Teaching Children Bicycle Skills

More Than Just a Shove Down the Driveway

by Lois Chaplin

Young children, wearing helmets, can enjoy an exhilarating ride seated safely in a bicycle child trailer or on the back of an adult's bike. By age five, many children are ready to ride along on wheels of their own. But before venturing far from home, be sure they have developed skills to handle their bike with ease. Here are a few tips for you to help the child in your life learn to enjoy safe cycling:

Children are NOT small adults
As with their physical development (hearing, height and vision), their cognitive skills arejust developing, too. All of these factors influence how they perceive and behave in traffic. Typically children have no concept of danger, view cars as friendly, themselves as indestructible, and are often impulsive and impatient. The real challenge for anyone working with children is to be sensitive to these factors and to not forget that change is constant. Like fruits on the vine, neither do children all ripen at the same time!

Fitting a helmet and bicycle is crucial
Make sure your child has a bike that is sized properly and is in good operating condition. No matter what age. a properly fitted bike is essential for assured comfort and control. Hand brakes should be perrnilled only if the child's hands are big enough to get a secure grip. And, don't forget that helmet. Remember, wearing means it wearing it right correctly: the helmet should be level with just a few fingers-width between the eyebrows and the helmet.

Master the basics of bicycle handling

  1. Balance. Find an open space, like a parking lot, and have the child practice a few basic handling skills in an area free of traffic and other hazards.
  2. How and where to start and stop. Work on how to stop at the end of a driveway or street. Stop: look left-right and left again before entering into the street.
  3. Riding straight. Find a painted line and work on cycling a straight line.
  4. Scanning and signaling. Practice scanning where the child looks behind and maintains the straight line. Once accomplished, introduce hand signals.

The task of scanning, signaling, handling the bike and making decisions relative to traffic is a complex one. Take it one step at a time and do not progress to the next level until the child has demonstrated each skill.

Neighborhood ride
Once the basics are mastered, it's time for you and the child to take practice rides through the neighborhood. This is the time to teach one of the guiding principles: once on the road, bicyclists are vehicle drivers and as much a part of the traffic community as are drivers of cars, buses, and trucks. Remember to point out why it's important to travel on the right side, just like all other traffic, and that a wise cyclist is a predictable cyclist. Take frequent stops and talk about what you see, including roadway hazards and how to avoid them.

Work on basic traffic concepts
When you're driving your car or taking a walk through the neighborhood, talk to your child about what's going on in traffic. Ask your child to look for traffic coming from different directions, or to watch a particular vehicle and try to guess what it might do. Talk about such words as yield, predictable, traffic laws and how they help all road users safely co-exist. Point out joggers or cyclists and note to what extent they are visible and what makes them more or less visible.

At about age 10, kids start using bikes to travel farther afield. As they venture out into the neighborhood to visit friends, teach them that each cyclist is responsible for assessing a situation, then making their own decision about how to handle it. This is especially important when they are cycling with their friends and are less apt to be cautious. Establish the rule that there will be no cycling at night. Tape a quarter inside their helmet and make sure they know they can call home for a ride if they get caught after dark.

It's important for all of us to remember we are role models for the children in our lives. By helping them develop their skills, and setting good examples, we are helping them to develop positive life-long cycling habits.

Reprinted from "Bicycle USA", magazine of the League of American Bicyclists, Jul/Aug 1997. Effective CyclingTM.
For more information about the League of American Bicyclists, visit their web site, www.bikeleague.org, or e-mail them at bikeleague@aol.com.

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