Is your child frustrated because they can’t figure out how to pedal their bike? Are you frustrated? For most kids, mastering the art of balancing is the hardest part of learning to ride a bike. But many kids also struggle with learning to pedal.
With most young kids, it’s actually more natural for them to pedal backward than it is forward. So while learning to pedal, it is very common for kids to get confused and pedal forward and then backward and then forward again! This is especially true for balance bike graduates who have already mastered balancing the bike, but just can’t quite get the pedal motion correct.
So how exactly do you teach a child to pedal a bike? Every child is different in ability and desire, but having taught numerous balance bike graduates how to ride a pedal bike, here are our top tips and tricks for helping your child to master pedaling.
How to Help a Child Who Can’t Pedal
STEP 1: Know Your Child’s Ability – Are They Ready to Pedal?
Some kids are physically coordinated enough to pedal a bike as young as 2, while others may need a few more months or years of development. Two of my kids easily learned to pedal at age three, while our youngest wasn’t coordinated enough to master pedaling until he was four. Even then, it took him several months to get the correct motion down.
So if your child is struggling, they may just need more time! The best answer may just be to practice all the patience you can muster up and allow them to continue to happily ride their balance bike.
If your child is asking for a pedal bike and they themselves are becoming frustrated because they can’t pedal, and you believe they are coordinated enough to do it, then let’s get them pedaling!
STEP 2: Use a Trainer to Learn the Pedal Motion
To help kids master the forward motion of pedaling, we’ve found that the best way is to use or build a “bike trainer” to allow them to only work on pedaling. Without needing to worry about balancing, steering, starting, or stopping, trainers are a quick and easy way to allow kids to focus just on pedaling.
Once you’ve built your “trainer”, kids typically progress pretty quickly. By supporting the front tire (to keep the handlebars from moving) while also lifting the rear tire off the ground, the child pedals without propelling the bike forward.
Trainers are our favorite method because they allow you to stand right next to your child to coach and encourage them as they work through the motions. While some kids just need verbal reminders to push down with their legs, others benefit from an adult putting their hands on their knees to carefully help them through the correct motions.
OPTION 1: Toy Blocks Trainer
The quickest and easiest way to build a “trainer” is to use toy blocks (or other similarly shaped objects). Just stack up the blocks tall enough to prop the rear tire off the ground. This method does require an adult to support the back and the front of the bike to prevent it from falling, but it’s quick and easy and kids usually learn the motion of pedaling pretty fast. This method is also a winner because it works on any bike!
OPTION 2: Training Wheels Trainer
If your child’s bike came with training wheels, you can use them to help practice pedaling. Just set the training wheels to their lowest setting and then prop up the training wheels with bricks or a small block of wood (unless your bike’s training wheel will mount lower than the back tire – which is rare).
Like the DIY trainer, this method will require an adult to hold the handlebars and the back of the seat to keep the bike stable.
OPTION 3: Balance Buddy “Trainer”
The Balance Buddy is a handlebar for parents that attaches to the rear axle of a child’s bike. While not a true trainer (that allows kids to just work on their pedaling), the Balance Buddy does allow you to hold the child upright as they learn to pedal. If the child accidentally pedals backward (and for some bikes activates the coaster brake) the Balance Buddy allows you prevent them from falling over!
The Balance Buddy also tends to work better on larger 16″ and 20″ bikes as the larger bikes can be more difficult to hold steady on a DIY trainer. The downside of the Balance Buddy is that when the kids pedal, the bikes moves, so the adult helper needs to be able to walk or run along with them.
STEP 3: Get Back on the Bike – Don’t Start Pedaling until the Bike is Moving!
Once your child has mastered the motion of pedaling, it’s time to get them started on their own. Many parents mistakenly instruct their kids to start pedaling from a stand still. While this works with kids and adults who have already mastered pedaling, this is NOT recommended for kids who are just learning to pedal.
It’s always best for beginning riders to start pedaling a bike once the bike is already moving AND moving fast enough to stabilize the bike. There are two benefits to a child starting to pedal after the bike is moving.
- The initial forces that keep the bike in place are already overcome. (Remember 7th grade science class??) As a result, pedaling takes much less effort because the pedals spin more freely. This gives kids more confidence to keep pedaling!
