Tricycle or Balance Bike – What Does Your Toddler Need?

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First Step – is YOU

Well, before either a trike or a balance bike, your toddler needs to come along with you often in a kid seat on your bike so he knows what it’s like to feel the wind in his hair and on his face; how it feels to be propelled on a bumpy street or road; you’re handing him a snack as needed; you’re taking him to visit granny or to the zoo, though that’s often the same thing; or just on a spin up the road to fetch the mail. Riding is modeling good behavior, right, new daddy or momma? Make it so he’s happiest when he gets on the bike with you; what is better than to instill than a lifelong love of riding a bike? That’s being a parent.

Biking with a child

Keep him close

And that kiddie seat teaches him about balance, about biking being like breathing, a foundational physical experience – a lesson to all of us as parents, teachers: learn by doing, lead by example, and just leap right in, put them on the seat and go. Most important – warm clothing, including gloves, even when you don’t wear them for you; their little hands get cold in the breeze. And snacks, did I mention that? A warm fed kid is a happy toddler who will associate being on a bike with pleasure. Don’t forget the snacks.

Which to get – ideally BOTH!

So – then he needs both a trike and a balance bike. The trike is his first experience at self propelled locomotion. Get an old fashioned upright one, maybe a nice old rusted one from a neighbor. Wipe the rust off, clean it up a bit. Tape up the torn seat. Show him how to use the pedals. He’s going to tip it over eventually. That’s ok. Make sure he’s in a reasonably safe place. No stairs, no cars, no charging dogs.

Learning to ride a bike

Teaching to pedal

Learning to use pedals can be hard; it’s NOT intuitive, we think of it as intuitive, and now it is for us; when you’re a toddler starting out, it’s not. For learning to pedal, a slight slope is helpful.

Where to go for the first time – so many people have this same experience

I like municipal tennis courts on an early Sunday morning in the fall; the tennis players don’t come round til 10:45, they’re hung over from the night before, or they’re those old wiry guys, tan from the sun who come late as well after the coffee shop and their morning paper.

So at 8:30 when you get there, you’re alone except for a dog walker in the distance. At the side of the courts, there’s a gentle slope to help drain water off. If your kid is having difficulty with the pedals, put them at the edge with their feet on the pedals, and give them a little push. If you’ve boughten a new trike, perhaps it’s one of the ones that has a stick attached for parents to use to help with locomotion and you can wheel them forth. Either way, let them feel the effect of the slope, let them feel their legs moving on the pedals as the wheel goes round, and then tell them to push. If that doesn’t work, see below.

Toddler with his balance bike

But what if its a balance bike?

Same thing with the balance bike – maybe even take them both with you to the park or tennis court. Balance bikes have come a long way since the first iteration of very costly ones made from wood by sincere authentic bearded men in plaid shirts. You can get some cheap plastic ones, or I’ve even seen some made with recycled cardboard; watch out for rain with the cardboard ones, I’d think. Put the seat low so your kid can sit with his legs bent at the knee maybe 30 degrees and feet on the ground. Let him push off and glide it around. They’ll put their feet down as needed. If you’ve been riding with him, he knows what the motion will feel like. Steering is the tricky part, usually.

Getting help cycling

The secret technique for teaching – you must be agile

So – not using pedals is hard, rolling along on the balance bike is hard. Pedaling is hard, using the trike. Here’s the secret to teaching both, learning both; and this is key to being a parent, to being a teacher; don’t make learning a chore for them or you. It’s magic, which we all know doesn’t exist; you’re an illusionist, a fabulist, a parent.

Like any good magician: use misdirection – teach them, let them learn how to use the pedals or balance as a secondary part of the GAME of CHASING their dad or mom – “chase me!” “try to catch me!” – or in the case of my son, an extreme case, just like….his mother! – “try to run me down” was the best game to teach him without him being aware he was learning how to pedal, how to steer, how to balance, how to be on his own, independent.

The sheer joy of the idea of potentially ramming me, and watching me roll out of the way, or lay down flat on the ground, pretending to take a bath in a puddle, got him to laugh so hard that he sped towards me, balancing, forgetting that this was a new physical experience. He had to get there quickly, to run me over or to see if indeed there were sharks in that puddle [there weren’t; they had swum off by the time he got there].

Nervous child on a bike

Make it fun! – think of them teaching your grandchildren!

That is the key piece of teaching your child – your beautiful boy, your delightful girl – how to ride – just as with taking him on your bike to see his granny – even if you don’t get along with her, and she’s your spouses mother – he gets along with her and it’s good for the kid to know his granny, even though she’s the dictionary picture of ‘narcissist’ – it’s fun for him to see granny – it’s fun for him to pedal in circles with YOU in the park, in the courtyard, on the football pitch on the tennis court.

It’s fun, the most you could have together, a delight to try to catch you, to see what’s in the puddle. All they want when they are little is to be with their mama, with their dad, alternately close and running off, riding off for moments on their own.

You stand in front of them, they’re wobbling towards you on a balance bike, on a trike – really it doesn’t matter – they come towards you, they learn to ride, and moments later, they’ve been biking for the last 14 years, and they’re pedaling off to high school every day without a second thought. You did it.

Toddler repairing his balance bike

A few other notes:

  • Training wheels? absolutely not – these teach you the opposite of how to balance a bike, as you counterweight against the outriding of the support wheels. When they get taken off, your child has to unlearn the leverage against the outriggers, and learn how to balance in a new way. Don’t do it.
  • If your child is older, let’s say 5 or 6, you can skip the balance bike, and get him or her a regular small bike with a chain drive. Take the chain and crankset off, use it as a balance bike for a few weeks, put the chain and crankset back on, and they’ll be able to ride in no time. They’ve already spent their toddlerhood on their friends trikes. A 5 year old is coordinated enough to quite rapidly get the hang of both balancing and pedaling.
  • The first few times riding a bike with pedals…how to do it? Make sure your child can put his or her feet down. Be in a park or again, tennis court, or wherever they’ve used either a balance bike or this bike as a balance bike. Give them a push from the seat, walk and run along behind them holding them up until they have some momentum from pedaling.
  • Pedaling, steering and balancing together -usually the steering gets lost. Use the “chase me” or “run me over” technique to get them to steer. Make them laugh. And be careful – they’ll be going fast very soon – you DON’T really want them to run you over. It hurts.
  • Kettler makes excellent kids balance bikes, kids bikes, and tricycles.


3 thoughts on “Tricycle or Balance Bike – What Does Your Toddler Need?”

  1. Thanks for the excellent page! Just one more step I’m missing: the unicycle, once the kids are reasonably comfortable on a bicycle. They’re fast learners, and if they learn early that unicycles are not just for fun, but for transportation (best again: have parents as models!), they’ll quickly master that skill as well. Great for their sense of balance, and fun for family outings…

  2. In an internet full of terrible writing, this is a wonderfully written piece. I ran across it looking for advice on balance bikes and ended up greatly enjoying the whole article. Thank you


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