Glen and I recently taught our 4-year-old to ride a bike without training wheels.
I am super proud of him, but still the whole idea of a two-wheeling preschooler is crazy to me. Mostly because I might take his discarded training wheels for myself. I am proof that you absolutely CAN forget how to ride a bike, as has been documented, and a little extra tire support sounds lovely.
So far Jack has both learned and retained the skill well though, so I’ve been busy Googling “Can you get bike riding college scholarships?” and “Is my child an athletic prodigy?”
The answers to those questions are 1) Yes, but chill out lady. The kid is 4. and 2) Too soon to tell. But the answer to the Google query “how do you teach a 4-year-old to ride a bike?” has been answered in our house. So if that query led you here, here goes! Included below are some practical steps, some nonsense, and a little luck.
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Step 1: Start with a Tricycle
When figuring out how to teach a 4-year-old to ride a bike, keep in mind this is not going to happen overnight. Like the achievement of most milestones, this one is a process.
Jack first got up on wheels when he was about 2. And by “up” I mean comfortably seated on one of those tricycles an adult pushes while the small child reclines drinking a juice box and requesting “faster, faster.”
I think the idea behind a tricycle is to help kids learn to pedal. I don’t remember Jack doing much impactful pedaling as a toddler, but I suppose it could help others.
Also, the tricycle had a drink holder and a pouch to hold your phone. I’m not sure this tricycle was ever actually meant for the amusement of children, it was for adult “let’s go outside before you destroy this house with crayons” sanity.
Oh, and somewhat related, don’t forget to leave the tricycle out in the elements one too many times because you were busy scooping up your potty training toddler and running into the house. Your tricycle will develop more character that way. And by character I mean fading, rust, and ants.
Step 2: Move onto a Balance Bike
Building on the “success” of the trike, when Jack turned 3 we got him a balance bike for his birthday. He had tried one out while visiting family and seemed intrigued by the idea. We were likewise intrigued after watching our 4-year-old nephew absolutely fly on this thing and then hop up on a two-wheeled bike without training wheels like it was nobody’s business.
The idea behind a balance bike is that it gets kids used to the idea that they have to balance their bodies in the middle of the bike. There aren’t any pedals and it’s closer to the ground so that you can use your feet to get going, and then glide when you’re ready. As a very tall person terrified of falling off a bike, I began looking for one in adult size shortly after this purchase.
Jack took to the balance bike really well. Actually he eventually got too fast and once I made the mistake of eating a heavy cream pasta dish and then taking him out on a bike ride around the block after dinner. He took off on the bike and I had to sprint after him with my work shoes and very unsettled stomach.
Don’t do that.
Step 3: Get a Kid’s Bike with Training Wheels
After Jack mastered the balance bike and I couldn’t keep up with him anymore on foot, we got him a bike with training wheels for his 4th birthday. Honestly, it was partially to help him learn how to ride a bike with pedals, and partially because I was tired and wanted to slow him down.
Learning the pedals took a few tries because he had been such a lazy trike rider. Ever resourceful though, Jack started using his shins to get the bike moving when he needed more power behind the pedals and his legs ended up covered in bruises. So maybe break out the soccer shin guards if you are ready to try this stage. Hot tip.
After a couple weeks, Jack figured out the bike and also thoroughly enjoyed the water bottle that was attached in case he got “dehydrated” on his quarter-mile rides around the neighborhood.
His word, not mine. Dehydrated? He is going to surpass me in intellect by grade 4 I just know it…
Eventually, Jack got super-fast on the training wheeled bike too and I had to bite the bullet and get my own bike in order to keep up. But at least my “new to me” bike that was taking up space in a Craig’s List strangers’ garage is a nice color, has a basket, boasts no gears to mess with, and is relatively low to the ground.
Still, when I first got up on the bike Jack almost steered his own bike into a stone wall because he was so concerned I was going to fall off. He wasn’t wrong, and I definitely did.
Good looking out, buddy.
Step 4: Take Off the Training Wheels
Several months after Jack mastered the training wheels, it was time to take off those training wheels off because being a kid is hard.
