It's just like riding a bike, which is like... it's hard to explain, son!
August 26, 2010 7:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I teach my 5-year old how to ride a bike?

My son, almost 5, mastered his little 12" with training wheels and wanted a "big kid" bike. So we got him a 20", which fits him just fine. But I realized that I have no idea how to explain what he's supposed to do! Current protocol: he gets on the bike in our driveway, I put my hand behind his back and run, pushing him along -- sometimes he pedals, sometimes he doesn't, either way he quickly falls off to one side or the other. This doesn't seem to hurt very much but after about three times he's through for the day, and I can see why -- it doesn't seem like much fun. What am I actually supposed to be doing here?
posted by escabeche to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

Totally works. Although you're already way down the training wheels path, I don't think it's too late to do it this way. Take the pedals off, make sure the seat is low enough, and let him go.

He will learn to balance all by himself, then put pedals on.

When I put the pedals on my son's bike (at 4 years old), he was off, no teaching required.
posted by antiquark at 7:33 PM on August 26, 2010

I took my daughter (who was 5 at the time) to a large soccer field, when nobody was around. We had taken the training wheels off, and she was eager to try it out. I ran behind her, she got some speed up, and I pushed, and ... she did okay. She went for a bit, and then fell over, but she was on grass, so it wasn't painful. She dusted herself off, I caught up, and we did it again.
posted by Alt F4 at 7:34 PM on August 26, 2010

Take the pedals off, a la the balance bike. He'll scoot along until he feels the balance with motion. Once he masters that, put the pedals back on.

Here's another thread about balance bikes.
posted by a non e mouse at 7:34 PM on August 26, 2010

FIrst, explain that he has to pedal every time. Second, if he's pedaling and going fast enough to be stable and yet falling over, he's probably not keeping the handlebars pointed ahead. Tell him to keep his eyes well ahead (not on the ground directly in front of the bike). Just like when you learn to drive, keeping your eyes right in front of you causes weaving. If necessary, give him a landmark (that tree down the block) to look at and focus on the whole time.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:34 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Take off the pedals. Let him learn to use it as a coaster bike similar to this. When he feels confident coasting along in balance, screw the pedals back on.

My kids each learned to ride without training wheels in one weekend with this method.
posted by padraigin at 7:35 PM on August 26, 2010

Antiquark beat me to it.
posted by a non e mouse at 7:36 PM on August 26, 2010

Should have noted: When they "get it" — when it finally clicks — there's this sense of glee that hits both of you. It's a really neat feeling. Hearing your child cry out "I'm doing it! I'm doing it!" as they pedal away from you is both glorious and bittersweet.
posted by Alt F4 at 7:37 PM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I should say that he has a balance bike, and never got the hang of it or really wanted to ride it in the first place.
posted by escabeche at 7:39 PM on August 26, 2010

Check his leg-height compared to the new big bike. If he can't solidly touch the ground, then use the 12" bike with no training wheels and no pedals to teach him how to ride.

Then make a big deal of graduating him to the big bike.
posted by CathyG at 7:40 PM on August 26, 2010

Even if he didn't like his balance bike--I can understand that, my kids played with their friends' balance bikes and saw them as "baby bikes" rather than real bikes--give the idea of taking the pedals off a shot. The worst that can happen is that you spend a couple of minutes putting them back on after a weekend of having it not work out. The best case is that he realizes that he can balance THIS bike, and then when the pedals go back on, he's got a whole world ahead of him.
posted by padraigin at 7:44 PM on August 26, 2010

The day I got my training wheels off my dad just ran behind me pushing me through the yard as I pedaled and fell. Then we did it again. And again. Worked fine for me (and, honestly, I can still picture that night in my mind, including my dad with his 70s mustache and flannel, so it must have been some sort of life defining experience for me to hold onto it for this long).
posted by kthxbi at 7:49 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

What we're doing, without huge success so far, is the old 12" bike without training wheels for lessons. The 16" still has training wheels on it, he much prefers to ride around on that, but we persist, he hasn't given up yet, because he knows his cousin can ride without them.
posted by wilful at 8:01 PM on August 26, 2010

The problem with balance, is it can't be taught.

