By Steve Calechman
Between crawling and borrowing the car stands the bicycle – the first chance for a child to really take off on his own and chase some dreams – until dinnertime, anyway. But this kind of freedom doesn’t happen magically. Riding a bike requires lessons in balance and propulsion. Susan McLucas, owner of the Bicycle Riding School in Somerville, Massachusetts, hands over these keys:
1. Adjust the bike seat so that your child’s feet are flat on the ground and she can catch herself if she starts falling. She’ll need to first learn how to balance, so remove the pedals. This way, they don’t bang into her legs. Be sure you’ve got a bike with at least one handbrake, however, now that the pedals are gone.
2. Find a vacant parking lot or gentle slope. If needed, give the child a gentle push at the small of the back; let him go and let him find his balance. Encourage him to turn the handlebars into an impending fall to regain control. Walk beside him at an easy pace and make a game of seeing how far he can go with his feet up.
3. Pedal ready? When she can ride a significant length (along a parking lot or playground, for instance) three times without using her feet, incorporate the pedals. At first, bring one pedal up so that she can push down while keeping her foot on it and maintain balance. The other foot can lag behind as she coasts or pushes along. Once that becomes easy, have her bring up her other foot to the other pedal. She doesn’t have to push that pedal at first; just have her keep her foot there until she’s comfortable.
4. Practice stopping. Once your child can peddle a short distance, tell him a UFO landed or a dinosaur ran onto the path. You want him to learn how to reflexively squeeze the handbrake to stop.
5. Gradually raise the bike seat. With the balls of the feet touching the ground, elevate the seat so that the heels have to rise up. Eventually, have only the tiptoes making contact with the ground. Do this gradually over the first few months so that it’s still easy to catch a fall.
Take everything slow to minimize bad experiences. Keep sessions from an hour to 90 minutes; your child should pick up the fundamentals after four times. Most importantly, be supportive. Rather than correcting her after a fall, focus on what she did well. Reminding her that, 30 minutes ago, she couldn’t go 50 feet will keep her motivated and happy.
Related: Make it a rule: No helmet? No bike! And make sure it fits using the Eyes, Ears and Mouth Test.