One of THE most common biking-related questions we get here at TMM is how to teach a kid to pedal a bike…and why their kid is having such a hard time with it!
As a team we have gathered our best tips AND best stories, because we’re all in this together.
Spoiler – not ALL kids pick up pedaling easily! And that’s ok.
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How to Teach a Kid to Pedal a Bike
To start, below you’ll find our best tips to get a child to pedal for the first time…AND foster a life-long love of biking.
Again, let us make it very clear first and foremost that every single kid is different. If you’re child is struggling with pedaling, that doesn’t mean something is wrong with them OR you.
Start with a Balance Bike before you learn how to pedal
Learning to pedal with training wheels and learning to pedal with NO training wheels is a completely different skill. Therefore, we highly encourage families to start their kids on a balance bike.
Many kids are ready to try a balance bike at about 18 months – 2 years. However, all five of my kids were closer to 2-2.5 years before they really got the hang of it.
Learning to ride a balance bike teaches them the hardest skill to master – balancing! This takes a lot of patience and practice, but is super fun to watch.
Have an older kid starting to ride? Don’t worry, they’re not too old to learn how to balance too!
How to Teach a Kid to Pedal a Bike First Tip: Choose a lightweight bike
I know this is sometimes hard to swallow, but it really really is worth it to spend the money on a lightweight bike, especially when kids are just learning to pedal.
I have seen SO many kids who are struggling with a heavy bike and as soon as they are on a lightweight bike they pick it up very quickly. This allows them focus on riding instead of fighting a bike that, in some cases, weighs almost as much as them.
We encourage you to check out this post about 5 Myths about Kids Bikes that Every Parent Needs to Know.
Not sure where to find a lightweight bike? Below are the top brands we recommend starting with. They all have the option to purchase a freewheel (which we highly recommend you do!)
Woom Bikes: These are our top pick for kids just learning to ride. They are lightweight, have an upright stance (perfect for timid riders) and are high quality.
Prevelo Bikes: We also love Prevelo bikes – these are great for kids who are a bit more aggressive and would do well with a slightly more leaned over stance.
Spawn Cycles: An excellent lightweight option with more aggressive geometry and off-road capabilities. The Yoji is a great intro bike for kids who will be spending a lot of time riding on trails.
Skip the Coaster Brakes
Coaster brakes are engaged by rotating the pedals backward. Not only are coaster brakes not safe, they also just confuse kids learning how to pedal.
The coaster brake is heavier than the freewheel. The bike is just easier to pedal without it.
When using coaster brakes, an emergency stop is only possible whenever one of the pedals is positioned at the 1 o’clock position while riding. This contains significant risks as the child can only perform an emergency stop whenever the pedal is in the right position.
In case the pedal is in not in the correct position in an emergency situation, your child might not be able to brake adequately. We’ve seen this be an issue for both of our boys.
Introducing the concept of using the hand brake will make their life much easier in the long run and most important of all, much safer. Especially important is the front brake, which delivers the braking power (and can quickly send them over their handlebars if they use it too aggressively!).
When your child is first learning to use the hand brakes, take them on a gentle decline and let them experiment with what compressing each brake feels like on its own. Let them gain some speed while you’re hanging on to them – a backpack can make a great makeshift “harness” that won’t destroy your lower back!
With a bit of speed and momentum, they can feel for themselves how to use the brakes to maintain control. Give them voice prompts on when to squeeze and when to let go. Woom bikes have an especially handy setup with color-coded brake levers, which really helps when littles are still getting the hang of right versus left!
Learning how to work both brakes is essential for children as they grow up and ride more aggressive trails. The coaster brake is just not safe because it only brakes one wheel.
Check out this great video from Buddy Pegs on how to properly adjust your child’s handbrakes to fit them correctly so they can brake easily.
Quick note: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission requires that bikes with a maximum seat height of 25″ or less have coaster brakes. The CPSC rule applies to bike companies, not individual consumers. In the U.S., bikes that fit this description are shipped to customers with a coaster brake, but the bikes from all of our recommended manufacturers also come with front and rear hand brakes. Installing the optional freewheel in place of the coaster wheel allows for the exclusive use of the hand brakes. Make note of this when purchasing a bike, and make sure that you purchase the freewheel kit! You can either install it yourself or take it to any bike shop to have it installed.
Take the Pedals Off
Once your child has outgrown their balance bike and are balancing well, they’re ready for a bigger bike with pedals… but it’s best to get used to the bike first and THEN add the pedals.
A child who has mastered gliding on a standard 12″ balance bike will typically appear to regress a little bit when they jump up to a 14″ – totally normal and not a big deal!
With both of our kids, we have gone through a transition phase where they bounce back and forth between bikes – the balance bike they are comfortable on, and the slightly bigger bike with the pedals off. We try to just keep giving them opportunities to choose the bigger bike without pushing too hard.
Even a few minutes experimenting with the feel of something new is a win!
It may take a while, but the more you give them the opportunity to choose the “big kid bike” the more likely they are to give it a try. Consider making this part of your daily routine, even just on the sidewalk in front of your house or around the block, even for just 5-10 minutes!
Consistency with small kids is a great way to build comfort, confidence, and proficiency.TMM Team Member Jessica
Use a Ramp
A ramp or a small hill are the best places to get a good glide and then be able to start pedaling. It is impossible for anyone to stay upright on a bike that isn’t moving!
