Teaching a child how to ride a bike is a huge milestone in their development, and a rite of passage as they grow older.
For some kids, it will be intuitive and they will be flying before you know it, while for others it will take patience and perseverance.
There might be some tears and some tantrums, but then one day it just “clicks” and they break through an invisible barrier and are suddenly cycling under their own steam.
As a cycling-mad father of three young boys, I have been through this journey twice already (the last one is almost there). I have learned from my mistakes along the way, and hope I can save you some heartache!
In this article, we look at how to teach a kid to ride a bike and break it down into five manageable chunks for children as beginners.
What Is The Best Age For A Child To Learn To Ride A Bike?
Kids can get a taste of cycling on a balance bike (more on these later) from a very young age, around 18 months.
Kids usually progress to a standard kids’ bike between the ages of three and five years old. Like so many things, some kids learn faster than others but by following this guide every kid will be able to enjoy riding a bike.
You will know best when they are ready to move up to a proper bike. If they are not ready, don’t try to push them too hard. They won’t enjoy the bike riding and are less likely to want to learn.
Whether they are just starting on the balance bike or preparing to pedal for the first time always make sure that your child is wearing a bike helmet to protect their young heads.
Get them involved in picking a helmet – if they love the design, then they are more likely to want to put it on.
Dad Tip: My kids also love to wear fingerless mitts and they are great for protecting their hands in the inevitable and numerous low-speed falls that come with learning to ride a bike.
How To Teach A Child To Ride A Bike In 5 Steps
Step 1. Master The Balance Bike
Perhaps the biggest change since I was learning to ride a bike three decades ago is the availability of balance bikes for younger riders.
For the uninitiated, a balance bike is a small bike without any pedals. Riders propel the bike by scooting their feet on the ground while sat in the bike seat, and will eventually learn to lift their feet completely on slight downhills to coast and balance. They are simple and robust.
Some have simple coaster brakes, but most do not. This isn’t an issue as the speeds are so low and the child can simply put their feet down to stop, but it’s worth making sure they’re supervised nonetheless.
Since they have few mechanical components, they are relatively cheap. Kids grow out of them fast, so there is a decent second-hand market for balance bikes.
If you don’t have access to a balance bike, then the next best thing is to simply remove the pedals from a regular child’s bike.
The balance bike will help them hone the feel of staying upright and maneuvering the bike without having to worry about pedaling.
They quickly and intuitively grasp that balancing is much easier if they pick up a little speed, knowledge that will be invaluable when it comes to moving up to a real bike.
Don’t rush this step!
Step 2. Time To Try A Proper Bike
When you feel they have developed as far as they can with a child balance bike and are physically capable of pedaling, it is time to get them on a proper children’s bike.
Another big difference between learning now and learning in the past is the move away from stabilisers (AKA training wheels).
They do still have a place in some instances, but they can also quickly undo all the good work on the balance bike. They completely change the dynamics of cycling, turning the bike into more of a child’s tricycle than a proper bike.
Counterintuitively, they can also make the bike more likely to tip over when cornering, as the child can’t lean into the corner effectively. While they might make it easy for a child to ride at very low speeds in a straight line without too much wobble, they can quickly do more harm than good.
This was perhaps the biggest mistake I made when my eldest son was learning to ride. We moved him from the balance bike to a pedal bike with stabilizers and left them on too long. He then lost confidence in balancing when it came to taking them off.
Anecdotally, the next time around with my middle son we only left the stabilizers on just long enough so that he could get the hang of pedaling, and then they came straight off. He was able to cycle independently much faster than his big brother.
Dad Tip: I know this is a small sample size, but if you can avoid training wheels then you should see much faster progress.
Make sure the bike is the right size and the saddle is low enough that they can quickly put their feet down if they get in trouble. Don’t worry too much about the brakes for the time being as you will be close by.
Step 3. Practice Pedaling
Whilst they might have nailed balancing, they might be a little unsure how to pedal. There are a couple of options here to let them safely practice pedaling before hitting the roads properly.
You can build a rudimentary stand for the bike using blocks or bricks under the bottom bracket. An alternative is to add the training wheel and prop each one up on a brick.
In both instances, the back wheel will be lifted and the child can pedal freely while the bike is still. Just take care to ensure that the bike won’t topple over, as the movement of pedaling can rock the bike side to side.
Step 4. Find The Right Spot To Practice
Understandably, most adults instinctively think that the best place to practice cycling is on a flat piece of grass at a local park.
The grass might offer a softer landing if they fall, but it is also harder to cycle on for their small legs. The soft ground saps a lot of energy and children will find it difficult to reach and maintain enough momentum to make balancing easier.
Have faith that they know how to get their feet down if they are in any trouble and instead seek out some quiet, flat road or gravel to start cycling. The lower rolling resistance will be a massive help to them.
It is best to hold your child under their arms rather than the bike itself so that you can quickly grab them in a fall.
It also gives them more control over the bike, which is of course the whole point of the exercise. Riding vests or a balance trainer are great options at this stage.
At this point they will need some help to get moving, so don’t worry about teaching them to push off independently. That will come later.
Whilst holding them, build some momentum and then slowly but surely let them go. You will get a feel for when they are pedaling under their own power and can let them go earlier as they progress.
For some kids, this might be all the encouragement they need to pedal off on their own and never look back. For most there will be some tumbles.
These tumbles can knock their confidence, so it is important to be patient and give them the time and encouragement to get back in the saddle when they are ready.
This might be straightaway, or it might be the next day. It is not a race and pushing them too fast could set the process back.
Dad Tip: Positive reinforcement is the name of the game. I would add a sticker to my kids’ helmets when they mastered each part of the puzzle.
Once they have got the hang of pedaling, start to practice turning and moving off on their own without a push. This step can prove quite tricky at first.
Find a very slight decline and, with the pedals level, teach them to use their dominant foot to push on the pedal as they push off the ground with their standing foot. After a bit of practice this, like the rest of cycling, will become second nature.
Step 5. Braking
Once they are confidently pedaling and maneuvering on their own, the next step is to introduce them to the brakes.
For a lot of children used to balance bikes, this might be the first time they have used brakes so start by explaining what each of the levers does and let them see the mechanism in action.
Most importantly, encourage them to squeeze the brakes rather than pulling on them suddenly to prevent flying over the handlebars or skidding on the bike tires. Think of it like squeezing an orange.
Most brakes can be adjusted to bring the lever closer to the bars if their small hands can’t reach them.
Take care to show them which lever operates which brake. In the United States, the left-hand brake lever typically controls the front brake and the right-hand lever controls the rear brake, but it can be the other way round in other regions such as the United Kingdom.
Dad Tip: I liked to stand ahead of them and get them to stop in front of me, although sometimes I feel like they forget on purpose. You have been warned!
In my experience, they quickly grasp braking to come to a halt but it can take a bit longer to appreciate that braking can also be used to slow and regulate speed, especially going downhill. Make sure they have this skill down before heading out on any adventures.
Bring It All Together
Even after they have got to grips with all of the above, they are still constantly learning and of course, there may be some falls. As well as some cuts and bruises, their confidence will also take a hit.
Your job is to help them back on the bike. As always, lead by example and make sure you are also wearing a helmet when you go out on your bike and take them to cool places to cycle and see a bit of the local world that they have never seen before.
We hope this learning process will get your kids cycling and joining you on memory-making cycling adventures!