How to teach a child to ride a bicycle

Reader's Digest Editors

You never forget how to ride a bike, but most of us forget how hard it was to learn. That’s why when adults teach children, the experience can be frustrating—for everyone. Here’s what to keep in mind when coaxing little ones from two feet to two wheels.

Begin with the right equipment

riding a bike

Start with a bicycle that’s the right size. A newbie should be able to sit on the seat with both feet flat on the ground. (Once your child’s more proficient, you can adjust the seat so her tiptoes touch, but for now she needs more control.) When in doubt, err on the side of a bike that’s too small. If the child has been using a bike with training wheels, remove them, since they ultimately make it more difficult for her to learn to balance on her own.

A good-quality, well-fitting helmet is also a must. According to the Bike Helmet Safety Institute, you want one that comfortably touches the head all the way around and stays in place even if you try to move it once it’s strapped on. It should rest low on the head with the strap comfortably snug. When your child opens her mouth wide, she should feel the helmet pull down a little bit, and when she looks up, she should be able to see the rim of the helmet.

Long pants and long-sleeved shirts aren’t a bad idea, either, to prevent scrapes in the event of a fall. Make a steering course out of safety cones, buckets, or laundry baskets, and bring along your own bike so you can demonstrate.

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Find a safe spot to learn

Head to a location that has smooth, flat, open pavement and little or no traffic to distract or endanger your child. It helps if there’s no one around, too, so she won’t feel self-conscious. The ideal spot? A school parking lot on the weekend.

 

Emphasise the basics

son teach to ride a bike

The fundamentals of biking are balance, coasting, pedalling, and steering.

To help a child learn to balance, have her sit on the bike seat with both feet touching the ground. Then have her scoot the bike forward by pushing off with her feet.

After she masters scooting, encourage her to build up momentum by lifting her feet to coast a little. Show how she can coast with her feet very near the ground and how she can stop simply by placing her feet down.

Once she’s a confident coaster, it’s time to pedal. Have her stand over the bike with one foot on the ground and one on a pedal, which should be positioned at about 2 o’clock. Before beginning, remind her how to put her feet down in order to stop the bike or regain balance.

Instruct her to push down on the pedal with the first foot while placing the other foot on the other pedal just as she begins to move forward. You can place your hand on the back of the seat to reassure and steady her as soon as she is in motion, and then let go. Remind her to keep her feet moving.

"The fundamentals of biking are balance, coasting, pedalling, and steering"

No doubt there will be more than a few stops and starts and maybe even a wipeout or two. But eventually, she will manage to ride a fair stretch without stopping or falling. When she does, encourage her to slow down and then drop her feet to the ground to stop the bike.

After several successful straight runs, introduce steering. Start by making her ride in large circles that give her the feel of controlling the direction of the bike. Then set up a few of the cones or other markers you’ve brought (about 15 feet/5m apart) and have her practice pedalling around them, weaving in and out. Eventually, she’ll master her turns, her speed, and her stops.

When she’s really comfortable riding and steering, talk about using the brakes to stop the bike. Whether that means pedal brakes or hand brakes, emphasize slowing down before braking gently. The abrupt use of brakes causes more spills than any other aspects of riding, so hammer home the “gently” part.

 

Now practice—a lot

learning to ride a bike

After a fair number of dry runs, it’s time to move to the big stage. Find a bike path or a little-travelled street in a residential neighbourhood where you can demonstrate how to share the road with cars—riding with, not against, the traffic.

Bike along with the child to check that she’s using proper safety techniques and feels comfortable pedalling in traffic.