You remember learning how to ride a bike. Most adults do. They remember the rattle of training wheels, the first wobbly attempts at pedaling a bike forward without them, the nerves at being unsupported, the many failures — and the euphoria at succeeding. Here’s the thing: The way you learned was probably wrong. Starting in about 2010, a new method to teach a child to ride a bike became dominant.
Instead of adding training wheels to bicycles, those teaching riding took away the pedals. Now instead of clattering around on bikes with training wheels, beginners learn to kick, coast and balance, either on specially made coaster bikes or on bikes with the pedals removed, and only when they have the feel of how the bike should move, do they attempt pedals.
Step 1: Kid Meets Bike
Amy Korver, an education instructor at Cascade Bicycle Club, works with adults learning to ride a bike for the first time and with kids improving their skills through Cascade Bicycle Club camps. She says the movement of pedals complicates the business of balancing on the bike, so it makes sense to leave it until later.
With learning cyclists, it is essential to provide them time and space to mess around on their own and get used to their machines. So make sure your kids have time to dawdle around schoolyards or intimate, flattish parks (see the list below), and try and fit the pedal-less bike in the car when you’re heading to a campground.
“The more time you let your kids ride around a little bit and try out, the better.”
Step 2: Learn to Pedal
When do you put on the pedals? Korver recommends putting it off until the kids can glide a full 10 seconds without putting their feet down, and then do it slowly, and deliberately. First, put on the pedal for the kid’s dominant foot, and if all goes well, follow it with the other.
“I tell people ‘Keep your eyes up. Keep your eyes up and listen to how your body feels.’”
And if for some reason, it doesn’t go well the first time, don’t worry about it. Take the pedals off again and try again later.
“The worst thing you can say is, ‘Oh, it should be working.’”
Step 3: Play on Two Wheels
After the first liftoff, kids will still need to spend a while getting used to controlling the bike, steering it at speed, and using the brakes. As with the time before pedals, this means a lot of unstructured time, playing on their own.
For a while, the smallest hump in the ground at your neighborhood park may loom in the imagination like Alpe d’Huez as kids adjust to powering up it, and then gaining the confidence with their brakes to allow them to zoom down.
A couple of fun places for kids to hone their bike-control skills and get themselves savvy about traffic rules: The White Center Bike Playground at Dick Thurnau Memorial Park is a stretch of pavement marked with a complex set of traffic directions and lane markings. And behind the Cascade Bicycle Club offices at 7787 62nd Avenue Northeast in Magnuson Park is another bike playground open to the public.
Step 4: Family Bike Ride
Once your kids have gained dome confidence on two wheels, it is time to think about going out in traffic with them. It’s important not to be ambitious about the first trips, Korver says.
“Go somewhere really close, something really easily attainable, and plan on taking a lot of breaks,” she says.
Even if you are just going two or three blocks, ride the route ahead of time and take a good look at it to identify the challenges likely to come up for small people on bikes. Talk to the kids before setting off, making clear your expectations about keeping to the right of the street, obeying stop signs, and other traffic directions. If you’re going out in a large group, try to have an adult at the front and at the back of the mass of kids.
“No matter what you do, you’re always going to be more nervous than your kids are,” Korver says.
Try out multi-use trails to limit exposure to cars. Recommended trails include Alki Trail or the Burke-Gilman Trail, well-used paths in parks such as Green Lake Park or Seward Park, or join the throngs pedaling down Lake Washington Boulevard on Bicycle Sundays, days when part of Lake Washington Boulevard is closed to car traffic. These places can be crowded, and have their own challenges. Be sure to talk to your kids about staying in single file and being considerate of other trail users.
Also, be aware that you’re likely to get free advice from strangers. Parenting in public and bicycle riding are both activities that move certain people to share their unsolicited insights with you. Doing both at the same time makes you an irresistible target to some.
Make sure that you are the kind of cyclist you want your kids to be, Korver says.
“Children are always watching what you do with everything. If you want them to stop at every stop sign, you’ve got to stop at every stop sign. If you want them to always wear their helmet, you’ve got to always wear your helmet.”
Great parks for your kids’ first bike rides:
Cascade Bicycle club staffer Maxwell Burton suggests these parks for kids who need a mellow space to get familiar with bike handling.
“Here are a few parks that I know of that should be great places for kids to ride while getting used to more complex turns and bicycle handling maneuvers,” he wrote in an email.
- West Seattle
- Southeast Seattle
- Central Area
- South Lake Union
- Northwest Seattle
- Northeast Seattle
Originally published in March 2020
Once you get going:
More on family bicycling around Seattle: Beyond the Burke-Gilman: Kid-friendly bike trails to explore | 5 great family bike rides around Seattle | Seattle family bicycling guide: How to get started