There is no doubt about it, balance bikes are fun! These playful little bikes have proven to be the perfect introduction to riding a bike. But how can it help your child master the art of balance? We caught up with Steve Miller, Cycling Officer at Newport Live and Wilson BC, our sponsored rider in France to bring to you the ultimate guide on how to use a balance bike!
1- WHY USE A BALANCE BIKE?
2- WHAT SKILLS DO BALANCE BIKES DEVELOP?
3- WHAT AGE TO GET STARTED?
4- GETTING STARTED
5- GETTING THE RIGHT FIT
6- STAGES OF LEARNING TO RIDE ON A BALANCE BIKE (WHAT TO EXPECT)
7- MASTER THE SKILL
8- HOW TO MAKE IT FUN
9- ALTERNATIVES TO BALANCE BIKES
10- KNOWING WHEN YOUR CHILD IS READY FOR A PEDAL BIKE
Balance bikes are a playful way to introduce your child to the world of cycling as it liberates them to practise riding a bike their own way, and most importantly, at their own pace. To be fair, the easy to carry bike has its incentives for parents too as it has taken shape as a convenient accessory to occupy the little ones during trips to the park, shops or beach. With its various benefits, it comes as no surprise the balance bike has become a staple to every toddler's gift list! That said, balance bikes do have a function to fulfil and owe their success to the adaptable approach they offer each child during the process of learning to ride a bike.
Balance bikes have proven a sound way of teaching your child to ride a bike by helping them refine the core cycling skill of balance. To help up you make the most of your child's journey on a balance bike we sought advice from our sponsored rider of France, Wilson Berger Cherrey and Steve Miller, at Newport Live, to find out the technique, various stages and useful tips to help you guide your child down the right path.
Here is a little background about both our experts...
Steve Miller, Cycling Officer at Newport Live is the founder of their hugely popular tots cycling programme that aims to create a healthier and happier community. The thriving initiative was rolled out six years ago and has recently partnered with us to expand the scheme, which sees 40 children riding and balancing our Frog Bikes every Sunday at the Wales National Velodrome, in Newport.
Frog’s sponsored rider in France, Wilson Berger Cherrey is probably as charming as an ambassador can get! But behind that cherub smile is a fierce balance bike racer, who has won many awards for his balance bike skills, owing to his refined technique and unnerving speed. His cycling journey began from the tender age of 18 months, and there is no denying he took to it like a frog to water - excuse the pun!
Why use a balance bike?
Riding a bike is a complex task of coordination for a child which involves balancing, pedalling, steering and braking. Traditionally, we have been taught to pedal first with the use of stabilisers and then gain balance by removing them. Over the years we have moved away from this approach, taking greater preference to teach our children balancing first. As Steve explains
“Balance is the core skill to achieve to make riding a bike easy and more successful. If you lose your pedal while learning to ride, being able to balance will give you the time to reset and go again without stopping”.
In essence, balance helps all riders keep their momentum in the event of any deterrents. As an essential cycling skill it helps improve bike handling and confidence, so is best perfected early.
What skills do balance bikes develop?
It is clear to see that balance bikes are a fun way to introduce your child to the world of cycling, but getting the practice in early can help a child's development in many ways. As Steve explains, balance bikes are a powerful way to promote “Confidence, not having the fear of falling and that it may hurt!" and help to "Develop motor skills and core skills which will only benefit other life skills and activities”.
Children will instantly feel more confident on balance bikes largely because they have control. With both feet on the ground, they have a sense of security and the reassurance that they are firmly in the riding seat. With greater control, children are liberated to explore and push themselves at their own pace while benefiting from the freedom to choose a comfortable speed. This early coordination practice can significantly enhance their core motor skills and cognitive development. As the renowned Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget found through his in-depth child development studies “Play is the work of childhood”. His studies dictate our curriculum today and he is famed for leading the way for learning through play in early years education. As a firm believer of liberating children to take a creative lead, he explains “children require long, uninterrupted periods of play and exploration”. His research reinforced, for effective learning children need to reason and understand learnings of the world for themselves, which is exactly what balance bikes liberate the young rider to do.
What age to get started riding a balance bike
Every child is different so it is important to tune into your child’s requirements. Some children are walking at nine months, whilst others much later but there really is no race, it is just important to make sure they are confident walkers before they get started on the balance bike! Our balance bike range caters for children from one to four years of age, so you can be rest assured there is a suitable product out there for them.
