Learning how to ride a bike

Teaching your child to ride a bike is very exciting and you will remember this milestone of your child’s forever. Learning to ride a bike/two-wheeler is an extremely challenging task because it involves a lot of complex steps that the child has to perform all at once.  

A few weeks ago, I taught my 5-year-old daughter how to ride a bike without training wheels. My daughter’s first response when she saw the bike was,  “I want to carry apples in the bike’s basket just like Jemima in the movie Peter rabbit!” This simple wish was a driving force for her to learn this skill. The two things that are important to learn bike riding are; First, the child must have the developmental skills required for riding a bike. Second, the child must have an interest in wanting to ride a bike.

Developmental skills needed to ride a bike

  • the ability to pedal using adequate leg strength and coordinated leg movement, 
  • adequate core strength to keep an upright posture, 
  • adequate balance
  • motor planning to understand which direction to turn in, organizing all the steps of bike riding together and execute them all at once. 

Leg strength: Although riding a bike can improve and increase leg strength, some baseline leg strength is needed to start riding a bike. If you see your child’s leg slipping from the pedal, you can try adding straps to help your child’s feet stay on the pedal. If they are not able to initiate force to push down on the pedal, try some proprioceptive activities such as jumping on the trampoline/floor, standing on a balance board, walking on uneven surfaces such as pillows, cushion, etc. prior to your bike riding practice. 

Upright posture: Just like leg strength, children also need some baseline core strength to begin learning how to ride a bike. If your child can’t keep an upright posture for a couple of minutes or leans forward immediately when seated, you should start working on strengthening his core before teaching him to ride a bike. Some core strengthening activities you can do at home include, wheelbarrow walking, walking like a bear or crab, sit-ups, and plank positions. 

Balance: Good balance on the bike needs adequate core strength, vestibular processing, and motor planning. The key to achieving balance is by pedaling faster. Faster the movement greater the balance. Prior to riding a bike, practice some balance activities such as walking on a balance beam, walking on uneven surfaces such as bean bags, pillows, and cushions, standing on a balance board, and catching a ball.  

Motor Planning: If your child has difficulty organizing the steps and performing all of them together, it will be helpful to break down the steps and practice each step individually. 

Most children can learn to ride a bike between 3 to 6 yrs of age. However, each child is different and develops this skill at their own pace. Prior to riding a bike, most children have been on a scooter, tricycle or bicycle with training wheels and have acquired skills such as the coordinated movement of two legs, spatial awareness, momentum and have built some confidence to transition to a bicycle without training wheels. 

Some tips and strategies to encourage independent bicycle riding

  1. Safety is first. Choose the right size bike for your child and check if it is adjusted properly. Always make sure your child is wearing a helmet. When choosing the size of the bike make sure that the height of the seat is at the waist level for your child when standing and your child should be able to reach the ground with the tip of his/her feet when seated on the bike. This measurement is important to keep an upright posture. An upright posture will allow the weight to be centered over the seat so the child will have a good balance.
  2. After your child is seated on the bike, hold the back of the seat with one hand, hold the one handle of the bike with the other hand, and ask the child to start pedaling. 
  3. Gradually fade support; now keep one hand on your child’s back while still holding the handle with the other, and tell your child to pedal fast, and not to lean too far to the sides. You can give a gentle push on the handle to bring it to midline when they lean either towards left or right. 
  4. Slowly take your hand off of your child’s back and make sure you tell them that you are doing so. This will help the child mentally prepare for the challenge.
  5. Slowly reduce your support on the handle but stay close to your child to help in case they lose balance. 
  6. When I was teaching my daughter, I told her to look straight, hold the handle straight, and pedal faster. These three are the key prompts that I had to keep reminding her of when she was learning.
  7. It is important to tell the child to look straight because vision is what guides the movement. It is also important to remind the child to pedal faster to maintain balance. Faster pedaling leads to increased joint pressure input (proprioceptive input) which encourages quick motor learning.
  8. Once the child can independently ride the bike in a straight line and can turn right and left, move farther away from the child and ask them to stop with their feet to protect a fall. 
  9. Give lots of encouragement to your child. Instead of saying “you did a good job” say what exactly did they do well (For e.g.You are doing a great job pedaling faster) 
  10. To grab your child’s attention and engage them in the learning process, give them prompts in a way that attracts them(For e.g. can you give a force of 10when pedaling? Wow.. you have super strong legs, now can you give more force? Maybe 100?
  11. Once your child gets the hang of riding the bike without your support, teach them to climb on and off the seat. First, ask your child to hold the handlebar while stepping over to the other side; second, ask your child to put one foot on one side of the pedal and one foot on the ground- ask them to balance for a count of 10, then ask them to put the other foot on another pedal while you are holding the back of the seat and give a slight push to create momentum to keep the balance. They should get a hang of it after a few days of practice.  

