The summer that Ella turned two, I did what most parents of a toddler do — I bought a tricycle. Tricycles seem to be the “first bike” that every child receives — it was the first type I rode — so I didn’t really question the progression of tricycle, training wheels, and then a bicycle on the path to bike riding independence. I picked a Radio Flyer trike* that folded up, was sturdy, and was aesthetically pleasing with no annoying characters or graphics (Canadian link*). I was really happy with the purchase for a couple of weeks, but I noticed that I was constantly re-directing the tricycle, as Ella would just pedal and pedal, not paying much attention to steering. I also started hearing from friends that their children didn’t seem to last very long on tricycles, and some children were having some real issues staying on the tricycle — especially when it veered off in an unexpected direction because the child was focusing on pedaling.
I started wondering if tricycles were maybe intended for an older age group and if my friends and I were all unintentionally frustrating ourselves and our kids by providing a “too advanced” option. I hadn’t even heard of balance bikes, but once I learned more about them, they made sense!
When developing any skill, gross motor or otherwise, its always a good idea to isolate the skill and not try to learn two different skills at the same time. A lot of us might not remember learning how to ride a bike, but many of us have hazy memories of learning how to drive — it seems so easy and second-nature now, but it was overwhelming at the beginning trying to keep coordinated, aware of our surroundings, and develop all of those new habits of good drivers. So, it makes sense when dealing with toddlers and preschoolers, to isolate steering from pedaling, and then add on balancing, before finally transitioning to pedaling.
Beyond that, pedaling while learning how to balance can cause stress on children’s hip joints; it is less risky to learn how to pedal after having perfected the balance.
Ella received a Strider balance bike for Easter this year, and it took a little getting used to because she had started off on a tricycle; with tricylces, children’s feet are immediately taken off of the ground and placed on pedals, but with balance bikes, children are encouraged to “walk” the bike and learn how to steer before they start picking their feet off of the ground. It took a bit of “unlearning” but within a half hour Ella fully grasped the concept on her own (with some encouragement).
In addition to isolating skills, I find that balance bikes help children understand and respect their limits. They have a lot more control over their momentum and direction, and its easier to take feet off of the balance bar rather than pedals (and because of the positioning of the tires, feet do not get caught underneath tires when they go down suddenly, as they might with a tricycle).
Balance bikes are minimalist and cost-effective in that they cover a wide range of development, taking a child from 18 months old and learning to steer to 6 or 7 years old and ready to transition to a stand-alone bike with no training wheels. And, depending on the age gaps between children and the type of bike you buy, balance bikes can be passed down to younger siblings, or resold when your family is done with it — just look for rubber or foam tires rather than hard plastic (another reason that I went with the Strider bike over other alternatives). Our Strider model also has options for adjusting the handlebar and seat height.
There are lots of fun things that your children can do with balance bikes, even if you are not a biking family or if you are not able to take the children out for a ride as often as you’d like — next week I’ll share my list of 10 Fun Ways to Play with a Balance Bike. A lightweight balance bike also increases the amount of independence that your child experiences, as they will be able to easily maneuver and pick-up their bike when they want to.
My experience and recommendation of balance bikes is based on my own research and our experiences with Strider Sport balance bike,* which you can customize if you order directly from Strider (Canada link*).