When told to think back to learning to ride a bike, people often imagine their younger self, rolling along with training wheels squeaking away on either side. What might not come to mind is how long it took after the wheels were off to unlearn the bad habits training wheels had taught them. Unfortunately, while a common training tool, training wheels (also known as stabilizers) are less than ideal when it comes to teaching the most important skill in cycling—balance. Luckily, there is an alternative.
A balance bike is a pedal-less bicycle that riders push along with their feet. When the rider gets more confident, they can bring their feet up to glide like a regular pedal bike. As a tool for learning to ride a pedal bike, balance bikes have several advantages over training wheels:
You can start learning younger.
Pedal bikes with stabilizers are often on the larger side to allow for pedal clearance, meaning children can’t begin using them until they hit three, four, even five years old. Balance bikes, on the other hand, sit deliberately closer to the ground. Because of this they can be used by children as young as two years old, getting kids ready for their first regular bikes much earlier.
You learn the hardest skill gradually first.
The problem with training wheels is they don’t train kids for the challenging part of riding a bike. That is, the act of balancing. Think of the first time you rode a bike without training wheels—chances are you had to catch yourself with your feet because you didn’t know how to stay up.
Stabilizers help teach a child to pedal, but knowing how to pedal isn’t much help when you can’t even get your feet up to said pedals without falling over. With a balance bike, kids work their way up to confident gliding. Since the center of gravity is so low and the rider can easily put their feet down if they lose their balance, balance bikes instill a sense of safety as a rider gets comfortable gliding along for longer stretches. When they’ve mastered balancing, the addition of pedalling is a breeze: most pick it up within 15 minutes.
It’s like riding a bike. But actually.
It might seem counterintuitive, but removing training wheels from a standard bicycle is a more dramatic change for a learner than switching from a balance to a pedal bike. The muscle memory you develop with training wheels is completely wrong for a standard bicycle! It’s not just the balance issue, but more subtle things too. For example, while you steer a bike by leaning into the turn, training wheels instead shift weight onto the outer wheel when steering, teaching kids to lean the wrong way when going around corners.
With a balance bike, the skills you learn don’t change as you transition to a pedal bike—you get to add on additional skills rather than having to unlearn previous ones.
Training wheels might seem like a cost-effective way to teach a child to ride a bike, but they can cause surprising problems for the learning process. Balance bikes address these exact issues while offering a great alternative model to what we currently think of as the “standard” way to learn to ride a bike.