For the older child, our First Pedal range gives you the added flexibility of removing the pedals to practice balance and then adding them back on at a later stage. As Steve explains, there is no definitive start or cut off age:
“we did run sessions from 18 Months but we now start from two years. We do allow (children) younger than two years old, but we tell parents they may be required to walk around with them. It’s normally the parents that want them to come younger and are happy just to have a go with them.”
As you are in the early stages of your child's cycling journey, it is important to keep it fun to help maintain their interest and enthusiasm. Wilson BC’s parents found he loved the “Speed and jumps! ” that really sparked his enthusiasm.
To help him get started they found it was key to “make sure he had decent equipment ... An ultra-lightweight practical and attractive bike! Not forgetting the helmet, knee pads & elbow pads”. To their surprise, Wilson was still keen to ride his balance bike even when he learnt how to ride his First Pedal and by following his lead, Wilson's parents found his talent as a balance bike racer. It’s fair to say, “since he discovered the balance bike, he never stopped!”
Get the right fit
An important element of the balance bike stage is comfort, which is why it is important to ensure the bike is the right fit for them. Dr Tom Korff, Head of Research & Development at Frog Bikes explains this is why:
“our bikes are not scaled down adult bikes, as children are not miniature adults. At Frog, we put the child into the centre and design our bikes around the child’s unique anatomy and his/her unique needs. To do this, we use an evidence-based approach, and we always base the design of our bikes and the selection of our components on scientific data”.
Through our rigorous research, we developed a unique FrogFit technology, which our independent stores use to help you correctly measure and adjust the bike to suit your child.
As parents ourselves, we understand the growing child has evolving needs, so have built all our balance bikes with a quick release seat post clamp so you can quickly change the seat height as required.
That's the bike sorted, now it's time to pay some attention to your child's posture, Steve recommends encouraging your child to position their “tiptoes on the floor and a slight bend in knees when pedalling”. This is a comfortable position, which will allow your child to play freely but also encourage stability and balance. If you think about it balance is all about managing gravity, or in technical terms, finding the centre of gravity to maintain balance. In our bodies, the centre of gravity is just above our waist, so when we bend over too far to the side we topple over. Take yoga as an example, most poses require you to focus on your core to maintain stability and balance. More importantly, balance can be improved over time so by encouraging your child to adopt the right habits early on will set them off on the right path.
Stages of learning to ride a balance bike
As bikeability course providers, Steve shared his expert view on the stages of learning to ride on a balance bike. He explains “we tell children to make sure they sit at all times, this encourages them to scoot and not walk with the bike. When a child gains speed we then encourage to lift legs to start the engagement of the balancing skill that’s required. Once a child can lift their legs and hold a straight line for many seconds we encourage to try pedals”. In short, Steve highlights key three stages of learning - sit, scoot and glide. By breaking it down in these simple stages it will help your child master one skill before moving onto the next.
STAGE 1 - Sit
Allow your child to sit on the bike and just familiarise themselves with their new equipment. As they get comfortable you will find they begin developing confidence at their own pace. During this stage, we find most children prefer to just walk along with the bike and as their confidence grows they will pick up speed and challenge themselves. This initial stage is all about exploring and gaining confidence, to help build your child's courage and just go for it.
STAGE 2 - Scoot
This is where things start getting serious, so parents, get prepared to get your running shoes on! As your child develops greater confidence, they will instinctively begin scooting along. Soon enough they will start to push their personal boundaries, which will motivate them to develop their tenacity and determination to cycle. The time and development process will differ from one child to another, but it is important to remember that what they require from you is motivation. So be sure to overload them with plenty of positive encouragement and praise!
STAGE 3 - Glide
Now that your child is a scooting pro, encourage them to raise their feet for short periods of time and glide. This is how they will master the skill of balance. As every child is different it is important to let your child work at a pace they feel comfortable. Once they are ready, begin encouraging them to raise their feet for short periods of time. A fun way to encourage this is by letting them ride down slopes, as they will naturally begin gliding to make the most of the ride. As they develop greater confidence head over to pump tracks, skate parks or a park with slopes, where they can really test those skills.
Master the skill
Balancing is all about plenty of practise. As they grow increasingly confident they will, believe it or not, have more fun and independently seek out greater challenges. This is something Wilson’s parents recognised early on, so they took their balance bike “everywhere and all the time! This replaced his pushchair! The balance bike is very playful and convenient to carry”.
As your child flourishes with energy and enthusiasm, now would be a good time to introduce the finer cycling skills such as braking and controlling speed. Steve agrees that braking is a key skill best learnt early on, as he explains it is important to “teach a child to squeeze not to snap at brakes…How to brake when riding is something that is carried on through your life of cycling”.
