We rode our bikes to the library that summer morning and a dad and his son took notice.
“Wow! How long have you been riding, little lady?” the man asked.
The question was directed to my first grader, and I bit my lip waiting for her response. I had seen this father’s M.O. He was using my daughter’s prowess as a two-wheeler to encourage his son, who was at least a head taller and maybe a few years older than Lindsey. Perhaps needle is a better word than encourage.
When Lindsey shrugged and looked to me for back-up, I jumped in, explaining how younger siblings usually do things ahead of schedule and how she was small for her age. This was truth-bending, but there was no need to embarrass this guy’s kid any further. The thing is, all three of my kids were confident two-wheelers before their fifth birthdays.
Growing up in a small town, I was able to ride my bike to the park, the pool, softball practice, and the movie theater. Bike riding embodied freedom for me. Today, I don’t know many kids who ride bikes as a main form of transportation, but I wanted my girls to know the sense of independence that comes from waving good-bye to Mommy and heading out into the neighborhood in search of adventure.
After the youngest of our kids cruised down the driveway – her face beaming with pride! – I knew we had a system that worked. Here’s what we did:
Step 1: Start your toddler on a ride-on with pedals. Push-cars and scooters are great, but it’s the pedals and handlebars that get them ready for bike riding. I recommend a Big Wheel or other fun and inexpensive trike-styled ride-on.
Step 2: Invest in a well-built sidewalk bike with training wheels or a convertible balance bike. The frame height on these are typically between five and nine inches. Depending on your child’s height, the bike might feel just as small as a tricycle anyway. The point is to keep the bike low to the ground so your child always feels safe and in control while riding.
Step 3: Find some open road. Not everyone has a paved driveway, but there are empty school parking lots, basketball courts, public parks, or stretches of sidewalk in most parts of Richmond. If your child is on a traditional sidewalk bike, she has to master it with training wheels before she’ll feel comfortable taking them off. By the time one of my kids was done with her training wheels, we had adjusted them so high that they were hardly touching the ground anyway.
Step 4: Teach your child smart riding skills from the beginning. Kids (just like adults) should always wear helmets when riding bikes. Make sure your two-wheeler-in-training has a helmet she likes and knows how to wear it properly. Second, discourage your child from sitting on the bike seat with her feet on the pedals while the bike is stationary. When the bike comes to a stop, have her hop down to a standing position while holding the handlebars. This way, when the training wheels are gone, she won’t be inclined to keep her feet on the pedals and ultimately fall over. If you’re a balance bike family, all of this pedal talk is moot.
Step 5: Set your child up for success and get it done. After you’ve given your child time to practice on her well-built, perfectly fitting bike and she’s tooling around with confidence, set the two-wheeling date together.
Step 6: Coasting comes first. The training wheels are off and the big day has arrived. Find a yard or grassy field with a pretty good incline and help your child master the skill of coasting. Start at the top of the incline with her bottom on the seat and both feet on the ground. Have her start walk-riding down the hill. Next time, have your child let both legs hang to the ground and coast down the hill. Try again with both legs sticking out from the bike and coast some more. No pedaling is necessary. This step helps kids get used to the concept of staying upright without training wheels.
Step 7: It’s go time! The final step might leave you winded, but it’s well worth it. Find a large, empty lot where your child will feel completely safe, and you’ll feel comfortable knowing she can’t take a wrong turn. Before you begin, remind her a few times that all she has to do is put her feet down if she’s worried about falling. Now the fun part! This is where you trot next to the bike holding the seat firmly to help balance your child. You may need to do this a few times before you sense that she’s ready to go it alone. When she does take off, encourage her to keep going straight for a while. Getting accustomed to steering takes some time and more practice. If she starts to fall, remind her to put her feet down, and take it from the top.
Step 8: Celebrate the world’s newest two-wheeler! As a finishing touch, have a little gift ready for your two-wheeler to celebrate at home. Keep it simple and bike-related, if possible.
This last step is optional. Ultimately, the biggest gift you’re giving your child is the feeling of confidence that comes with being able to ride a bike. And that’s something every kid deserves!