5 Tips for Bike Riding Independence

The weather is changing. While we are all still staying safe at home through the COVID-19 pandemic, the sun is shining more and the temperatures are warming up. All CDC and Department of Health recommendations to date have stated that it is safe, and even encouraged, to spend time outside, as long as we follow social distancing guidelines. With that in mind, what a great time to help your child learn to ride their bike! Keep reading for tips on how to know if they’re ready to lose the training wheels, and how to ultimately help your child develop bike riding safety and independence.

1. Make sure they are ready.

Taking the training wheels off too soon can lead to increased accidents and/or negative experiences. Here are some signs that your child is physically ready to lose their training wheels:

  • The ability to get onto their bike in a coordinated, automatic fashion. This should look much like getting onto a bike without training wheels: hoist a leg over the seat and onto the pedal, pushing forward as second foot connects with the pedal. If your child takes some time first getting on the seat and then looking down to place feet on pedals, with slow initiation to push pedals, they may not yet be ready to go without training wheels.The ability to get on and off their bike without frequently losing balance or falling.
  • The ability to keep their feet on the pedals without slipping off while riding for at least 25 feet, consistently.
  • The ability to change speeds and handle going fast.
  • The ability to make and judge turns without losing balance.
  • Your child should enjoy biking, spontaneously choose it as a leisure activity, and express interest in losing training wheels.

2. Help motivate

It is normal for children to feel apprehensive about trying to ride their bike without training wheels, especially if they’ve experienced failed attempts in the past. The best motivation for any child is to see other family members or friends also riding their bikes. If this isn’t enough (perhaps because they have other preferred play activities, don’t like the outdoors, or because they have underlying strength or coordination difficulties), coupling a bike ride with another preferred activity is helpful. For example, make a game of pretending to ride to the gas pump to get some gas, draw a highway and signs with chalk, or taking a favorite stuffed animal or super hero figure for a ride. Combining bike riding with a favorite play theme may make it more motivating to the child. 

3. Develop balance and safety responses

Before taking the training wheels off, it is important for children to develop the skills needed to recognize when they are losing their balance, and to catch themselves. Here are some activities that help do just that:

  • Make a game of sitting on the bike with feet on the pedals (with training wheels on), and see how fast you can put both feet on the ground and then back onto the pedals. Now try it one foot at a time and then alternating feet.
  • Next, have them lean their body left and right to see how far they can go before tipping. Then tip on purpose and catch themselves with their legs. For children who express fear at trainers being removed, this is a great confidence-building game you can use to encourage them: “See? You know what to do if you tip! You catch yourself.”

4. Gradually decrease support

To facilitate safety and success, there are a few intermediate stages that we can use before expecting children to safely pedal and keep their balance without training wheels. Here are a couple ideas:

  • Adjust training wheels so that they no longer hold the bike fully upright and symmetrical. This allows the child to feel a limited sideward imbalance and to practice remaining upright. Also, they begin to feel how they must pedal more quickly after push off to maintain an upright position.
  • Discuss with the child how you will be removing the trainers, but they will not use the pedals but rather their feet on the ground to propel. Practice going as fast as they can and especially turning. Continue practicing the activities from step 2. Practicing going down a small slope is also helpful.
  • Use scooters, coaster bikes, and kettle cars for extra practice in developing balance, strength, and coordination for bike riding.

5. Go for it!

When your child is confident in all of the previous steps, it’s time to give it a go. Find a safe, open, flat, smooth parking lot or playground, or even a large unfinished basement to practice on in the beginning. Then, take the trainers off.
Respect your child’s learning style. Some will want to push with their feet and experiment on their own, while some will want you to hold onto to them and the bike again and again until your back is screaming. If you are holding on to them, let them know very clearly when you will be letting go. Do not try to “sneak” away your support so that they are doing it on their own without realizing it. This is likely to backfire.
Most importantly, remember that bike riding takes time and practice. As with anything that we do, we will see the most progress with daily practice. But, the payoff is significant: bike riding improves strength, coordination, spatial awareness, motor planning, and balance. Most of all, developing bike riding independence gives your child confidence, self-esteem, and a recreational skill for life. 

If your child is experiencing extreme difficulty riding their bike, it may be due to underlying motor planning, strength, or coordination difficulties. These may also impact other areas of daily life. If you have concerns about your child’s physical development, contact us for a free physical therapy consultation.

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