- With the bike already in motion and moving fast enough to be stable, kids can focus on pedaling instead of balancing and pedaling. Unlike starting from a standstill, if a child misses the first two or three pedal strokes, it’s not a huge deal because the bike won’t automatically fall over.
Before you get the bike moving, first make sure the seat of the bike is set low enough for the child to place their entire foot on the ground, similar to how it is set on a balance bike. A lower seat is important to help kids safely start and stop the bike.
With the seat set lower, have the child place both feet behind the pedals and have them begin to push the bike forward with their tiptoes. Encourage them to keep “paddling” or “pushing” the bike until the bike is traveling fast enough to balance on its own. Once the bike is balancing, have them start pedaling!
They may not get it the first time, but after a few times kids usually pick it up! If your child accidentally pedals backward, no worries that’s normal! Have them keep trying and if needs be, have them spend more time on a “trainer”.
As a heads up, if your child’s bike has a coaster brake (a back pedal brake), pedaling backward will likely activate the brake and cause the bike to unexpectedly stop, often causing a fall. Encouraging a child to pedal “forward” versus “down” can help some kids visualize the correct movement, but others just need more practice to master the movements.
Other “Learn to Pedal” Options
If the trainer and “pedal while in motion” steps didn’t work for your child, we have a couple more tips up our sleeves. Here are other options to help get your child up and riding.
Convert the Pedal Bike to a Balance Bike
For some kids, the adjustment from a simple balance bike to a more complex pedal bike is quite daunting. Getting used to a new, larger, and heavier bike in addition to the pedals can be a lot to take on. The solution? Temporarily turn the new bike into a balance bike.
With the pedals off, have your child get used to the overall feel and weight of the new bike. As soon as they can comfortably coast for long distances as well as start and stop the bike without falling over, put the pedals back on and have them practice pedaling again. When starting to pedal, make sure they don’t start pedaling until the bike is moving fast enough to be stable.
A reminder to push the pedals “forward” instead of “down” often helps kids visualize the correct pedaling motion as well.
Coast Down a Grassy Hill
For older kids who can’t fathom having pedals removed from their bike (as well as those who can’t remove the pedals), a grassy hill can also be a great solution. To help kids get comfortable on their new bike, have them coast down the hill several times without pedaling.
Just have them place their feet on the pedals and roll down. Once they feel confident in balancing the bike, have them begin to pedal half way down the hill and eventually from the top of the hill.
This method is especially beneficial for those kids who really struggle with pedaling backwards. When rolling down a hill, the pedals are now positioned “downhill”. This downhill angle places a child in a position that allows them to literally pedal “forward”. Although minor, this trick does seem to help some kids overcome the instinct to pedal backwards.
We admit we don’t like training wheels, but if your child’s bike came with training wheels and you don’t want to lower them to use them like a trainer (see above), you could set the training wheels to be slightly higher than the back tire to allow the child to ride around and just focus on pedaling.
While buying a tricycle would be pointless at this point in your child’s biking journey, perhaps a friend or family member has one you could borrow for a short period of time. Tricycles are easier for kids to pedal as they place the pedals in front of the child versus underneath them. This allows kids to lean back and push forward to pedal which is much more intuitive than pushing down.
Once a child learns to pedal forward on a tricycle, they may still accidentally pedal backward on a pedal bike as they get used to pedals being underneath them. However, the transition usually doesn’t take long.
Trailer cycle (ages 4+)
Trailer cycles (or tag-along bikes) can also be used to help teach kids how to pedal. Being attached to an adult bike, trailer cycles allow kids to pedal without worrying about staying upright. Whether on a ride around the neighborhood or on a 5-mile ride, trailer cycles allows kids to practice pedaling while on the go!
The downside of trailer cycles is that as an adult rider, you can’t watch the child pedal to ensure they are actually pedaling forward! While mainly an issue with preschoolers, we’ve had kids pedal backward for entire rides without us knowing about it! Options to consider are the Weehoo Turbo, Trail Gator, or FollowMe Tandem.
Teaching a Child to Pedal Bottom Line
Whether you’re helping out a toddler who is antsy to get going on a pedal bike, or a 5-year-old struggling to master the motion of pedaling, we’ve been there before! Hopefully one of these tips will be just what your child needs to finally master pedaling. In the end, don’t worry too much… with time kids eventually pick it up!
If you happen to come across another method that helped your child master pedaling, please let us know in the comments below!