By: Jessica Hanna MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA
If there is one positive takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the ever-growing love for being outdoors. It’s spring, the flowers are blooming, the sun is out, and the air is light. Everything in our body is telling us to go outside and play.
For many kids with and without disabilities, bike riding is meaningful, liberating, and a rite of passage. Close your eyes and try to remember the first time you rode a two-wheel bike. Can you remember the color of your bike? The smell in the air? The complete joy it brought you? That was the day we all felt a bit more confident and like we grew a bit taller.
So how do we help our children achieve this meaningful occupation? The days of running behind our children while holding onto their bike seat, telling them to pedal, not to stop, and hoping for the best and that they will forgive us when we let go (when we clearly promised we would not let go!) should be far behind us. But are they?
A lot goes into learning how to ride a bike, so do not let your child give up so soon when it takes more than a couple of days, weeks, or months to get it right. Consider the following skills that are addressed in learning to ride a bike:
- Attention and concentration
- Bilateral coordination
- Body awareness
- Core strength
- Hand-eye coordination
- Motor planning
- Postural stability
- Sensory processing
- Upper and lower extremity strength
- Visual scanning
Children as young as five years of age will begin to acquire and develop the skills needed to ride a two-wheel bike, and still others may not feel ready until they are pre-teens or even into adulthood.
Before getting started, here are a couple things to consider regarding the equipment involved in learning how to ride a bike:
- Bike – The height of the bike is a crucial element to success when learning how to ride. When seated on the bike, your child’s feet should be firmly planted on the ground. The bike seat may appear too low and the bike too small; however, this technique enables movement security, engages proper core and postural stability, and increases confidence.
- Braking System – Be sure to learn the difference between hand brakes vs. coaster brakes (using feet to backpedal). Both braking systems have pros and cons. Hand brakes are a personal favorite. They are more flexible to position, offer better control, but require adequate hand strength and coordination to manipulate. Coaster brakes (using your feet to pedal backward to brake) use an intuitive motor planning motion for children. When you pedal forward, you go; when pedaling backward, you stop. They are helpful for children who lack the hand strength skills to wrap and squeeze their hands around a hand brake; however, they provide awkward foot positioning and the constant tendency to backpedal.
- Helmet – Safety, Safety, Safety! When handling a bike for any occasion (i.e., walking a bike, doing balance drills on a bike, or riding a bike), it should become an automatic habit to wear a helmet. Your child should be in charge of putting on and taking off their helmet independently. There is nothing more important than wearing a helmet that fits correctly with fasteners that can be easily manipulated. When choosing a helmet, be cognizant of the type of fastener/clasp it comes with and if your child has the fine motor skills to adjust it (this skill could take time to learn).If you are unsure if your child’s helmet is a good fit, any cycling store will be more than pleased to assist in finding your child the most appropriate size.
- Pedals – When learning to ride for the first time, the removal of pedals should be highly considered. It provides the opportunity to address balance, core, and postural stability for both younger and older children while also increasing movement security.
- Training Bike – Which is best…balance bikes vs. training wheels? Balance bikes are light in weight and can be introduced to children at a much younger age than a pedal bike. They promote core strength and increase motor planning, sequencing, and balance training skills, making the transition from a balance bike to a two-wheel pedal bike more fluid and easier to manage. Training wheels promote ease in learning motor planning techniques to push on pedals while providing assisted balance. It’s important to note that removing the balance component can be disadvantageous when transitioning from training wheels to a two-wheel pedal bike.
Overall, the literature supports the observation that, for children with and without disabilities, learning to ride a bike is a popular activity that increases confidence, provides opportunities for shared recreation with families and peers, and promotes social inclusion (Dunford, Bannigan, Rathmell (2016).
Several of the many clinical diagnoses of children who can ride a bike follow here; however, this list is certainly not inclusive of the many other diagnoses that do not preclude children from bike riding:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Cerebral Palsy
- Developmental Coordination Disorder
- General learning disability
- Hearing impairment
- No diagnosis
The art of bike riding can be broken down into various steps, from learning how to use the kickstand to the act of pedaling. Each step deserves attention, because through repetition and practice, confidence is achieved.
If using these tips feels difficult or is not helping your child with the level of focus and skill they need to successfully achieve their goal to use a bike, we recommend reaching out to your occupational therapist or getting an occupational therapy evaluation. If in-person direct services continue to be a concern, biking riding skills can be offered via telehealth from the comfort of your home. Jessica offers successful biking riding drills and adaptive home exercise plans through telehealth that address the skills required to learn to ride a bike. Contact NESCA’s Director of Clinical Services Julie Robinson, OT, to learn more at: email@example.com.
Dunford, Bannigan, Rathmell (2016) Learning to ride a bike: Developing a therapeutic intervention. Children Young People & Families Occupational Therapy Journal 20(1) 10-18
About the Author
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.