the Parking Lot Tilt requires new riders to know how to pedal, this method lets gravity propel them instead. New riders are freed from having to worry about pedaling, striding slowly downhill, feet firmly on the ground.
- Softer landings in a crash
Grass is softer to land on when – unassisted – new riders inevitably fall. As an added benefit, grass also provides resistance or drag, causing the bike to roll more slowly, thereby reducing the chances of a fall.
- No Pedals Required
No, that’s not a typo. This method’s greatest advantage, is also it’s greatest disadvantage. Like the Parking lot Tilt method described above, this approach does nothing to assist new riders who’ve yet to master the mechanics of pedaling.
- No Brakes
Bearing in mind that hand brakes are especially difficult for new riders to operate — like they don’t have enough to worry about already — remember too, that removing the pedals means your child will be left with no brakes by which to stop themselves.
- Relies on Trial and Error
Again, new riders are left to discover for themselves the relationship between balance and steering, with little to no real assistance from you.
- A good grassy knoll can be hard to find
Depending on where you live, it can be hard to find a suitable gently sloping grassy hill. On the other hand, vacant parking lots and school playgrounds are plentiful on any given Saturday morning.
Look Ma! – No Pedals!
The recently popular Grassy Knoll method has given rise to a new class of balance training aids known as “Balance Bikes” or striders. These special bikes with no pedals now come in an array of designs and materials, though models for larger children ( or adults ) are harder to come by.
- No Pedals Required
Freed from worry for the mechanics of pedaling, Balance Bikes can make it easy for new riders to master balancing in their own good time. In your back yard, your driveway or school playground, the more daring of new riders can learn without any real assistance from anyone at all.
- No Pedals Required
Again, that’s not a typo. This method’s greatest advantage, may well be it’s greatest disadvantage too. Worse than methods #2 and #3 above, this approach does nothing at all to assist new riders who’ve yet to master pedaling.
- Again, No Brakes
Few models come equipped with hand brakes, because they are just to difficult for little hands to operate.
- Relies on Trial and Error
As with methods #1 and #3, new riders are left to discover for themselves the relationship between balance and steering, with no assistance from you.
- Self Starters Only
This method is not much good for tykes who are by nature, less outgoing and adventurous. Unless your young cyclist is something of a daredevil, this may not be your best approach.
- No grown-ups allowed
As mentioned earlier, while Balance Bikes come in an array of designs and materials, models for larger children or adults are harder to come by.
Prices range from $50, to as much as $250. Even if you find one on the lower end of that range, when the time eventually comes, you’ll end up spending at least as much again, buying its pedaled replacement.
The Wallaby Method
Unlike the Bike Training Handles mentioned before, the Wallaby Trainer let’s you hold the child, instead of the bicycle. Free to experience the physics, the forces in play during both proper and improper corrective steering, kids learn faster, even if they have not yet learned to pedal. Meanwhile you save unnecessary back-strain pain and suffering.
- Kids Feel Safer
Even the most timid of children will learn to ride.
- No Bending
No trips to the chiropractor for you.
- Not Just for Bicycles
Parents and care-providers of special needs children love it.
Great for gymnastics or learning to ski.
Works for Scooters.
Works for skateboards, Ice Skates and Rollerblades too.
- One Size Fits All
Highly adjustable, we have had reports from parents using it successfully with kids weighing well in excess of 100 pounds.
- Gender Neutral
Suitable for boys and girls alike.
The Wallaby costs a little more than the cheapest of the bike mounted training handles, sure. It costs a fair bit more than the five to ten dollars we’re hoping you donate to Pedal Magic anyway. But seeing as it is so versatile, so well made, so light weight, and yet so durable, if you can’t find another use for it when your done, you can either pass it on to a neighbor, or maybe a niece or nephew who can, or just resell it — for fair price — on ebay. We won’t hold it against you, honest. Either way, we think The Wallaby Trainer is a great value. We’re hoping you, will agree.
Have we mentioned the quality? Though we would love to sell you all a new Wallaby Trainer for each of your children, and then their children too, the fact is, they’re just too well made. Unfortunately for us, one is all you’ll ever need.
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