"In the millisecond that the bike leans 1 millimeter to the right, turn the handlebars 1 millimeter to the right" ain't gonna work.

The subconscious part of his brain is the bit that needs to learn. It can only do that subconsciously.
posted by antiquark at 8:03 PM on August 26, 2010

We got my daughter a bike when she was four or five. It had training wheels and she liked to ride. She always leaned to one side and never figured out how to balance. After reading a thread somewhere, I took off her pedals. She hated it and refused to touch the bike for a couple of years.

This summer she decided to learn to ride. First she walked around for a bit with the pedals off. This wasn't particularly fun and she wanted the pedals back on. I told her I'd put them on if she could coast a car length without touching the ground. She worked on that for about an hour (over a couple of days) before she could do it.

After accomplishing the car-length coast (which made her very proud) I put the pedals back on and had her try the same coasting. Then coasting with feet on pedals. Then pedaling down hill. Then pedaling on the level with me pushing her and holding on. Then pushing and holding on and letting go briefly. By about the third time around the block she was able to keep her balance indefinitely.

Within about two weeks we were doing 3 mile bike rides through traffic and varied terrain.

And yeah, that first time when you let go and they keep riding is awesome. It's right up there with trick-or-treating the first time, and taking those first steps.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 8:15 PM on August 26, 2010

It just takes practice. Maybe falling off three times and calling it a day is just fine. Try doing that twice a day. After a week your son will be able to ride a bike. Make sure his feet can touch the ground when seated at first.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:27 PM on August 26, 2010

Can you take him to a field or some other wide open grassy place? Grass doesn't hurt so bad when you fall and it takes some of the fear out of it.
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 8:32 PM on August 26, 2010

I'm going to try this (there's a link to PDF instructions on that page) when my son is old enough to follow any kind of directions. You can use a regular bike and just remove the pedals until they can coast with their feet up. Then add the pedals back and things apparently work fine from there on.
posted by hammurderer at 8:47 PM on August 26, 2010

One of my children did not have a good sense of balance and was afraid of heights. (I think for him they are related.) He tried and tried and never could do it. I would take the training wheels off and put them back on the next day every weekend for several months. Then I told him enough. Time for a break. He was frustrated and so was I. About four months later he called me at work and said he wanted the training wheels off when I got home. I agreed. When I got home I asked again if he was sure. "Sure I'm sure Pops", he said. He calls me Pops when he is feeling full of himself. I get him on the bike with my hand on the back of his seat. He starts pedaling and I start running with him. He yells to let go. I do. What the heck I think its his knee to scrape. He rode down the sidewalk to our neighbors house about 200 meters away, stopped the Fred Flinstone way, turned and yelled, "See Pops I can do it." When he got back, I asked how he was able to do it. "You know how when you come in every night to tell me a story and kiss me goodnight you ask me what I am thinking about and I say nothing? I was thinking about how [his sister] she does it and I thought I can do that too." he said. He visualized it all the way to success.

Tl;dr, when the time is right your child will know and will succeed.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:02 PM on August 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is the kid who was asking at three why we eat the leaves from plants that grow on the ground but not from trees, right?

Just don't let him fall on his head.
posted by jamjam at 9:07 PM on August 26, 2010

This is a stupid anecdote but when I was trying to figure out how to ride my bike sans training wheels, I was struggling along and the mailman walked by and told me to stop looking behind me and keep my eyes ahead of me. It helped. Bonus - great metaphor for life.
posted by kat518 at 9:08 PM on August 26, 2010

I found this successful. no training wheels, hold the back of the saddle and run with her riding. No propelling, just holding to be there. then when you feel she's under he own steam let go, but keep running along. She won't know you've let go. Then when you feel she's confident you can stop running - you will probably need to anyway.
posted by the noob at 9:14 PM on August 26, 2010

My daughter got a bike when she was about 5, training wheels and all. At some point she wanted the training wheels off. But she couldn't keep her balance and was a bit frustrated so sort of gave up. When she was 7 she really wanted a Razor scooter for Christmas. She got one. She mastered that in about a day. THEN, she decided to try her bike again and ta-da! She could ride it. I think riding the scooter made her realize her balance and it transferred to the bike.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:21 PM on August 26, 2010

Oh, an amusing anecdote too.

