Learning how to ride a bike is a classic rite of passage and a skill that once learned is never forgotten. Determining when your child is ready, finding the best spots, and picking the best equipment is imperative to making this a memorable experience. It has been different with each of our three children. They learned at different ages and in different ways, so it helps to know your child and to figure out a tailored plan that will make the experience fun. Here are some tips for how to do that:
READY TO RIDE
The first step is determining if your child is ready. Is he or she asking to learn or interested in bikes? There is no perfect age, although most children start showing an interest between 4 and 6 years old, and the worst thing parents can do is to force it. Learning could take an hour, an afternoon, or even a few weeks, depending on balance, leg strength, and coordination.
The next step is making sure your child has the proper gear, including the bike and a helmet. Bike experts say a helmet should sit level across the middle of the forehead, no more than one inch above the eyebrows. Elbow and knee pads are not a bad idea either. For the bike, the common thinking today is to avoid training wheels and start with a balance bike, which is a bike low to the ground without pedals. Once your child gets the hang of the balance and has built up some confidence, then he or she can graduate to pedals. Sports Basement or any local bike shop will be able to help you find a good one. A recent new find when teaching our youngest was the Balance Buddy. It is an adjustable, removable handle that clips to the bike, so you can help your child learn to balance.
READY, SET, GO
The next step is finding the perfect place to learn. Ideally, the space should be wide, open, and flat to start. This can be challenging in San Francisco, however; thanks to the Shared Schoolyard Project, which opens public schoolyards every weekend year-round, it’s now easier. Some of our favorite schoolyards to ride bikes are Claire Lilienthal Elementary in the Marina, Roosevelt Middle School in Jordan Park, and Sherman Elementary in Cow Hollow.
To ensure optimum success, make sure you are both well rested, well fed, and well hydrated, because this will require a lot of patience. Kids will fall and may be scared the first few times. Help your child up and back on the bike as quickly as possible. If you quit when your child is scared, it will be that much harder to get him or her to try again. In a kind but firm voice get your child going again so the experience can end on a high instead of a fall.
The key concepts to grasp are starting, stopping, turning, and looking ahead. To keep the experience fun and exciting, we made up games like “red light, green light” or “follow the leader,” and my favorite, “ride to the Skittles,” where we put a few Skittles 15 feet away and would keep extending the distance the more comfortable my son became.
If the process becomes stressful, frustrating, and not fun, it may be time for reinforcements. Your child may take direction better from a professional or a coach. There are two great local programs I highly recommend. The Presidio YMCA’s Y Bike program offers many bike and traffic safety education programs for all ages. My favorite is Learn to Ride (presidio.gov), which is offered the first Sunday of each month. It’s free and they even provide the bikes and equipment. We attended one with my middle son, and within minutes after some professional guidance and encouragement, he was off to the races and hasn’t stopped pedaling since.
The other program is WheelKids (wheelkids.com). They have classes for preschool age children using balance bikes to introduce the bicycling fundamentals, as well as youth riding classes, which can be anything from moving beyond training wheels to more advanced sessions such as navigating the city by bike. They also provide private lessons for children ages 5 and up.
Teaching kids to ride a bike can be a bumpy road, and it may not always happen in the way or timeframe you want. But take heart: There is no sweeter moment than seeing your child take off feeling confident and balanced. The process of getting there is as much a rite of passage as riding the bike, so enjoy it. I wish you many happy bike rides in your family’s future.
Liz Farrell is the mother of three young children. Formerly, she was a news producer in Washington, D.C. and in San Francisco.