Our balance bike range is well-equipped with child-size brakes that are adjustable to provide the best fit for your child. We understand active kids can sometimes get a little carried away so they offer the added benefit of a steering lock, which acts as a safety mechanism to prevent any serious falls and damage. Steve reflects it is good to allow the child to experience a fall as it is just part of the natural learning process, but “steering locks are new to me with Frog Bikes and I find it helps rider from oversteering”.
Naturally, your child will be proud of all their achievements so far, which over time will boost their enthusiasm and drive. With such positive energy and fast developing proficiency, now is the ideal time to guide them further by enrolling them onto a bikeability course. It’s not common practice, but they can really equip children with essential skills and safety knowledge for their lifelong cycling journey. Steve explains “we cover the basics of riding a balance bike, followed by learning to ride. Once a child can ride we have a first pedal bike session which will help children develop simple skills needed to ride out in the park, such as braking, cornering, starting alone and riding in a straight narrow line. Once a rider is confident then the cycle skills session teaches riders basic cycle proficiency skills, advanced braking/cornering and we then go into Go-Ride skills gears 1,2,3 as qualified British cycling coaches”.
Making it fun
It is easy to understand that one rule can never apply to every child! Some children, such as Wilson, will take to riding a bike very naturally, whilst others may find it a challenge. As parents, all we can do is guide them through the challenge and give them the time and space to figure it out for themselves. As Piaget found, learning through play is an effective way of preparing your child with numerous key life skills, so now is the perfect time to hone their tenacity, perseverance and problem-solving skills. There are many fun ways you can do this and set a new light on the challenge at hand. Steve recommends some activities that have worked really well for Newport Live:
“We always find getting the parents involved is the best, some children get nervous and shy around new people.”
“We play a game where the child had to chase their mum/dad and try to ride over their toes, for some reason kids love to try and hurt their parents!”
Set fun challenges
“Another good game is to have a bridge made from cones and whilst going over the bridge the children have to lift their legs so the crocs don’t bite their feet.”
Surprisingly, a common problem Steve has faced when moving forward from this stage is that some children find it difficult to grasp the concept of pedalling. He reveals "I hate using stabilisers but…… they act as a good turbo trainer at home and if you stick your child’s stabilisers on books it lifts the back wheel and they can learn to pedal whilst watching Paw Patrol!!!" This innovative suggestion would make a great rainy day activity but is effective because it encourages the child to focus on the single skill of pedalling.
Alternatives to balance bikes
Speaking from experience both Steve and Wilson’s parents agree the alternatives, namely, stabilisers are not quite as effective.
Wilson’s parents recommend:
“parents who want their kid to be more into cycling need to provide their children with a light and strong balance bike. And above anything else, don’t put stabilisers... go directly from balance bike to the bike without wheels”.
This is justified by Steve as he explains:
"anything that supports a child’s balance is just the same as using stabilisers. This will develop bad leaning habits, which will hinder the chances of riding a bike sooner”.
If your little one is having trouble getting to grips with it all, rest assured there are a few other alternatives!
This height adjustable handlebar is designed to help you support your child during their cycling adventures, at your own level of comfort. It easily attaches to the rear of the bike, in an upright position, allowing you to easily catch hold of it when you consider your child needs some extra support. As your child grows more confident on their bike, the handlebar remains a stable and safe addition for you to use or remove as you please.
This ergonomically designed vest allows you to safely support your child using a secure padded handle along the back. It is an easily transferable and convenient solution that allows you to provide the level of support that suits you. Along with this, comes the added reassurance and comfort that you can easily help your child when needed. The padded vest is available in a choice of bright colours and has been finished with soft to touch materials for added comfort.
For many children getting to grips with the motions of pedalling is the problem itself. To reassure you, all that is required is practice to make progress! Using a bike trainer children can simply focus on pedalling, at their own pace. This is a more costly alternative, but as you can use the bike trainer indoors you will get plenty of use out of it and set your child mini-challenges to make it even more fun!
Knowing when your child is ready to move from balance bike to pedal bike...
You will know your child is ready to move onto the pedal bikes when they have developed excellent control and confidence. Steve explains “we find most children ride from around four years old with us. We do get the odd 3 year old whose parents have got them on balance bikes from a young age. Also, we get a few older riders who come to our 6 years + session and still have not grasped the basics. In essence, every child will learn at their own pace so again, it is just a case of taking their lead”.
So there you have it, you now have a balance bike professional at your very hands. The only question that remains is, can you keep up to their pace?
We would love to know how you got on, or if you have any more tips, just add your comments into the fields below.