My son and I were talking about riding bikes, and I mentioned that you leaned when you turn. He was adamant that you turned the handlebars to turn. I said yes, but you lean as well, or else you'd fall off.

He would have no part of it, and insisted that if you did lean, you'd fall off.
posted by antiquark at 9:56 PM on August 26, 2010

Seconding the scooter thing. My son started goofing off on a Razor scooter when he was barely 4. Took a few weeks but he mastered it. Then we put him on a bike, just because he was curious. He sat on it and...pedaled away. Learning how to balance on the scooter makes the bike that easy.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:34 PM on August 26, 2010

This seems to be easier than the way I was taught.
posted by oceano at 10:55 PM on August 26, 2010

Oh, an amusing anecdote too.

My son and I were talking about riding bikes, and I mentioned that you leaned when you turn. He was adamant that you turned the handlebars to turn. I said yes, but you lean as well, or else you'd fall off.

He would have no part of it, and insisted that if you did lean, you'd fall off.

Your son is a smart kid! It's more obvious if you're a motorcycle rider, but it is true for bicycles as well -- you shouldn't lean. In fact, what you do is slightly turn the handlebars away from the direction you want to go, and then the bike leans for you. It's a typical rookie mistake when learning to ride a motorcycle, to think that leaning makes you turn, and it causes a lot of foolish accidents. Learning the handlebar-turning method makes your motorcycle (or bike) a lot more responsive, and gives you much more stability in a turn.

Try it yourself when you get the chance; ride straight, then try leaning without turning, or leaning and turning into the turn. Then do it again, but don't lean, and turn the handlebars slightly (very slightly) away from the direction you want to turn.
posted by davejay at 12:58 AM on August 27, 2010

Just let him practice by himself on a bit of of grass, I taught myself in an afternoon and was soon racing round our building, much to my mother's dismay as I'd not quite grasped the implications of wet surface on grip and came off my bike spectacularly the following week tearing a hole into my new trousers, nevermind about me getting hurt!
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:11 AM on August 27, 2010

davejay: "Try it yourself when you get the chance; ride straight, then try leaning without turning, or leaning and turning into the turn. Then do it again, but don't lean, and turn the handlebars slightly (very slightly) away from the direction you want to turn."

Given that plenty of people are able to ride and turn perfectly well without touching the handlebars at all...
posted by alexei at 2:04 AM on August 27, 2010

If you're using a balance bike, it would probably help to be on a long slope where the kid can get enough speed to practice balancing without constantly having to push off against the ground.

I personally remember learning with pedals, rolling down a hill and achieving enough balance to be able to pedal. I think practicing balance came before that.
posted by alexei at 2:09 AM on August 27, 2010

I taught both of my daughters how to ride by pushing them around in a big circle over and over with them pedaling while I ran behind them holding on...and then letting go for a bit and then holding on and pushing again. Probably took less than an hour total time for them to "get it". Both were around 5 years old. Training wheels are OK for younger kids, but don't really help learning how to ride a bicycle.
posted by rmmcclay at 3:13 AM on August 27, 2010

I personally remember learning with pedals, rolling down a hill and achieving enough balance to be able to pedal. I think practicing balance came before that.

This is how I learned, but it came about a year after my parents tried to teach me with training wheels and then holding on to the bike and running. I just leaned on the training wheels and rode that way for several months before my parents decided that wasn't doing anything to help me learn. When my parents pushed the bike, any time they let go and it started to wobble, I just jumped off the bike.

I think part of what helped the next summer was I was really ready and wanted to learn badly enough. I just went out in the yard and did it on my own. Not really sure how I knew going down the hill would help, but it did because I didn't have to worry about pedaling and it gave me a tiny bit of speed to help keep me upright.

