How I Didn’t Teach My Three-Year-Old Son to Ride His Bike Without Training Wheels

Nico’s the less coordinated of our sons. He runs quite awkwardly and can’t hit a tennis ball with a tennis racket to save his life.

And yet, at the tender age of three years and 10 months, he just learned how to ride his bike without training wheels.

I’m super proud of him, but actually, I can’t really take any credit for teaching him.

The only person who taught Nico is Nico. Seriously. Other than the last twenty minutes or so yesterday morning, when my oldest son Marco and I repeatedly yelled, “Pedal!!!” and “Keep moving!!!”, no one taught Nico any bike riding skills.

So, how did this not-very-coordinated three-year-old accomplish this amazing feat almost all on his own? After all, most kids don’t graduate from training wheels until at least the age of five.

The answer is that he lives in a great environment for learning how to ride a bike. In fact, I’d say most three-year-olds – even yours (!?!) – would be riding a bike without training wheels with barely any instruction if they had Nico’s same environment.

Here are the components of Nico’s environment that enabled him to teach himself to ride a bike:

  1. lots of kids’ wheeled vehicles in the garage: We don’t put cars in our garage. It’s all toys and storage, and the kids’ wheeled vehicle inventory is impressive – two two-wheeled scooters, one three-wheeled scooter, two plastic trikes with big front wheels, a balance bike (no pedals or training wheels), roller skates and roller blades, a skateboard, and a few bikes of different sizes with training wheels and without. We have all of these because we have three boys, and our oldest boy went through most of these first.
  2. a very smooth concrete driveway: When we moved into our present house three years ago, one of the first things I did was to remove the “pavers” – i.e. brick-like stones with rounded edges – in our driveway. In their place, I had a smooth concrete driveway installed. This may seem like a trivial renovation, even wasteful, but no change has had more of a positive impact on my kids’ play lives. Regarding bike riding, it opened the possibility for my kids to roll around casually every day right out of our garage.
  3. a calm, smooth street: Our block has few cars passing through it. In fact, practically the only cars that drive down it drive into or out of a driveway on our block. Also, our street was repaved last year, so its surface went from very uninviting for small wheels to very inviting.
  4. an older brother who rides his bike a lot: We consider Marco, age seven, to be much more coordinated than Nico. He didn’t start biking without training wheels until he was five because the house we lived in before our present one didn’t have nearly as good an environment for learning bike riding. However, since he started two years ago, he’s turned into a great cyclist. He rides 1-1/2 miles to and from school every day, and from this foundation, he’s started doing some adult-grade cycling this summer, including a 34-mile bike ride and a 1700 foot mountain climb with me.
  5. freedom to play unsupervised: Nico and Marco play unsupervised quite a bit. We even let them ride bikes on the street in front of our house, with an adult checking in frequently. When that happens, we usually have one of those “Slow, Children at Play” signs in the middle of the street. That may seem super-scary to many parents, but we did not give this freedom all of a sudden. We gave a little more and more incrementally over over the years, as they got more “independence skills.” I write about this process in the article, Giving Freedom Incrementally. At this point, Nico’s very good about watching for cars and getting out of the way when they come.
  6. lots of time to play outside: We have no television or video games inside the house, and we don’t schedule many activities for our kids. So, they’re outside in our yard and neighborhood for hours every day, having fun. Really…

The story of Nico learning to ride a bike without training wheels starts with him being in our front yard a lot, watching Marco riding his bike, first with training wheels, then not. So, Nico had a strong desire to do the same.

Then, over the course of the last two years, he just kept trying the different wheeled vehicles in our garage. With all the time he had out there, he’s figured out a tremendous amount on his own. I remember when he was trying and trying to ride a two-wheeled scooter, and then, he figured it out, and then he got more and more confident on it. I remember when he was frustrated trying to ride one of those plastic trikes with the big front wheel, and then he figured that out, too.

At some point, he started riding a bike with training wheels, and once he got confident at that, he rode with Marco on the sidewalk and street over and over again. He started riding with us on short rides down the street. The first time he rode with us to our little city’s downtown three quarters of a mile away, I was very nervous. He took a few rests, and the whole ride took a half hour. After that, when he rode with us, he got much stronger.

Then, to my surprise, I saw him riding that balance bike a week or two ago. No one told him to do it – he just grabbed the bike himself and tried it. When I saw that he could pick his feet up and coast, I knew that he was ready to ride his bike without training wheels.

So, yesterday, I took the training wheels off and asked him to ride. Certainly, he was a bit clumsy at first, but he started riding it like that balance bike – running and picking up his feet. Then, Marco and I yelled “Pedal!!!” and “Keep moving!!!” quite a bit as we ran next to him. In twenty minutes or so, he was doing just that, and by the end of the day, he rode the half mile+ to his grandparents’ house, only putting his feet down once on a little uphill stretch.

This is a story of thousands of experiments, practically all initiated by Nico over a couple of years, to try something new and harder. It would have been foolish for adults to try to control this process. Allison Gopnik makes the point very eloquently in The Philosophical Baby that kids are great trial-and-error experimenters, all by themselves. Nico did a fabulous job himself. All we did was set the table for him.

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