After learning how to walk, run, jump, and skip, the next milestone on your kid’s docket is riding a bike. Although this skill is not necessary for their overall development, it does provide a wide range of benefits to your child’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being (like building lower body strength and endurance, boosting mood, releasing excess energy, adjusting arousal level necessary to focus, etc). I think it’s also one of those quintessential kid activities that parents actually look forward to teaching.
But bike riding, like all the other skills before it, doesn’t happen overnight (Maneuver this steerable machine throughout the neighborhood without falling? And you call this fun!?). Kids eventually grasp their first mode of independent transportation with practice and patience, but why do some rise to the challenge easily while others struggle? Let’s find out from an OT perspective.
Before you expect your kiddo to master bike riding, they first need some developmental skills in place. Because of a bicycle’s complexity, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says children are ready to ride a bike by the time they are 5 years of age. While you can certainly start laying down the foundations of cycling around the age of 3, they may not get the hang of it until they are 5-6 years old.
So what skills are needed?
- Core strength and postural control – to maintain an upright sitting position to stabilize and balance on the bike
- Lower extremity strength and endurance – to pedal the bike, especially for long durations or up inclines
- Grip strength – to hold onto the handlebars and squeeze the brakes
- Coordination and motor planning – to operate the vehicle and adjust when necessary (pedaling, braking, speed control, dodging obstacles, etc)
- Attention – to avoid any accidents and read terrain
- Body and spatial awareness – to know where they are in relation to their surroundings, ensuring their safety and others around them
Preschoolers (3- and 4-year-olds)
Kids around this age develop gross motor skills for balance and coordination, allowing them to balance on one foot, climb, or skip. Three-year-olds don’t yet have the balance to operate a two-wheeled bike but can handle a tricycle or big-wheel just fine. As their coordination and muscle control continues to improve, they can switch to small bicycles with training wheels and foot brakes around the age of 4.
Kindergarteners (4- and 5-year-olds)
Around 5 years of age, kids should have the balance and coordination needed to ride a bicycle without training wheels. However, they may not fully understand the potential dangers and safety guidelines (wearing a helmet, biking near traffic, etc). Because falls and injuries do happen at this age, frustration or the fear of getting hurt can hinder their interest in learning without training wheels.
Elementary School (6- to 12-year-olds)
By the age of 6, kids are physically able to ride a bicycle independently and have the coordination to use hand brakes. They also can adapt and avoid environmental dangers or injury. Around 9-12 years of age, they can switch to hand gear and multispeed bikes.
If a child can essentially ride a bike by the age of 6, what would stop them from doing so? Several factors can be the culprit:
- The fear of getting hurt. Your child may not feel confident that they can maintain their balance on the bike (especially while pedaling) or are afraid they may lose control of the bike and not know how to brake properly, resulting in a collision with the ground.
- Incorrect bike size. If the bicycle is too big, they may not touch the ground or reach the handlebars. On the other hand, if the bike is too small, it will feel uncomfortable. Both situations can reduce the chances of your child wanting to take their baby out for a spin.
- Not knowing how to ride a bike. Just because you gifted them with a brand-new bike with all the bells and whistles doesn’t mean they will know how to ride it. Bike riding is an acquired skill that must be taught.
- They had a traumatic experience. Falls and fails during the initial attempts at bike riding are bound to happen, but it’s how we handle them that makes the difference. If your child took a hard spill on the pavement, the cuts, scrapes, and frustration may be enough to bench them.
- Too much too soon. Just when our kiddos gets the hang of it, we may assume that they can ride for longer distances or handle challenging terrain when they aren’t ready to. That’s a good way to ensure that you will be carrying that bike back home.
- It’s not fun (or we don’t make it fun for them). We may push our kids to master bike riding at a certain age for various reasons (their peers all ride bikes, you want to go bike riding with your kid, grandparents bought them a bike for their birthday, etc). In doing so, we may be critiquing instead of encouraging them.
- They aren’t ready to ride a bike just yet. They may need to improve their body/spatial awareness, balance, coordination, muscle strength, or attention first before operating the vehicle.
Here are some ways to help your child become a bike riding aficionado:
- Trikes, Balance Bikes, and Training Wheels. These are all good options to get your child started, but each focuses on different things. Tricycles can assist your child learn the basics, such as pedaling or steering. Balance bikes have two wheels but no pedals, requiring your child to use their feet to propel forward. They are useful in helping your child gain confidence when balancing on a bike before trying the real thing. Training wheels on big-kid bikes provide a safety net for your child. They get used to bike riding and their environment without worrying about falling.
For Patti’s kids, one of the bigger challenges was the push/pull aspect of pedaling. This does require a lot of leg strength, coordination, and using their body weight to alternate pushing left/right. This is great to teach with training wheels because you can still get the resistance from road friction and gravity.
- The Ideal First Bike. When getting a pedal bike for your kid, make sure they can safely touch the ground when seated and verify that their knees don’t hit the handlebar when they pedal. Also, consider purchasing a bike with a reverse pedal brake as it may be difficult to operate a hand brake. Also do your online research. Some bikes have a height range for riders and that is good to know before you buy.
- Work on the Fundamentals. This includes weight shifting, steering, braking, and fall prevention.
- Weight shifting – While seated on their bike, have your child straddle their bicycle with their feet on the ground. Once they’re comfortable, have your kid place their feet on the pedals and support them at their back as you gently shift them from side to side. This helps them gain body awareness, allowing them to shift their weight accordingly to maintain their balance.
- Steering – Have your child turn the handlebars with their feet on the ground while straddling their bike. Help them understand that by slowly turning the handles, it will go in that direction. Once mastered, you can combine steering with weight shifting.
- Braking – Show them where the brakes are and how to use them. Practice using them by having them pedal while you support your child from behind.
- Fall Prevention – Move the bike side to side while their feet are up to encourage them to put their foot down when they feel themselves falling to the side.
- Push to Start. Once your child is ready to bike for real life, pick a location that has a flat surface free of any obstacles. Raise their seat to the appropriate height so that your kid can reach the ground comfortably with the ball of their foot. Have your child place one foot on the pedal while the other foot stays on the ground. To start, tell them to pedal the bike by pushing the foot on the pedal.
- Going Forward. Let your child practice pedaling by supporting them from behind with your hands placed on their sides below their armpits (or you use a towel or bedsheet harness). This allows them to bike without falling too far to one side. As your child gains more confidence, you can start to decrease your physical support until they’re biking all by themselves.
Keep in mind that it is easier to get the hang of bike riding at a faster speed. If you go at a slower speed, it’s much harder to stay balanced. This can be challenging for your kid to feel comfortable with, meaning that you will have to do a good deal of awkward running beside them (the things we do for our kids).
- Up the Ante. To improve your child’s attention and awareness of their environment, you can create obstacle courses they must maneuver through or ride to retrieve a visual target.
- Bring All the Positive Vibes. This is one activity where negativity does not have a place. Learning to ride a bike is child-led (meaning you can’t do it for them). They could get the hang of bike riding in an afternoon or over the course of a few days. So pack your patience and have a reward at the ready.
If your child isn’t getting the hang of bike riding with you, see if there are local bike clinics in your area that can help. REI has weekend classes available monthly, usually in a blocked off section of their parking lot. These programs can provide useful techniques and strategies regarding bicycle fundamentals among peers, which can be a great motivator in learning this skill.
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