So, here’s a parenting bandwagon I jumped on: balance bikes.
If you haven’t seen these around the playground, they’re tiny bikes with no pedals. A kid can use a balance bike much like a push toy, starting with a walk. Soon, the “balance” part will kick in. The rider, not yet old enough to thoroughly brush her teeth and/or (effectively) wipe her bum, will have the muscle memory it takes to keep a two-wheeled bicycle in motion.
Balance…that’s the hard part of riding a bike. Pedaling is easier. The idea behind balance bikes is that you teach the balance first, and let pedaling come later. Training wheels and tricycles become obsolete.
We bought our twins balance bikes for their third birthday, though you can start them as soon as your kid can walk, if you’re into that. Ours were wooden, and sturdy, and now you can get nicer ones at most bike shops. I have heard a lot of positive things about the Strider brand, which has brakes. Target has an off-brand with mixed reviews.
Balance biking started innocently, with them padding along beside us to the park, a bit slower than they’d walk. We didn’t bother with helmets, originally. Their craniums were 2.5 feet off the ground and they were moving along at a snail’s pace. It didn’t take long, though, until Oh Baby Oh – we had maniacs on our hands.
Straddling their bikes, they could break into a run/glide pattern that propelled them forward at the pace of an adult’s quick jog. Soon, like mad hornets, they circled parks. They raced to the top of hills for the thrill of swooping down.
I immediately took them to a bike store and got them real helmets, because the faster they went – and their thirst for speed was seemingly limitless – the more they crashed. Knees were skinned (oh, so many skinned knees). More frighteningly, they’d flip over the handlebars, skidding forward on their faces.
Neither their love for their bikes, nor their progress, were impeded by the wreckage. I have several extra gray hairs, though. No one sustained a serious injury – even after the horrid head-on crash where one twin was heading down a relatively steep hill and the other was going up it, and the down-hill kid flipped all the way OVER HER SISTER OMGAH.
This past fall, at newly four, one girl hopped on a neighbor’s “real” bike, sans training wheels. With a few wobbles, she was off, pedaling away into the sunset. Sure, her ability to steer (AND BRAKE) were undeveloped, but the concept was there.
We bought them real bikes for Christmas. Like many families who go the balance bike route, we didn’t even bother having the training wheels installed. A few (hundred) jogs around the cul-de-sac later, we have four-year-olds who comfortably pilot bicycles, brake, steer, and generally raise heck.
And herein lies the joke (on me): I have four-year-olds, and I’m the genius who thought it would be a good idea to make them FASTER. Bicycles have the same legal status as vehicles, and I have empowered my crazy kids to ride them. And, while that may not sound like that big of deal to you, you might want to run it by the 10,000 people who jumped out of my kid’s way as she hollered, “EXCUSE ME,” barreling down the bike path at Smale Park last Sunday, scattering packs of walkers like bowling pins.
(In my defense, I had no idea how crowded it would be. Also, if that was you, I am so, so, so sorry.)
I come from the parenting school that considers skinned knees to be an integral part of childhood. I also have the type of kids who thrive if I keep them physically active, and by “thrive,” I mean “are easier to put to bed.” Overall, I’d give the balance bike experience two huge thumbs up. If I had a third hand, I’d use it to clutch at my pearls and tell you these lessons learned:
- Get thyself a very good helmet, one that is light enough, comfortable enough, and awesome enough so that your kids won’t whine about wearing it. ENFORCE THE HELMET. And if it cracks, replace it.
- You really might want to…not embrace this trend if your neighborhood is hilly. Or if you have a lick of sense.
- But if you have thrill-seeking mini Evil Knievels, this is so for you.
- Keep your crazy riders out of crowds (again, SO SORRY SMALE PARK GOERS).
- Expect knee skins. Stock up on bandages.
- Have so, so, so much fun.