When our oldest was just a year old, we were in a local bike shop and discovered our first “balance bike”. We honestly had no idea what to think of it and assumed it was just for tricks or some sort of sport that we had yet to be introduced to. We left the shop (over an hour later) with a full understanding of what a balance bike was and the conviction that they were the perfect way to start all kids on bikes.
Before J turned two, we bought him a Haro balance bike (and a horn to make it more fun) and were more excited than him to see what he could do. He started out slowly, but took to it eventually. By 2.5 he was cruising on it. By 4 he was successfully riding a pedal bike. As parents we questioned if he would ever get the hang of it (we were definitely more excited about it than he was), but it happened on his own time.
P had the advantage of watching his brother on bikes literally from the time he was born. However, he is small for his age and was inhibited by the fact that he couldn’t fit on even the smallest of balance bikes. When he was finally old enough, his start was slower, but when he figured it out he flew. And then he was on pedals before he was three and completely independent on pedals (starting himself, going up hills, etc.) just a couple months after his third birthday. These kids are knocking our socks off with their biking skills, but they are not anything unique – they’ve just been given the tools from an early age.
We’ve seen the benefits of using balance bikes translate into many other areas of their lives. As young children, both boys have developed excellent balance for skiing, hiking, and Stand up Paddleboarding. Biking immensely boosted J’s confidence in himself and helped change his personality from a timid toddler to a confident and self-motivated preschooler.
Mtn Papa and I both learned to ride bikes with the help of training wheels, as did most of our generation. However, training wheels actually do little to build the skills necessary to ride.
Here’s the facts about training wheels:
- They teach kids to balance on training wheels, not on their own two wheels
- They are slow and inhibiting (even for the best of riders – and I’ve seen some VERY proficient training-wheel riders.)
- They don’t do corners well
- They become an unnecessary crutch that prolongs a movement towards riding without training wheels at all.
Since most of us learned to ride with training wheels, teaching our own children a completely different method can be a bit intimidating. It was definitely a learn-as-we-go process. Looking back on it now, though, it really wasn’t difficult.
Here’s some good things to remember when using balance bikes:
- The balance that children learn by riding a balance bike is all they need for eventually riding a pedal bike. Training wheels only provide an unnecessary crutch during transition stages. In fact, training wheels only teach children how to ride a bike with training wheels!
- It’s ok for kids to ride a balance bike until they are comfortable with pedals. They come in a variety of sizes to accommodate all ages of kids. If your child is not ready for pedals for 3 years, it is perfectly ok and normal. Strider bikes even makes a 16″ and a 20″ balance bike for kids aged 6+ and 12+ respectfully. They are for learning, for doing tricks, and for helping with balance and coordination for bigger kids and adults.
- Kids can start as young as they can fit on a bike and walk well (usually around 18 months). The progression is them walking while on the bike, then sitting down on the seat and walking, then running and balancing. There is no “right age” that it happens.
- Relax and let your child have fun. Any sort of pressure usually has adverse effects. The main goal is to help them love biking.
- Once they get the hang of it, children ride much faster on a balance bike than they can with training wheels. It provides them freedom of movement, an opportunity for independence, and continuing practice on their balance. The emotional benefits go much further than the bike.
- Skills learned while biking are not restricted to JUST biking. The balance training and strength transfers to skiing, climbing and stand up paddle boarding just to name a few.
- As a parent, there is much freedom for you too in the fact that they can keep up at a younger age while you walk/bike/run with them – you get out, they burn off some energy.
But, how do they learn how to pedal?
Many times the argument for training wheels or a tricycle is learning how to make the pedaling movement and strengthen their muscles. While there is some validity to that, both of our kids (and most of the others I know who learned in the same way) did not ever ride either. When you can put your child on a balance bike before they are two, there is no need for a tricycle. Remember that when they are walking/running on the balance bikes they are building muscles to do the pedaling. The balance is the hard part – pedaling comes when they’re ready and is much less of an obstacle than most people think.
My kid just will NOT ride a balance bike!
I have some very good friends with kids that were offered a balance bike, but just refuse to do it. They have no interest nor motivation. Here’s the reality – some kids will be crazy about biking, others will not. However, it’s important to not give up too early (again – those larger balance bikes are a great tool!)
Here’s some tips to help your child:
- Get on a bike too. If they don’t see YOU biking, why would they want to?
- Monkey see, monkey do (AKA “Peer Pressure is a Beautiful Thing”): Get them around other kids on balance bikes. P picked it up much faster because he saw his brother and friends doing it. It’s great for them to see other kids riding pedal bikes too, but they’ll follow quicker when everyone is doing the same thing.
- Get out there a little bit every day. Even just 5 minutes.
- Making your biking time special family time or one-on-one with a parent time.
- Bring the bling – a fun horn or some streamers makes a huge (HUGE) difference sometimes. Silly, but true!
- Relax – they’ll do it when they’re good and ready.
- Help them foster a love of bikes (and therefore a desire to learn) any way you can. Using Trail-a-bikes or a WeeHoo is a great way to help the family continue to get out there.
Finally, remember to model good biking behavior and enthusiasm. Wear your helmet every time (and be sure they have theirs on too from the very beginning.) Teach them traffic rules as you go (stopping at stop signs, etc.) by modeling and talking them through it.
Balance bikes come in different sizes
Not all balance bikes are the same size or shape. They come in many different materials too (wood, metal, pneumatic tires, polymer tires, etc.) Some have hand brakes, some do not. I always say the best option is to see them in person. However, in this day and age, that isn’t always possible. It’s usually just making your best guess on sizing and purchasing online. Here’s a rough outline on the sizing of some of the bikes we have used:
- Smaller bikes: WOOM1, Islabikes Rothan, Haro, Strider*
- Medium bikes: Burley MyKick, Specialized Hotwalk*
- Larger bikes: Joovy Bicycoo BMX, Joovy Bicycoo (slightly shorter than the BMX)*
- Big, Big bikes: Strider 16″, Strider 20″*
*this list just mentions a few that we have tried – there are MANY options out there now*
You can also just take the pedals off a normal bike for learning. It works, but spending ~$100 or so on a lighter, smaller balance bike is a worthwhile investment in our opinion. In fact, we think that it’s some of the best money you can spend on a toddler.
Recommended by us: Check out the Axel Project. For every bike purchased through their site, they donate another to a kid in need. Win, win!
Feel free to leave them in the comments. We’ll answer them (and feel free to chine in too!)