It's a perennial parental rite of passage that used to mean skinned knees and worn patience. We've all seen a mom or dad holding onto the seat, and huffing and puffing while running behind a kid learning to ride a bicycle. Then the adults let go and watched anxiously as their children took their chances with the pavement. But there's a better and safer way to teach a child to ride. This method shows kids how to develop their balance, instead of relying on you and your aching back. And the best part: It can take as little as 15 minutes.
Forget training wheels and other funky gadgets. All you need is a child who's ready to learn; a bike; a gently sloping, grassy hill; and a wrench. There's no set age for taking off on two wheels, but usually by 4 or 5 years of age children have enough balance and coordination. Look for an inexpensive beginner's bike with a single gear and a foot brake, which requires less coordination than bikes with hand brakes and multiple gears. Make sure the bike isn't so big that he'll have to struggle to control it; he should be able to put both feet on the ground while standing over the crossbar with an inch to spare.
Find a slope about 20 feet high that's angled enough so the bike will coast down, but not so steep that it will be hard for your child to hold the bike still with his feet. There should be plenty of level ground at the bottom -- about 20 yards in all directions.
The soft grass means less likelihood of skinned knees, but your child still needs a helmet. Avoid baggy clothing and tuck in her shoelaces before you get started. Here's the key bike setup trick: With a wrench, lower the saddle (that's cycling lingo for the seat) so your child's feet can rest flat on the ground as she sits.
About halfway up the hill, position the bike with the pedals level. Put your child on the saddle with his feet on the ground, holding the handlebar straight and arms slightly bent. Have him lift his feet and roll to the bottom of the hill, controlling the speed by putting his feet back on the ground, if needed. Walk the bike back up and repeat until your child can keep his feet on the pedals while coasting down. Once your child has more confidence, move higher on the hill and repeat a couple more times.
Tell your child to apply the brake after the hill levels out. When she can stop safely, work on steering with gentle turns to the left and right. Repeat riding down the hill, turning each direction at the bottom two or three times.
Raise the saddle high enough to allow a slight bend in your child's leg when the pedal is at the bottom of a stroke. Start partway up the hill and have him coast until the bottom of the hill, then pedal while riding circles in the level area. Allow a proud smile to cross your face because your child is now riding a bike.
It's critical to teach your child the importance of helmet safety at the same time you're teaching beginning cycling skills. The Consumer Products Safety Commission notes that wearing a bike helmet can reduce your child's risk of head injury by 85 percent. Make sure the helmet is level when worn, not tilted back or angled to one side. The side straps should form a snug "V" under each ear, and the chin strap should be cinched enough to allow you to slide only two fingers underneath. Many young children put their helmets on backward, so make sure they know which is the rear and which is the front. There's usually a sticker inside pointing in right direction.