If your child has a hard time learning to ride a bike after many attempts or if your child has difficulty in the developmental skills required for bike riding, a pediatric occupational therapist can do a complete assessment and provide advice and strategies to improve your child’s performance in this important occupation of childhood. 

Bilateral coordination in children

Bilateral coordination refers to the ability to use both sides of the body at the same time in a controlled and organized manner. It is unconsciously used for everyday activities such as buttoning a shirt or catching a cup as it falls to the ground. Bilateral coordination is the result of the successful integration of vestibular, proprioceptive, and visual sensations along with efficient communication between two sides of the brain. It is also called bilateral integration. Sensory integration is an important domain for successful bilateral integration.

How does the vestibular system impact bilateral coordination?

The vestibular system contributes to the body’s movement and sense of balance. It is an important sensory system that informs us about movement, change of direction, and head position in relation to gravity. The vestibular system interacts with all the other sensory systems and impacts our posture, muscle tone, balance, and bilateral coordination. The vestibular system strongly connects with the proprioceptive system (body awareness). Body awareness refers to the ability to know where your body is in space without using vision. For example, without proprioception, we would not know how high to lift our legs when walking or climbing stairs, without looking at them. The vestibular system is also connected to the visual system in order to stabilize the head so that the eyes can focus on an object, or to move both eyes together to track or scan an object while maintaining our head in a stable position. 

In the simple task of catching a ball, we need to keep our head stable (vestibular sense) to see from which side the ball is approaching (vision) and, at the same time, lift our hands towards the ball with an appropriate amount of force (proprioception). 

How do children develop bilateral integration?

Children develop bilateral integration in stages. 

  • Symmetrical bilateral integration: Initially babies use both hands simultaneously to perform an action  (such as holding objects with two hands, clapping hands, banging objects together)
  • Reciprocal bilateral integration: During this stage, the child starts developing movements on one side of the body that is opposite from the other side of the body (such as learning to crawl, walk, climb stairs, etc.)
  • Asymmetrical bilateral integration: At this stage, the child has developed a dominant hand and uses that hand to manipulate objects or perform actions while the other hand stabilizes an object or stays as a helper. Examples of asymmetrical bilateral integration include holding a piece of paper with one hand while coloring with the other, or holding a container while putting objects into it. 
  • Crossing midline: This is the ability to reach across the middle of the body to perform an action, such as scratching the opposite shoulders, sitting with legs crossed, drawing a horizontal line without a need to switch hands, reading from left to right, etc. Crossing midline is an essential step in the development of bilateral coordination, as well as the skilled preferred hand use. 
  • Laterality: Lateralization is the dominance of one side of the body. Laterality or handedness develops once the child has established crossing the midline consistently with the same hand for skilled tasks. For example, a right-handed person reaches across to take an object on the left side instead of using the hand that is closer to the object (i.e. the left hand). When a child consistently starts using the dominant hand to cross the midline, the brain recognizes that one hand is better at performing skilled function than the other hand. 

An under-reactive vestibular system has poor bilateral integration functioning and interferes with specialization. Lateralization is one obvious form of specialization of brain functions. There are two hemispheres in the brain (the right and the left) and each hemisphere is responsible for specific functions. If the two sides of the brain are not communicating effectively, they develop similar functions. Children with poor specialization use both hands or switch between hands for functional activities and are considered ambidextrous. These children usually use the right hand for tasks presented on the right side and the left hand for the left side. Instead of developing specific skills on each side, these children develop similar skills, resulting in not being skilled with any one hand. 

Symptoms of bilateral integration difficulties:

  • The child may appear clumsy and uncoordinated 
  • Missed crawling as a baby
  • Started walking at a later age
  • Delayed emergence of hand dominance or no development of hand dominance/ handedness even after 5yrs of age
  • The child may show difficulty in daily living skills, such as dressing, buttoning, shoe tying, brushing, self-feeding, etc.
  • The child may also have trouble reading and writing because the child cannot visually cross the midline when reading from left to right on the page. 
  • Poor performance in arts and crafts projects at school due to improper tool use.

How to help your child with bilateral integration problems?

Bilateral coordination develops naturally with most children, so it isn’t a good idea to train children in coordination activities earlier when they are not ready. As the baby grows, they make adaptive responses to the challenges created by their environment.  At each step of their developmental process, they try to problem-solve and generalize actions in a variety of situations to master it before making it an automatic response.  

If you suspect your child has a problem with bilateral integration, consulting an occupational therapist is a good step to start with. The occupational therapist trained in sensory integration uses specific movement activities to stimulate the vestibular system, creating bilateral coordination challenges that are just right for the child to make adaptive responses. Thereby, the child generalizes these responses in their day-to-day life in their home, school, and community settings.