As kids learn to balance, either on a balance bike or as they start to navigate pedaling, it helps to give them a boost to their momentum. At the very least, make sure they are not starting out on an incline!
Our little guy took a long time to develop interest in his balance bike. He had it over a year and rarely wanted to ride, and when we did take it out he would never pick his feet up and glide.
Our big breakthrough came when we took his bike to a hiking trail we frequented which had a small pump track near the trailhead. He asked to ride his bike on the ramps and although I didn’t think he was ready I allowed him to give it a try. He LOVED it.
The momentum he got on the hills prompted him to lift his feet more and try to balance. A light bulb went off in my brain and we started riding on long, gentle downhill stretches around our neighborhood and his balancing skills took off.
Now he cruises around with his feet up on long-distance glides. We will use this same technique as we transition to pedals as well.TMM Team Member Emily
Support the Kid, Not the Bike
The more you can allow your child to safely feel how the bike responds to them, the better! This can be a bit scary for both kids and parents in the early stages when everything is wobbly, but there are safe ways to ease into it.
If you try to hold on to your kid’s handlebars, you will often find that you’re battling them for control and actually making them feel less stable. Holding on to the back of their seat is awkward for everyone.
The best way to stabilize them in the early stages is to hang on to them using either a backpack or a gentle grip with your hands under their armpits. This allows you to help propel them forward and also help them stop while they are still getting used to hand brakes.
Common Challenges to Teaching a Kid to Pedal
Below are a few issues that come up when teaching kids to pedal and our solutions.
Issue #1: They’re scared to pedal and/or go too fast
Not all kids jump in right away! Especially kids that feel out of control when they are going fast. That’s ok. Take it easy, don’t push them and trust they will get it on their own time.
Check out this post about handling a reluctant biker – there are lots of very helpful tips!
Issue #2: We don’t have a balance bike (and don’t want to buy one!)
From Team Member, Rita:
Balance bikes were not on our radar when we first started teaching our oldest children (now 12) to bike. We found secondhand 12 and 16 inch (heavy!) bikes, and took it from there. We even bought training wheels, even though we now know they don’t help a whole lot.
Here are the key tips that helped our kids to ride (because of course, everyone except the youngest just learned on the bikes we already had).
Make sure your child is on a bike where they can easily reach the ground with their feet. This helps them feel secure. Let them kick the bike along, with the pedals on. Or, take the pedals off so they can learn to balance without the pedals knocking their shins. Go for walks on level, smooth surfaces where they can get the feel for balancing and steering.
Skip the training wheels–they honestly made my children feel MORE insecure about pedaling independently. Don’t rush into them pedaling–it often makes a child more anxious.
When ready, let your child practice pedaling with you holding the bike for support. Make sure they practice stopping and starting. They might need several practice sessions with you their for support.
When they’re ready to try pedaling, find a spot with slight downhill slope (or rig up a simple ramp, as referenced in an above section). Smooth ground works best (we tried getting our kids biking on our bumpy lawn, but it was always harder).
Help them get pedaling, and then let them fly! Run ahead to catch them if they forget how to stop. Do over many times–practice will make perfect and they’ll be on their own in no time.
Once they are independent on their 12 or 16 inch bike, check to make sure it fits them well. Children very quickly outgrow the smaller sizes, and it’s actually easier for them to balance on a bigger bike than a too small one.
Issue #3: They only want to pedal backwards
This is usually a coordination issue and is resolved with some quick tips. We love the following from Prevelo bikes. Check out their full post here.
Some ways to address coordination issues (from Prevelo Bikes):
Practice Quickly Getting Feet on Pedals: For riders who struggle to quickly get feet on the pedals: Have the rider sit on the bike while you hold the bike upright. Now tell the rider that when you say “pedals”, the rider has to get their feet on the pedals as quickly as possible. Do this a few times until the rider can quickly get their feet on the pedals.
Practice Pedaling Forward Consistently: Try to find way to let your child practice pedaling without having to worry about anything else. If you have a bike trainer that will fit your child’s bike, you can put the bike on the trainer and give the rider an opportunity to work on pedaling without worrying about balance.
If you don’t have a trainer, and if you have the strength, you can accomplish the same thing by letting your child sit on the bike and practice pedaling while you hold the rear wheel off of the ground. I usually do this by grabbing the bike by the saddle and lifting (just make sure your saddle clamp and seat post clamp are both very secure). The goal here is to let the rider experience pedaling so they aren’t learning it while they are also trying to balance a bike.
Examine Bike Setup: Many children will occasionally back pedal. As long as the child pedals forward enough to stay balanced, a little bit of back pedaling is OK. However, if a bike has a coaster brake (a brake activated by pedaling backwards) each time the child does this, the brake will activate. This can frustrate the learning experience and is the reason why we recommend bike with a freewheel and handbrakes only.
Also, if the rider is consistently backpedaling when one foot approaches the top of the pedal stroke, it’s possible that the seat is too low. A seat set too low will make it uncomfortable to spin through the top of a pedal stroke (it will force the rider’s knee uncomfortably high). If you think this is an issue, you can experiment with slightly raising the seat. Be gentle when raising the seat on a first time rider – if a rider appears intimidated by the seat height, lower the seat.
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