By: Josephine Hipolito, Physical Therapist
Summertime is approaching, and around this time, caregivers often ask me to work on bike riding with their kids as one of their goals. As an avid cyclist, it’s one of my favorite things to teach because of the joy and freedom children feel when they learn to ride. Let’s start with a few tips on teaching children bike riding.
Things to Consider When Starting
- Determine whether the child knows how to pedal. If they do, skip the next section and go to the balance section to work on the balance aspect of bike riding .
- Remember you don’t have to follow this step by step. It’s more of a guide to see where your child is in the bike riding process and then proceed.
Teaching Children Pedaling:
- Start with teaching “Air Cycling.” Most kids don’t understand the concept of extending one leg while the opposite leg is relaxed if they have never pedaled before. Their usual instinct if you tell them to push with their legs is to have both legs push simultaneously, so they usually get stuck when on a tricycle.
- To practice the motion of pedaling, place your hands at the bottom of their feet and tell them to push against it on their bent leg. Use a little resistance when you do this. On a tricycle, kids often stop pedaling and move backward when they encounter resistance, so you want them to get used to resistance.
3. Once they master air cycling, start them on a tricycle with a pedal block (a device that holds their feet on the pedals) or strap their feet on the pedals using an ace wrap or velcro straps. Children usually tend to over-push with their feet at first, so their feet slip off the pedals. Wrapping their feet will keep them on the pedals. You can also get commercially available pedal straps like this one.
4. Once they master the pedal block, take off the straps so they can learn to control their leg movement and keep their feet on the pedals.
5. Make sure they master pedaling with a tricycle so that it becomes second nature to them when they graduate to a bicycle.
Balance Bike Versus a Bike with Training Wheels
I often tell families ready to progress their children from a tricycle to a bike, to start with a balance bike. A balance bike is simply a bike without pedals where children use their legs instead of pedals to move.
Skip the step of learning with training wheels because children can get dependent on leaning on them for balance. The Balance Bike enables the child to learn to find their center of balance on their own
NOTE: Not everyone will be able to get a balance bike and a bike with training wheels, so I recommend taking the training wheels AND the pedals off of a bike to convert it to a balance bike.
Biking with Training Wheels
The problem with a bike with training wheels is the braking system. They use coaster brakes which means pedaling backward to activate the brakes.
Kids tend to start pedaling backward when they encounter resistance which activates the brakes. It’s always difficult for kids with motor planning issues to figure this out. That’s why you ensure they master the pedaling part of bike riding before moving on.
Keep an eye out for the following:
- Some kids tend to push with their legs while pulling on the handlebars, which causes the bikes to turn – as a PT, this signals to me that they need core strengthening
- Some kids will over push with their legs causing them to slip backward on the bike seat – I put a dycem (non-slip pad) or tie a theraband on the seat to prevent this .
Tips to Use a Balance Bike
- Start with having the child walk with their legs while sitting on the saddle. See if they have the control to keep the bike from tipping or even recognize that the bike is tipped while they are riding it. They need to integrate this part. Children with body awareness issues will not even recognize that they are tilted when propelling a balance bike.
- Watch out for kids who walk the bikes, but they are standing and not sitting on the seat. I sometimes use an ace wrap to secure their pelvis on the seat to prevent this
- Once they master keeping the bike upright, work on gliding .
- Gliding – have them take three steps: 1, 2, 3, then bring their feet up to glide. Challenge them and ask them to see how far they can glide before they put their feet down.
- I sometimes use floor markings like chalk on the surface to mark a certain point. Children can work on balancing better if they have a visual cue on how far to glide.
- Once a child can glide for 10-20 feet consistently, I move them to a bike with two wheels (or put the pedals back on the bike).
Steps to Help Children Ride a Standard Bike
- Work in a parking lot of a school or a park early in the morning so that it will be empty and there are no distractions – avoid the sidewalks or hallways because the child needs to worry about staying within the confines of the space (it can become too stressful for them).
- Try to find a parking lot with a little downward incline to help them get a little momentum to balance.
- Let your child walk the bike out to the parking lot while holding the handlebar. This way, they learn to handle the bike and how to motor plan to keep it balanced.
- Work on pedaling forward first. Worry about turns later.
- Have a gait belt (or Dad’s belt) around their trunk, so you have something to grab onto when they are riding (if they are not using a bike with a parent’s handle).
- Give them a little push to start them up – they will usually start slow because they are apprehensive but what children don’t realize yet is they need momentum to be able to balance.
- Give them frequent breaks, and maybe bring a snack, as bike riding can be stressful while learning. Let them know that they have to do 2-3 laps then they can take a break. Break for 1-2 mins, get a drink or snacks, then return to bike riding. Use a timer so they know break time is over when it rings. This way, they may be more cooperative when they know they have a break.
- Once they master going straight, you can work on turning – put cones on each end of the parking lot and ask them to turn around the cones. This way, they can practice tight turns.
- Once they master turning, work on tighter areas (e.g. a hallway, sidewalk) to narrow their space.
- Once they master tight areas, work on going up inclines.
Biking From a Complete Stop
- Determine the child’s balance leg – it’s usually the first leg they put down when they stop.
- Once that’s determined, the balance leg is the leg that will stay on the ground and will be pushing to get the bike going. The other leg goes on the pedal (pedal leg).
- Teach the child to position the pedal (pedal leg side) in front of their shin so they can easily put their foot on it.
- Ask them to have the balance leg push on the ground while the pedal leg is pushing down on the pedal to start the bike .
I hope this blog has been helpful wherever your child is on their cycling journey! Teaching children to cycle has numerous benefits to their development, including improving motor skills, strength and balance. It’s also a fun exercise that can be enjoyed with a sibling or friend!
if you ever have concerns about your child’s mobility, strength, or motor skills, Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley is here to help! Learn more about our physical therapy services by visiting:
We also invite your family to join our annual Bike for the Kids in Elgin!
Cyclists of all ages and abilities are welcome to ride distances ranging from 12 miles – 50 miles or join us in reaching a 100-mile goal throughout the summer on the Strava app. Adapted bikes and trailers are welcome. All ages and abilities are encouraged to participate.
We are excited to take this ride to the Fox River Trail and celebrate together at Festival Park in Elgin with food, refreshment, entertainment and more!
Learn more and register here: https://www.givegab.com/campaigns/bikeforthekids2022
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