It didn't take long. Maybe an hour total before I got it and was pedaling on the flat part. The next day I told my parents I was ready for the road.
posted by bubonicpeg at 5:02 AM on August 27, 2010

Training wheels taught me very well. My dad set them so they were really high up, and the bike would wobble left or right, whenever I wasn't keeping the balance.
After a while, the *thock* *thock* got on my nerves so much I started balancing just so it would feel more smooth.

Then we had a brief session with my dad running behind me, chiefly for reassurance. But I also remember that very well. It was awesome knowing my dad had my back. :)
posted by Omnomnom at 5:09 AM on August 27, 2010

Many moons ago, I used a bicycle with sturdy fenders to teach the neighborhood kids how to ride. I sat on the back fender, lending my sense of balance to the operation, while they pedaled. Every single one of them learned to balance the bike on their own, and never once fell off. My recollection is that it took no more than a few hours of me riding on the back before they got the hang of it. Of course, I was much smaller and lighter then. Sigh.
posted by DrGail at 5:18 AM on August 27, 2010

My kid could ski before she could bike without training wheels. So we knew she was capable of balance but it was just not transferring to the bike. But then one day it just clicked and she was going a few car lengths before putting her foot down, then a bit more and within two days she was biking all over the place.

If he is actually falling off as opposed to being able to put a foot down and stop when he loses balance most of the time, take the training wheels off the old bike and use that to teach him first, then switch over. You can raise the seat up if he was getting too cramped.

What helped us was practicing everyday + switching from a parking lot to a long flat street. The parking lot was big but the street was longer so we didn't have to worry about turning at all. Also helpful once she got going a bit was having my own bike along so I didn't have to jog 50 feet, give her a push, jog over again, etc. It was much nicer to get her started then ride along with her until she needed help again.
posted by mikepop at 5:39 AM on August 27, 2010

Looking back on my own experiences as a not very balanced little kid (perhaps a legacy of severe chronic ear infections, ultimately treated with X-rays) trying to learn to ride a bike, I think pedaling the bike, and especially pedaling standing up off the seat was the key to my success.

By pedaling standing up, it seems to me a person is shifting his or her center of mass, and the center of mass of the bike back and forth in opposite directions across the vertical plane of the center of mass of the whole system, as well as shifting that center of mass of the whole system back and forth across its plane of perfect balance, and that those two sets of back and forth motions contribute mightily to not falling over.

So I would say put the training wheels on his 20-incher until he learns to pedal strongly standing up off the seat, then have closely supervised sessions where he tries it without the training wheels.
posted by jamjam at 3:43 PM on August 27, 2010

I learned to ride a bike at 26. What helped was: being told that you needed to keep pedalling to stay up; how to turn - the trick being that if you look toward where you want to go the bike will turn that way (the handlebar turning is hard to get out of - I still do it now and fall off), that the brakes are there to help you if you panic and need to stop, and that you don't need to pedal all the time and let the bike's momentum do the work. I struggled with the last one and used to ride at top speed until I went straight into a bandstand and landed three feet away chest-first.

My boyfriend didn't hold the seat, but would show me how he did things on it then let me have a try; we went to the park so the grass was there to cushion the fall. The training wheels will help him get used to it. I also had a drop-frame bike which was easier and more comfortable for me - the tilting aspect to getting on a cross-bar frame made me too nervous to learn on MrMippy's. I still struggle - my balance is very poor - but I can now actually ride a bike, which is something I never, ever thought I'd be able to do.
posted by mippy at 3:05 PM on August 28, 2010

We did it! Or at least we're over the hump. What succeeded: I ran alongside him, holding onto the bar between the handlebars. I let go for longer and longer intervals until it was clear he could balance by himself. And now he can ride! (Well, he still needs a start from me.) I think it helped his balance that he's been riding his scooter a lot.
posted by escabeche at 12:49 PM on October 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Congratulations to your son-- and you!
posted by jamjam at 12:54 PM on October 10, 2010

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