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Watching your child learn how to ride a bike can be a very exciting moment for a parent. And with summer here, perhaps you want to take it to the next level by leaving your driveway and going on a short ride on neighborhood streets, to the park, or even the local trails. Bike to Play week, hosted by Bicycling and Degree (the official deodorant of Bike to Play Week), is the perfect time to get out on your bike with your kids, as well.
But considering safety, the unavoidable tantrums, and, most importantly, keeping it fun, riding a bike with kids can be a stressful undertaking for any first-timers.
Michael Anderson is a father of two and an avid cyclist who calls Grand Rapids, Michigan home alongside his wife, Lindsey. Their daughters, Margo and Maya, ages 4 and 1, love riding bikes with dad on his Yuba Mundo cargo bike, customized with child seats and a hitch for the kids’ bikes.
Anderson sees riding bikes as a tool to help his daughters build confidence, self-reliance, awareness, and planning skills. Additionally, it helps him share the joy that comes along with riding bikes.
After teaching Margo how to ride a strider bike on their driveway and at a nearby parking lot, Anderson knew it was time for the pedal bike, which she took to right away. Since then, their local parks and trails have become locales for all kinds of family adventures on the bike.
While patience is always required when riding bikes with your kids, here are a few tips and advice from experts that will inspire confidence in you and your child.
First of all: wear properly fitting helmets! Anderson and his family love Nutcase helmets; they won’t “pinch” under the chin, and their magnetic buckles make it easy for the kids to secure on their own. They also carry a nice variety of patterns and colors.
Do not forget to inspect your bikes before you leave for a ride, risking that a flat or a rusty chain will ruin the day. Make sure their tires and drivetrain are in good shape in order to set them up for greatness. Maybe even get them involved in the process, counting PSIs, or hosing down a dirty bike after a day in the trail.
Location and duration
Lisa Hom, a pediatric occupational therapist at the JFTN Preschool in Brooklyn, New York, points out that it is best to start small and work up. Start by riding for 10 to 15 minutes, and then the caregiver or parent can reassess to see if the child is fatiguing or getting flustered. Hom recommends making the destination a familiar place, resting frequently, and taking time to explore the surroundings. An empty parking lot is a great place to start before moving onto a busier environment like a park, where the child can get distracted or overwhelmed.
Anderson recommends scouting a nearby park, a safe bike path, or a neighborhood trail to get started. Last spring, he started bringing his daughter to a big park near the house that has wide paved trails. They can ride a couple of miles without getting bored or encountering cars, and she is learning some park etiquette, such as saying hello when approaching others, giving space, and moving out of the way when appropriate.
They have also done a couple of rides to an elementary school nearby. Mom and dad corral Margo as needed, and together they discuss safety and how to navigate intersections. Margo is getting better with the backyard trail too: pedaling more, staying on the trail, and navigating turns.
Snacks and comfort
Cyclists already know that snacks are everything, and the same goes for children. Snacks can be sustenance, a treat for a job well done, and a remedy for grumpy moods (or, in the case of adults, bonking).
“Sometimes snacks are the destination of the ride [coffee shop, ice cream, etc.],” Anderson says, “and sometimes snacks are the way to survive until we get to the destination.”
On the topic of comfort, be mindful of clothing; try snug-fitting, longer spandex-style shorts; baggy shorts can ride up and chafe. Additionally, be aware of fringes, shoelaces, and cords that could get caught in wheels or a drivetrain.
According to Hom, caretakers should be aware of the child’s fitness level. If the child begins to complain or becomes emotional, this may be a sign that you should switch activities or head home. Most children at this age can express how they feel, so ask them to describe what they are feeling, or about any pain or discomfort in their body.
When the first time around doesn’t go great, take time to relax before giving it another go. Parents can reintroduce the activity days later by first discussing what happened last time, what worked, what didn’t and prepare for the round.
Anderson is all too familiar with tantrums, but he doesn’t let these discourage him: “You’ll never completely avoid tantrums. ... Your kid has to get used to time on the bike just like you’ve had to. If things start getting rocky, that’s when I look for a fun stop, activity, or break out a snack.”
Development and life lessons
Riding a bike is more than just a fun activity for the kids. Bilateral coordination, visual motor skills, motor planning, getting both sides of the brain conversing, muscle strength and endurance; as well as lessons on the environment, following rules, and improving patience are just a few of the areas that a child can develop during this activity, says Hom.
Aside from the mechanics of riding a bike, Anderson finds that his biggest successes in teaching Margo important biking lessons (and maybe life lessons) come by simply riding with her.
“I’d go up a slope that was a little too steep and stop, or step off the bike into the side of a hill, not down the hill, backing up the bike to get unstuck from a branch, turning a too-big bike around on the trail, etc. Just little things added up to show her that a struggle is okay and that she can figure out any situation she’s getting herself into.”
Showing your kiddo some exaggerated situations to give them the idea is the easy part. To Anderson and many parents out there, the hard part is letting them struggle and fail a time or two. As Anderson’s daughter got more comfortable on their backyard trail, he backed down on assistance and interventions. And yes, there were many times where he had to carry that heavy little Schwinn over his shoulder, pushing his adult bike with his other hand and following a mad and tearful toddler out of the woods.
But on that next ride, when Margo got around that log or over that bumpy spot by herself, beaming with pride, it makes all those challenging rides worth it for him.
If this wasn’t enough and you need more inspiration to get your kids on bikes, watch this video of Peter Sagan’s toddler already showing he clearly inherited his dad’s skill and ability.
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