Tuesday, August 06, 2013

How We Skipped Training Wheels (or "Why We're Sold on Balance Bikes")

We get a lot of strange looks when we take the boys for bike rides. And people are often confused when Elijah tells them excitedly, "I have pedals on my bike!" But after a summer and a half, with one kid riding a big-boy bike and the other just about ready for one, we are 100 percent sold on the balance bike concept. We've skipped training wheels in favor of a method that just makes more sense.

Last summer, when we were shopping for our almost-five-year-old's first bicycle, we heard about something called a balance bike. As far as I can tell, a company called Strider sort of pioneered the concept, and I learned a lot from reading and watching videos on their website. The idea is simple: training wheels give a child a false sense of security. They essentially turn a bicycle into a tricycle, and tricycles don't teach anything about balance (not to mention they're pretty unsturdy if you really get going fast--a blooper-esque video of tricycle crashes on Strider's site was painful to watch!). Kids feel confident tearing around with their training wheels, but when it's time for the wheels to come off, everything is different and panic sets in. 

Instead, why not teach them to balance *first*? Why not let them learn the hard part gradually, at their own pace--and then add the easy part, the pedaling, once they've conquered the tricky part? Then, as the founder of Strider explains in a promo video, "There's not this big step, this big leap of faith where all of a sudden they have to be riding. At the first inkling of insecurity, they can just put their feet down." Brilliant.

The balance bike concept made a ton of sense to us, but we didn't want to shell out $80+ for a Strider bike. Instead, we bought a regular 12" bike on craigslist, and Steve removed the pedals. (The chain wasn't removable, so Steve wound it up carefully and taped it to the frame of the bike, out of the way.) 

Elijah started out as most every kid does on a balance bike--they simply walk slowly, straddling the bike. Eventually they feel comfortable enough to sit down on the seat, and then they learn to make it go a little faster. That's about as far as we got last summer, since he didn't have many opportunities to practice. 

This spring, when we got out the bike again, Elijah quickly began balancing. He'd get going fast enough that he could lift his feet and coast a bit, or he'd pick up his feet coming down a little hill. After only a month or so, he was ready for pedals.

I can just imagine what a nightmare taking off the training wheels would have been with our hyper-cautious oldest son. Oh, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. But with this method, Elijah was able to figure it out bit by bit. We did have some weeping and gnashing when it was time to add pedals--but it was pure frustration, not fear. Elijah had been going so fast with just his legs to power the bike that he was frustrated to have to slow down and learn to pedal. Figuring out how to *start* pedaling and take off was kind of tricky. And it's exasperating to accidentally pedal backwards and wind up violently braking! Also, he may or may not have inherited some unfortunate character flaws from his mother and may or may not be exactly like her in that when he cannot do something easily and perfectly the very first time, he doesn't want to do it at all, ever. Aaaaanyway... 

So there was a bit of a learning curve, but within a couple of practice runs, he conquered the pedals. It was amazing to see how quickly and easily he took off. And there was no running behind him, holding the seat; there were no terrified cries for Daddy not to let go, no crashes and falls. Just the big grins and giggles of a boy supremely proud of himself and his new skill.

After last summer, we were convinced enough that we wanted to get Jude started a lot earlier. He was too little for us to just remove the pedals from a regular bike, as we'd done with Elijah; the great thing about actual balance bikes is that they sit lower to the ground and are incredibly lightweight, making them easier for toddlers to handle. But we found a Chicco balance bike for about half the price of the Strider bikes, so Grammy and Pops gave one to Jude for Christmas.

Jude followed the same pattern as Elijah--really hesitant and reluctant at first, then walking with the bike between his legs, finally sitting, and then zooming away. We were blown away by how quickly he learned to balance and got comfortable enough to pick his feet up off the ground! By mid-May, he was amazing us by coasting like this for several seconds:

At only 2 1/2, Jude is great at balancing and able to go pretty darn fast on his bike. He loves to have us push him so he can balance and go fast without using his feet--if Steve is on rollerblades, he can use just one or two fingers to push Jude while the little guy does all the work of balancing! He's actually just about ready for pedals himself.

All in all, we are *really* pleased with the balance bike concept in general and with Jude's Chicco balance bike specifically. We highly recommend this approach to bike-riding, rather than training wheels!

1 comment:

Danielle said...

Cool idea. I guess we did this concept inadvertently. The boys had scooters first, and tore around the place on their scooters for a good year before they got "big boy bikes" last year. They had training wheels for all of two weeks until they were literally a twisted pile of metal and we took them off because they weren't even using them. They already had balance down from scootering first. I never had to "teach" them at all how to scooter or bike really. Granted, the boys are not cautious by any stretch of anyone's imagination.

Sophia, however, is MUCH more cautious and has little interest in scooters or biking at the moment. She just likes sitting in her car with her baby doll and watching them. I think she'll be a different ball game. We might have to try this method with her and I'll probably need to actually "teach" her how to do it.