Of all childhood adventures, learning to ride a bicycle is by far one of the most meaningful. For children, it’s often their first taste of independence, teaching them self-reliance and giving them a sense of freedom and joy! Teaching your child to ride is a gift that will last them a lifetime.
THE BALANCE FIRST METHOD
The “Balance First” method of teaching enables kids to learn each of the skills needed for riding (like balance, steering and pedaling) individually – enabling the child to slowly become comfortable with all aspects of bicycle riding while having fun and building confidence.
At What Age To Start?
There’s no perfect age to teach a child to ride a bicycle. Some children will start to learn at about 3.5, some may be as old as 7 or 8 – generally age 5 is considered to be a good age. For younger kids and toddlers (2-4), while they are too young to learn to ride a regular pedal bike, they can learn to ride a balance bike from as early as 22 months. It is much better to make their first bike a balance bike instead of a tricycle as it will help them transfer smoothly to riding a pedal bike.
Where’s the best place to teach?
Choose a safe, traffic -free area. It is best to teach somewhere with a gentle grassy downhill slope, that then flattens out or goes uphill slightly. The grass should be free of obstacles and short enough that it doesn’t create too much drag on the wheels. Barring that, find a paved area that is either flat or slightly sloped and wide enough to allow for turns. Find out more about bike-friendly parks and kid-friendly urban trails.
Step 1: Bike Setup and Safety Check
Balance bikes are built for this method (they have no pedals), but if you already have a standard child’s bike (see this post for advice on buying a child’s bike), then you can easily turn it into a balance bike with these few modifications:
- Remove the Training Wheels: Training wheels actually make learning to balance so much harder, resulting in more accidents.
- Remove the Pedals: Use an adjustable wrench and loosen the pedal on the right by turning anticlockwise and on left, turn clockwise.
- Lower the seat: This allows kids to sit upright with their feet flat on the ground which helps them feel more secure as they begin learning to balance.
- Inflate the tires to the correct pressure to ensure the bicycle rolls smoothly. Look for the recommended tire pressure printed on tire sidewalls.
- Put on a Helmet. Make sure the helmet is level when worn (not tilted back or angled to one side). It should fit snugly with side straps forming a “V” under each ear, and the chin strap should be tightened enough to allow you to slide only two fingers underneath.
- Fingerless Cycling Gloves are a great idea because grazing hands is a common injury for beginners.
- Tuck in shoelaces. Avoid loose clothes and tuck long pants into the socks.
Step 2: Teach your child to balance, scoot and glide.
Step 3: Slope Start
Once your kid has started gliding along on their balance bike move on to a gentle slope where they will learn how to glide down, stop, turn and pedal.
- Start on a comfortable point on a gentle slope.
- Have your child sit on the bike while you hold the saddle and place their feet flat on the ground.
- Ask them to count themselves down and then lift their feet about an inch off the ground and glide down the hill. It’s crucial that your child does the counting – 3,2,1, feet up to ensure that they’re in control. Remember to let go of the saddle. You can run alongside the bike if your child requests, but avoid holding onto the bike to steady it. Let them feel the balance.
- Remind your child that once the bike stops rolling they need to plant their feet on the ground. Think of something to say to them e.g. strong feet. They can also control the speed by putting their feet back on the ground. Once they are confident with the slope start move on to the next step.
Step 4: Braking
This is a very important lesson to teach. Show your child how to apply both brakes at the same time (if the bike has both front and rear brakes). Using just the front brake can launch the rider over the handlebars. Using just the rear brake reduces braking power and the bike is more likely skid.
- Start with another Slope Start but this time ask your child to stop at a marker that you have placed on the hill. You can use a cone or a hula hoop. Having a target keeps them focused and turns it into a fun game.
- Encourage them to squeeze the brakes as they mount the bike and slide their bottom onto their saddle.
- Then release the brakes, glide downhill, and slowly activate them to stop at the hula hoop.
- Move the hula hoop further down the hill and get them to repeat until they’re good at stopping.
Step 5: Learning to Turn
Once your child can scoot and glide —and are enjoying themselves—move on to turning and steering.
