Learning how to ride a bike is a classic rite of passage and a skill that, once acquired, is never forgotten.
This method is not the only approach, and every rider proceeds at his or her own pace, but we’ve seen kids use it to learn to ride a bike in a single afternoon.
Above all, keep it fun. Also, remember that your child has a unique learning style and may respond to some methods better than others. Pay attention to what works and adapt as needed.
Getting Ready to Ride
You can generally start teaching a child to ride a bicycle between ages 3 and 6. The timing depends on your child’s physical and mental development and comfort level. Don’t force it.
Choosing a Kid’s Bike
Don’t buy a too-large bike that your child will eventually “grow into.” This can slow down or completely halt the learning process.
Get the correct fit: Make sure that your child can stand over the top tube with both feet planted on the ground. He or she should feel comfortable and in control of the bike at all times.
When you’re ready to start your child on the road to self-propelled fun, REI offers a selection of bikes for kids.
Choosing and Fitting a Bike Helmet
The bike helmet should sit level across the middle of the forehead, no more than 1″ above the eyebrows. If the helmet sits high on the forehead, or moves more than 1″ when you push the helmet from side to side or front to back, you need to adjust the fit or you may need to buy a different size.
(You might also consider gloves, elbow- and shinguards and knee pads. Be sure shoelaces are tucked out of the way and avoid loose pant legs.)
Where to Teach Bike Riding
Choose a traffic-free area where a child can learn to ride safely. Find a place that is large, flat, smooth and paved. This location might be a driveway, park path, school blacktop or empty parking lot. Empty tennis or basketball courts can also work well.
Preparing the Bike
Our method for teaching a child to ride a bicycle emphasizes balance first and adds pedaling later. Balance bikes are built for this method, but it’s easy to modify a standard child’s bike as well.
Remove the training wheels. Training wheels help kids grow accustomed to sitting on a bike and using their legs to pedal, but they won’t help them learn to balance.
Remove the pedals and lower the seat: This allows kids to sit upright with their legs straight and their feet flat on the ground. The goal is to help them feel more comfortable and steady as they begin learning balance. (Note: Pedals can be removed most easily using a pedal wrench.)
Properly inflate the bike tires. The bicycle will roll more smoothly and your child will have an easier time coasting when bike tires are inflated to the correct pressure. Look for the recommended tire pressure printed on tire sidewalls.
Learning without Pedals
Scooting and Coasting the Bike
Have your child begin by scooting on the modified bike so that he or she can get the feel of balancing it.
Once adept at scooting the bike, kids can be challenged to pick up their feet and coast. You might hop on your own bike first and show them how to coast with legs outstretched as counterbalances (be sure to model good behavior and wear your helmet).
Then, try some games:
Count to 10 and see if your child can coast with feet up for the full 10 seconds. Gradually add more time as the child gains confidence (try singing the ABC’s while the child coasts with the legs off the ground).
Turning and Coasting the Bike
Once kids have mastered the ability to scoot and coast the bike—and they are enjoying themselves—move on to turning and steering. Start with big, easy, looping turns. Keep things fun with an easygoing game:
- Set up some orange safety cones in a pattern and have your child practice steering between them.
- Place a cracker on the pavement 10 feet away 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. Place a new cracker at 15 feet out, then 20 feet.
Riding with Pedals
Once your child can coast the bike with feet up, make turns while coasting and look ahead while riding, it’s time to replace the pedals on the bike. For now, keep the seat in its lowered position so your child can put both feet on the ground to stop.
Practice pedal awareness
First, have your child sit on the bike with eyes closed while you stabilize the bike. Have the child bring his knees high up above the waist and then find the pedals by searching with his feet.
Pedaling the Bike
Next, teach your child how to start moving from a stopped position.
- Have your child stand over the bike with one foot flat on the ground and the other on a pedal raised at the 2 o’clock position.
- Coach your child to press down on the front pedal. Like the scooting action he or she’s already mastered, this pressure will give the bike its forward momentum.
Steady your child as he or she moves forward by placing a hand on a shoulder or the bike saddle—but let the child learn how to balance and feel comfortable on the bike without assistance.
Steering and Pedaling the Bike
As kids get the hang of pedaling a bike, they can start practicing turns. Encourage your child to do large circles and figure 8’s. Keep things fun by making a game out of steering and turning. Try one of these ideas:
- Set up a line of cones (or other friendly objects) for your child to navigate.
- Or, place a cracker about 15 feet away and encourage your child to try to run over it. It’s not important that he or she runs over the cracker immediately, but it’s good to provide a reachable goal.
- Once simple turns have been mastered, try a more elaborate pattern. For example, you can set out three crackers so that they form an arc on the ground. Encourage your child to try to hit each one.
Stopping the Bike
Have your child practice gently pressing on the coaster brake until he or she can use it without wobbling very much. To practice braking skills, try another game:
- Place a cracker or safety cone about 10 to 20 feet ahead on the ground and have your child try to stop before hitting it.
- Play “Red Light / Green Light.” Vary the distances and encourage ever-faster stops.
As your child becomes comfortable with braking, you can raise the saddle back to a standard position. 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.
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 or crackers and ride it, too. If you use crackers, see who can hit the most. (Make sure your child does.)
Focus on balance and have a “slowness race” where the last person to put their feet on the ground wins.
Remember to reinforce success rather than focus on any mistakes your child makes. One of the most important parts of cycling with very young children is to know when to stop and rest.
Once your child has successfully mastered all these skills, you can move on to bike riding as a family outing.