The spring Lily Russell turned five, her best friend learned to ride a bike without training wheels and Lily wanted to try too. “We encouraged her to do it when she felt ready — it was a big deal the day we took the training wheels off. But once she learned, she became very competent very fast,” says her dad, David Russell.
There are lots of good reasons for encouraging kids to ride a bike, says paediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan, who lives in Sechelt, BC.
Cycling develops balance and coordination, increases strength and provides an excellent cardiovascular workout, says Rowan. “Not only that, it’s fun!” And cycling is a great activity to do as a family, whether it’s an after-dinner jaunt around the neighbourhood or a weekend tour of bike trails. Read on for a parent’s guide to helping kids get rolling.
Five’s about the right age to think of removing training wheels, says Rowan. To ride on two wheels, along with wanting to try, kids should be able to:
- Stand on one foot for 10 seconds, which indicates good core stability.
- Skip and gallop, which indicates that your child has the ability to easily shift her weight from one side to the other.
- Perform coordinated tasks with the lower body. For example, your child kicking a ball with alternate feet while running.
Once you’ve determined that your child is ready, make sure his bicycle is a good fit. He should be able to:
- Touch both feet flat on the ground with about 1 ½ inches clearance over the top tube.
- Rest his hands comfortably on the handlebars. Looking at your child in profile, you should see a straight line running through the top of his head and along the spine, says Rowan. Leaning too far forward or back makes balancing more difficult.
Have your child sit on the bike, hands resting comfortably on the handlebars, feet flat on the ground. Now push forward and backward. This helps kids find their centre of gravity. The hard part of riding, says Rowan, is learning how to stop. It’s difficult to think about pulling hand brakes or pedalling backward when you’re about to crash. Teach your child how to stop with her feet—continuing to hold the bike, ask your child to put her feet on the pedals and slowly move her forward. As you do so, say, “Feet down!” As Russell was helping Lily learn, he would say, “You’ve always got your feet.” Gradually give your child the power: “You tell me when to take my hands off.”
At first, kids typically say, “Put your hands back on” pretty quickly, says Rowan. This part of the process can take minutes, or it can take weeks. The important thing is to work with your child’s comfort level and her ability. Eventually you’ll be able to do this hanging on to just the seat, and running alongside with your hands off for longer periods. Lily is cautious by nature, so she and her dad took it slowly at first. Says Russell, “I’d just let go for a second, and then say, ‘I’m back.’ Pretty soon it was, ‘You can let go now, Dad.’”
Expect a few spills, says Rowan, but also consider ways you can help to minimize them. “Kids get freaked out when they get going fast and then they tend to crank the wheel,” she observes. Rowan suggests finding a place to practise where there is enough room to ride in a long, straight line without any obstacles. “They’ll soon get the hang of not over-correcting the steering.”
If your child looks like she’s going to crash, grab the kid, not the bike. “It took Lily awhile to learn how to turn around while cycling and in the beginning she put the brakes on a lot,” says her dad.
Don’t forget to get your camera to record the big moment. “It was amazing how fast Lily was able to do it,” says Russell. “It was such a rush when she was free and pedalling on her own. It’s something you just don’t forget.”
According to Safe Kids Canada, 800 children are hospitalized for cycling injuries every year, many with head injuries caused during a collision with a car. To keep your young rider safe:
Insist on a helmet Look for a CSA (Canadian Standards Association) or CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) label. A hand-me-down helmet is only safe if it’s less than five years old and hasn’t been in a crash. And make sure it fits properly, sitting two finger-660s above the brow, with the strap secured so that no more than one finger can fit between it and the chin. For more on helmet fitting, click here.
Stick to the sidewalk Younger kids don’t have the capacity to negotiate traffic while steering a bike. Stick to schoolyards and sidewalks, and be sure to supervise.
Training wheels Q&A
Are training wheels a good idea? Yes, says Sechelt, BC, paediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan. They help kids develop balance, coordination and good posture. Some parents raise the training wheels gradually as kids gain competence, which fine-tunes the body’s balancing mechanism.
How old should a child be to ride a bike with training wheels? Advancing from a tricycle to a two-wheeler with training wheels can happen whenever parents and kids wish, says Rowan. The two-wheeler should be small enough to allow the child to sit on the seat with her feet on the ground.
Do kids learn to brake and slow down on training wheels? Surprisingly, no, says Rowan. “While they offer stability, kids often use their feet, as opposed to the brakes, to slow down, so this skill isn’t fully achieved until the training wheels are off.”