LittleBig bike at the Enduro World Series

Are Balance Bikes The Best Way To Learn To Cycle?

Many people have voiced their opinions over the years on the best ways for kids to learn to ride a bike. As you know, I’ve always been a strong advocate of balance bikes as a safe & fun way to learn, yet others still feel that balance bikes offer no benefits over a regular bike fitted with stability wheels.

There has been no definitive answer on which method is best.

Up until now that is…

Various Ways Children Learn To Cycle

An article, published in March 2022, by Biko Blommenstein & John van der Kamp of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, titled “Mastering balance: The use of balance bicycles promotes the development of independent cycling” studied the cycling history of a large group of Dutch children to try and establish if the learning method they used had a measurable impact on the speed at which they progressed to cycle independently.

Four types of learning method were identified:

  1. Balance bike only.
  2. Regular bike, fitted with stabilisers (aka training wheels).
  3. Regular bike, without any stability wheels fitted.
  4. Combination of balance bike and regular bike with stability wheels.

Parents were asked to fill in a questionnaire that focused on a number of areas of their child’s cycling history.

The first half of the questionnaire asked about the children’s cycling developmental milestones, including the age at which the child started to practice, the type of training bicycle they (had) used, if any (e.g., training wheels and/or balance bicycle), and the age at which the children started to cycle independently, if at all. The second part focused on general demographic information, such as the child’s age and gender, and the education level of the parents.

What’s The Best Cycle Learning Method?

When analysed, the completed questionnaires provided some interesting results. It was found that children who had only ridden balance bikes were typically able to cycle independently at a younger age, compared with those who practiced on a bike with training wheels (or a combination of both bicycles).

girl and boy on littlebig balance bike and pedal bike 2022

And, while children who rode a balance bike generally started to practice cycling earlier, the study found that there were a number of other significant factors that contributed to their accelerated development. In other words, the earlier starting age isn’t the crucial determining factor in the quicker progress made by kids who practiced on balance bikes only.

Why Do Kids Learn To Cycle Quicker on Balance Bikes?

The authors of the study argue that the main reason balance bikes promote independent cycling quicker than other methods of learning is:

A balance bike promotes independent cycling especially because it requires children to actively maintain an upright orientation by coordinating body lean and steering.

Blommenstein & Kamp (2022)

The authors highlighted previous work by Cain et al. (2012) which argued that stabilisers / training wheels hindered cycling development because:

They removed the need for children to hold the bicycle upright, and thus actively maintain balance and allowing them to master pedalling and steering first.

Cain et al. (2012)

The 2012 study highlighted that training wheels allow children to strongly lean to one side without adverse consequences. This then meant that children who rode bicycles with training wheels weren’t able to practice maintaining balance by steering “in the direction of the lean” as is required on regular unsupported bicycles.

I wrote about the damaging effect of stabilisers / training wheels on kids cycling development previously, so I’m pleased that this report highlights the same concerns.

The study went on to show that only after the side wheels were removed, and often with initial support by parents, were children able to learn to hold the bicycle upright and maintain balance while pedalling.

A Summary Of The Latest Findings

In short, the 2022 study shows that kids who learn to ride on a balance bike progressed to cycling independently quicker when compared with kids who practiced on a regular bike with training wheels. While the study did find that children who used balance bikes started learning to practice at a younger age than other children, this wasn’t found to be the main reason for their accelerated progress.

The study authors argue that the main benefit of learning to ride on a balance bike is that it challenges children more to actively maintain balance. And, as balancing is a more difficult skill to master than pedalling, kids who develop this skill on a balance bike are quicker to progress to the pedalling stage.

Should You Get a Balance Bike or Stick With Stabilisers?

As is often the case, the answer depends on your circumstances and your child’s preferences. Don’t just take our word for it, or the findings of a study. Have a look at some parenting forums and read actual comments from parents whose kids have recently learnt to cycle.

But this study again highlights that learning to cycle is part of a child’s overall development, and making it “easier” for them by adding stability wheels ultimately hinders this development. As with any physical development milestone, a child learns by practicing regularly and using muscle-memory to develop efficient and effective new habits to overcome any challenges. As parents, we should do our best to encourage this as best we can.

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Round the world cyclist, mountain bike racer, engineer and all round bike geek, Simon Evans clearly loves all things BIKE.

Simon worked as a Structural Engineer in Cambridge for a number of years before setting off on an 18 month, 30,000km cycle around the world, testing his bike, body and mind to the limit and giving a wealth of wonderful experiences.

Coming home in 2010, he wanted to combine his engineering with his love of bikes to create a better and more sustainable bike for kids. In 2015 he launched LittleBig bikes which have now been sold to 77 countries around the world giving thousands of kids the best start on two wheels.

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