Now, listen. You can leave your training wheels on your kid’s bike as long as you want, and even add them onto your adult bike and I will not judge you. However, we chose age 4 ½ because we were working on a bit of timeline courtesy of my dad.
When I was growing up, Pop took a hard stance on a total of three things. 1) No tacks or tape on the walls while you were living under his roof. 2) Kids should know how to tie their own shoes by age 5. 3) Kids should be able to ride a bike by age 5.
This all seems largely arbitrary to me, and oddly centered on one particular age milestone. However, he’s my dad and Pop is very “live and let live” about other topics so I can’t fault the man for a few randomly placed hard lines.
Now that I’m a grown-up, I’ve decided to let my children put tape and tacks on their walls in our home, but I do still sometimes feel badly about it. Even though these are my walls, Glen’s walls, and honestly, mostly the bank’s walls. Also, I’ve come to realize that teaching my kids to tie their own shoes when it already takes them 145 years to put on their shoes sounds terrible so I’m going to hold off on that one.
But I thought we should give the bike riding thing a go because my dad and mom did raise two children into highly capable adults, and one of those children can even ride a bike as an adult without screaming. I think. Honestly, I haven’t seen my brother ride a bike since that trip to Mexico so he could be terrible too.
That only moderately necessary aside aside, we took off the training wheels on Jack’s bike and set off to accomplish our “by age 5 goal.”
Step 5: Find a 4-Year-Old Biking Training Ground
The next step for teaching a 4-year-old to ride a bike is finding your training ground. When we chose the scene for this big training-wheel-less adventure I decided to start with grass.
I learned how to ride a bike without training wheels by starting on the grass because my parents rightfully didn’t trust my ability to stay upright and thought this would be a good way to avoid broken bones and empty Band-Aid boxes. When it came turn for Jack to try it out, I deployed the same strategy with similar motivations.
I got Jack up on the bike in the back yard, ran behind him pushing for a few feet, and then he got a few pedals in each time before falling down. Then we all got hungry and went back inside. Successful first run. No tears or blood.
The next day, Glen took Jack to a dirt path thinking he needed more traction under his wheels, and that dirt was still more forgiving than concrete. He used the same “run a few feet while pushing then let go” strategy on the dirt and Jack’s number of pedals before collapse increased.
Moving onto the big leagues, Glen let Jack hit the sidewalk on his big two-wheeler which is where he found his stride. He still needed a little help getting on the bike in order to establish his balance, but then with a little push, he took off.
Since then our big guy has been tooling around the neighborhood and the park while I congratulate myself on this accomplishment that is really in no part my own. Look out world, this 4-year-old is a certified bike rider.
Teach a 4-Year-Old to Ride a Bike, Or Wait. It’s fine.
Every kid is going to be different when it comes to well…everything. But for the purposes of this article, every kid is going to be different when it comes to riding a bike.
In fact, my second child will likely be different than my first. Norah currently prefers her scooter over the balance bike and I foresee her greatest motivation to get on a bike without training wheels will be seeing how often she can successfully manipulate us into giving her Band-Aids for nonexistent bike-related injuries.
Yet I do think we followed a pretty solid “how to ride a bike: strategy here with Jack. Pedals, balance, more pedals and more wheels, pedals + balance + fewer wheels.
As for my new bike? Well, I’m 60% sure a family a mice lives in the basket and only vacates when the garage door opens. Also, while Jack is cruising on his bike with Glen I’ve graciously volunteered to be the parent who takes Norah to the playground or to play with bubbles so I don’t think my firstborn has noticed that I’m largely un-wheeled.
But even if I’m terrible at it, I own a bike. And sometimes I even ride it, and more importantly my kid rides his, so I’ll call that a win.
The big lesson here, you do not need to be any good at riding a bike to teach a 4-year-old to ride a bike. You just need to be good at encouraging their independence, praying that they have inherited dexterity from other relatives, and learning to let go.
To be fair, that last part is super hard, but you can do it.
But to cover your bases, just go ahead and buy some more Band-Aids. Stockpile those bad boys.
With love for terra firma,