- Use the Slope Start again. Put an object for them to turn at halfway down the hill and to the right of it place the hula hoop. Having an object in the near distance helps kids learn to look in the direction they want to travel – stopping falls caused by looking around or at the ground.
- Once they’ve mastered the right hand turn with the slope start, change it so they are now turning left.
- Start with easy, looping turns. As the child gets more confident ask for tighter turns, to the left and right.
- You can also place a marker on the ground and encourage your child to run over it with the bike. This game teaches children to scan ahead and to direct the bike to a specific target.
Step 6: Learning to Pedal
Once your child can glide the bike with feet up, make turns and stops while gliding and look ahead while riding, it’s time to replace the pedals and cranks on the bike or leave the balance bike behind and graduate to a ‘real’ bike! For now, keep the seat in its lowered position so your child can put both feet on the ground.
- Re-attach the pedals, if they were removed
- Get your child to do a few Slope Starts with their feet just resting on the pedals, to give them the feel of it.
- Now put the hula hoop at bottom of the hill, further away than before so they’ll have to pedal to reach it.
- Get your child to do a Slope Start with their feet on the pedals. When they feel the need to pedal, encourage them to go for it and pedal to reach to the hoop.
Step 7: Putting It All Together
Step 8: Starting from a Stop
Go to a flat part of the training area and practice starting from a standstill.
- Encourage them to squeeze brakes, mount the bike and slide their bottom onto their saddle.
- Set pedal at the 2 o’clock position (ready to push down). This gives the rider a solid pedal stroke to power the bike and keeps it steady until the other foot finds the pedal.
- Then get your child to gently release the brakes. Push down on the pedal with a bit of oomph. Find the other pedal with the other foot and turn the pedals.
- It’s also a good idea to explain about foot positioning on the pedal. A common mistake is for kids to pedal with the middle or even heel of the foot. The ball of the foot should be over the pedal spindle.
Step 9: Advanced Skills
- Seat height: Once the child is adept at pedaling, can balance at speed, and can turn corners without tumbling, it’s time to raise the child’s saddle so the pedaling action is more efficient. To gauge the correct height, hold the bike steady and have your child sit on the saddle. At the bottom of the pedal stroke, there should be just a slight bend (about 80–90% straight) in the knee and one foot should be able to touch the ground – on tippy-toe – when the child is seated. Nudge up the seat post in small increments day by day until the correct saddle height is reached.
- Tight turns: Explain to your child that, before a turn, they should slow down, lean slightly into the turn’s direction and turn the handlebars slightly in that direction. Keeping the pedal on the inside of the turn raised and looking through the turn. As confidence grows let the speed gradually increase.
- Follow the Leader: Once your child can ride fairly easily, get on your bike and have him or her follow you. (Remember to wear your own helmet.) Take it slow and easy, and make big turns every now and then. Set up a course with cones and ride it, too. Focus on balance and have a “slowness race” where the last person to put their feet down wins. Stay out of areas with traffic until your child masters riding without wobbling and can skillfully brake and turn.
CYCLING ON THE ROAD OR TRAIL
Once your kids have mastered the basics of cycling (from around age 7), they may want to cycle with you on the road or trail – at this stage it’s a good idea to teach them some on-road cycling skills. Find out if their school offers any cycle safety training programs. Alternatively have a look at our Safe Cycling with Kids article for tips on how your kids can stay safe cycling on the roads as well as links to organizations offering road safety and beginner’s cycling training.
Now you are all set to go on a family bicycle outing. To find safe routes, fun bicycle outings and kid-friendly places to ride have a look at our guide on where to ride. (select the Family/Kid Friendly tag).
Ready for the next step?
World Bicycle Day is celebrated across the globe on Monday 3 June and Cape Town’s bicycle advocates came together to reward cycle commuters and shine a spotlight on those who are at the forefront of adopting this wonderful way of getting around!
Our definitive guide to Cape Town’s favourite bike friendly cafes along the official Cape Town Cycle tour route.
Breaking the routine… An impromptu, mid-week bike camping adventure to a secluded campsite nestled at the foot of the famous Chapman’s Peak in Cape Town.
OVERNIGHT | ⇔ 35 km (oneway) | + 600m | ≡ Tar