How to teach your child to ride a bicycle

image This is totally off topic, but every time I tell people this story they love it and say they’ve never heard of this idea before so I thought I’d post it here. I didn’t make this method up (I can’t remember who told me about it, but living in the cycling capital of the US – Boulder, CO – it could have been any one of a hundred different people). We taught our two daughters how to ride using this method when they were around 4 and will have one more shot at it in the near future with our 3 year old son. The idea behind this method is that kids know how to pedal (they’ve been doing that just fine with training wheels) – what you really need to work on is balance and the easies way to do that is to take away all the other distractions so they can just focus on that one thing. Once they have that down they’ll be good to go. Both of our girls learned to ride using the method below in a few hours start to finish (where finish = riding around the block for the next hour by themselves).

Bike prep – Take the bike your child has been riding and remove the training wheels. Now take the pedals off and lower the seat so your child’s feet can very comfortably touch the ground when they are seated on the bike (the bike shouldn’t have to lean over at all for them to do this and they should be able to sit on the seat and touch the ground flat-footed).

Find the right training ground – You’ll need to find a concrete (NOT GRASS!) area for your kids to practice. It should be straight, have no bumps or obstacles and be slightly inclined (very, very slightly). 50 feet should do it.

Learning balance – Starting on the uphill side of your training area, have your child push off on their own down the road. You shouldn’t need to run beside them and you should definitely not hold or touch the bike at all. Their balance will be off and they’ll need to use their feet often to keep upright, which will be easy to do with the bike configured with a low seat and w/o pedals to get in their way.

Repeat – It may take a few times, but your child should start getting the hang of this relatively quickly. As the frequency with which they need to put their feet down decreases, encourage them to lift their feet off the ground a bit more. As they get more comfortable with it you may want to slightly raise the seat so the act of lifting their feet off the ground doesn’t throw their balance off.

Ready for pedals? The step above may take a bit and, of course, you’ll want to be giving plenty of encouragement. Our daughters thought this was a blast (I think they thought it was funny to ride without pedals). We let them do it for a while – making sure they were completely comfortable with balancing their bike. Once your child gets the hang of it, put the pedals back on the bike, but keep the seat low so they’ll have no trouble getting a foot down in case they need to. In our case, our kids took off around the block the very first time they tried to ride with the pedals back on. In other cases you may want to run the incline a few times while they pedal so they have the hang of it.

The best part of this method is that neither my wife nor I ran behind a bike holding onto the seat a single time. Seriously – not once. The kids had fun and they felt a great sense of accomplishment learning to ride so quickly. Two years later they are trail riding (this is Colorado, mind you).

  • Kevin

    Seth – saw you last night at TFA function. That was a great event. You should check our, from what I have heard several VC firms have done very well investing in companies that sell these no pedal bikes for kids. I know 2 year old now riding bikes with no training wheels.

  • John Minnihan

    Great approach.

    Both my boys learned to ride pretty easily using the classic approach in our cul-de-sac, & in fact both were on motorcycles almost as quickly at 4 & 5 yrs old. The youngest one used training wheels on his motorcycle the first season, btw – training wheels are awesome.

  • Jake

    Francie and I just bought a pair of Strider bikes, and my 16 month old can push it along just fine with no help, albeit slowly. My three year old who wouldn’t touch his trike is trucking around all over the block and we can hardly keep up!

  • hdemott

    Love it. I read a technique in bicycling magazine which is very much like yours except – we used a grassy hill (slight incline) and we kept the pedals on so that they could get the feel of putting their feet up. Very quick learning curve – few hours and they could pedal down the hill on their own. The good news about grass is that kids don't get frustrated if they lose their balance and fall (it is soft and they are close to the ground to start with) and because the grass is hard to pedal in – you never get going all that fast – so when you make the transition to the road – it is far easier.

  • MWood

    This method is great! We knew people who started their kids on bikes in similar ways and we bought our twins Strider bikes when they turned 2. They started riding in the living room and backyard, with helmets which was kind of a hilarous sight but seems to have instilled the habit. They'll be 3 soon and it is impressive to see how well they can cruise around. When they get big enough for bikes with pedals it's going to be an easy transition.

  • We started our daughter on a balance bike at 2 when we found out about them. Our son is four and has a bike with training wheels and pedals. It's amazing how much more balanced she is!

  • Thanks Seth, I am going to try that with my son. Are you doing this with your three year old son soon? I want to hear how it goes. It seems like three should be ok to start trying.

  • My wife just showed me this bike that does kind of what you are talking about:

    Have you ever seen these?

    Seems like it might make more sense to just take the pedals off though.

  • Robert Burke

    I was about to post a comment about my son's Strider bike and the fact that I hope he never has to have training wheels but looks like I was beaten to the punch.

  • smcqueen

    Another way is to work on balance before pedalling. Have you checked out Like-a-Bike? My 4 year old daughter zooms around on it, going down hills with her feet up, turning, etc. We haven’t transitioned to a pedal bike yet, but everyone I know that has gone this route, bypassing training wheels, swears by it.

    • That’s really the basic premise behind this method. Balance is hard. Pedaling is pretty easy. Much better not to confuse the two! I have seen Like-a-Bikes. You can also make a scootch bike by taking the pedals off a smaller bike. I agree on bypassing training wheels. We used them for our daughters, but are going to skip them for our son.

      • Dixiecowgirl_1987

        I have started teaching my 4 yr old son to ride a bike but he does not understand pedaling it at all.. Any ideas on how to teach him to pedal it? My mom suggested tying his feet to the pedals but i dont really agree with that.

        • I don’t like the idea of tying his feet. Sounds like that would scare him off. Did he ride a trike? The general theory is that they learn pedaling young, but balance is the hard part. But since balance is difficult, I’d likely focus on that, then when you put the pedals on, show him how it’s done and give him some time to learn it (since that’s the easy part). If his balance is really good, you can also try raising the seat some so he has no other choice but to pedal! Let me know how it goes…

  • Check out the Specialized Hotwalk. Less expensive and more kiddie-proof than the Like-a-Bike.

    • Much better. At some point the price just doesn’t justify a special purpose bike (at least for a kid – as the owner of 6 bikes I allow myself a little latitude on that!).nnI just picked up my new Specialized Epic EVO from you guys this week. It’s a piece of art. Totally freaking amazing (and shockingly light!). Thanks!

  • Greeley

    As soon as they come out with an 8″ bike, we can get A. going on a two-wheeler.

    • No joke. I tried to put him on the pink bike (10″) but even with the seat completely lowered his feet were no where close to touching the ground! Pretty funny, actually. I was going to try to skip the training wheel phase with him completely. We’ll see how that goes…

  • Thanks for this article! It has been more challenging to teach my boys than I thought it would (though my Dad told me I was just as timid so whatever, ha). I’m definitely going to try your techniques with my younger son. Another article that has helped get my kids on board with bikes vs. video games all day was –a Q&A w/ bikes and safety experts if you’re interested.