Your 3-year-old toddler is a proven master of his/her balance bike. And they’re ready to transition to a pedal bike without training wheels. But there’s one little problem: the child struggles with pedaling the bike. So how do you help a kid learn to spin pedals properly?
Kids Struggling to Pedal a Bike is a Common Problem
Before I reveals the tips you need to help your kid struggle less with pedaling their new shiny kid’s mountain bike or BMX bike, here’s a simple truth to know: it’s not uncommon for young children to experience difficulty pedaling when transition to a pedal bike. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with your little one.
Most kids who start riding a balance bike at age 3 and keep practicing until age 4 usually have no issues graduating to a pedal bike without stabilizers. In most cases, 4-year-old balance bike graduates sit on a pedal bike and pedal away without problems.
But the same smooth transitioning doesn’t always happen for 3-year-olds. I spend some of my free time on parenting forums and relevant social media groups. And I’ve noticed that for the most part, the parent worrying that their little one can’t pedal their bike for the life of them have a 3-year-old. To be clear, though, you can introduce a 3-year-old to pedal biking.
What Causes Kids to Struggle With Spinning Pedals?
When a child who’s mastered a balance bike struggles with riding a pedal bike, it’s mainly because:
1.They’re not ready for it, yet.
2. They’ve yet to master coordination skills.
3. They haven’t learned/understood proper pedaling technique.
4. Bike geometry is off.
The good thing is that all these issues (except geometry) aren’t hard to address once you learn how they affect pedaling ability. Let’s now delve a little deeper into each possible cause to gain a better understanding of what holds your kid back.
1. The Kid Isn’t Ready for Spinning Pedals, Yet
Being not mature enough for spinning is in my opinion the most common reason some kids struggle with pedaling a bike without training wheels. They might be able able to reach the pedals, or they may not have enough strength to rotate the pedals.
Things get worse if the bike they’re learning to pedal on has geometry issues. I’ve yet to see a 2-in-1 balance bike whose pedals work efficiently. Bikes that convert from being a balance bike to a pedal bike come with uniquely designed pedals. These pedals fold in and out as needed, allowing the young rider to switch from one riding mode to the other.
The vast majority of kids who have trouble spinning pedals haven’t reached their 4th birthday. If you believe this to be the cause, here’s what to do: wait. Simply be patient and encourage the child each time they express frustration.
2. The Child Hasn’t Yet Mastered Coordination Skills
If the child can reach the pedals but seems to be having problems pedaling, it’s most likely because their coordination isn’t where it needs to be.
Usually, a kid in this situation hasn’t yet learned that propelling a bike forward requires a certain amount of momentum. And even when they can build up enough momentum, they’re unable to quickly find the pedals and start spinning.
How do you help a kid struggling this way to help themselves? Let them know that momentum built up pre-pedaling makes spinning a whole lot easier. Have the kid practice running on the bike for some time before quickly catching the pedals and beginning to spin. Momentum makes pedaling feel easier, and nothing encourages like this initial success.
Any kid who can’t put foot to pedal quickly enough soon learns that momentum decreases and pedaling feels harder. And the bicycle finally stops, setting the stage for frustration and despair.
3. The Kid’s Not Understood Proper Pedaling Technique
If you’ve watched a kid pedaling a bicycle for the first time, especially one with training wheels, you probably noticed they tended to pedal backwards. Pedaling backwards is clearly not a good pedaling technique. Any kid who wants to learn to pedal a bike properly needs to unlearn rotating the pedals backwards.
Well, back-pedaling some of the time won’t dramatically ruin a kid’s ability to pedal properly. But if the bike they’re learning pedaling on features coaster brakes, pedaling backward causes a problem. Every time the child rotates the pedals backwards, this action activates the brakes, which leads to loss of momentum and births frustration.
When buying a balance bike, consider picking a choice that has a freewheel as back-pedaling such a bike doesn’t cause momentum loss issues.
What you can do to help a kid learn to pedal forward correctly and consistently: Use a DIY trainer.
How to Use a DIY Trainer to Teach a Kid to Spin Pedals
I don’t advise any parent to use a bike with training wheels for practice though as that’s like lulling the kid to a skill-killing comfort zone. Instead, get a way to prop up the rear tire and have the kiddo sit and pedal the stationary bike.
One way to do this is to use toy blocks. Place a stack of kids’ building blocks under the bottom bracket to lift the rear wheel off the ground.
Hold the bicycle down firmly by applying pressure on the handlebar. The whole point of doing this is to encourage the kiddo to focus on the most important thing and ignore everything else: pedaling.
The bike isn’t rolling forward or backward, and there’s no steering or balancing to do since you’re holding the whip down, stabilizing it.
I used this teaching technique to save a neighbor’s kid from the frustration of not being able to pedal. It took them a couple of days to master proper pedaling technique. Once they mastered pedaling, I stopped supporting them, and they sat on the bike and just rode away.
Alternatively, grab the saddle with the kid sitting and lift the bike’s rear off the ground so that the tire no longer touches the ground. Before you do this, check the clamp on the seat post to make sure it safely secures the saddle.
How to Use Training Wheels to Teach a Kid to Pedal
I get it: some parents believe kids need to learn on a bike with stabilizers before finally transitioning to a bicycle without training wheels. It’s not a process I recommend at all for kids who’ve mastered gliding on a balance bike because it tends to delay their progress.
If you must use training wheels to teach pedaling to a kid, here’s what to do:
- Get a bike with stabilizers.
- Stand the bike so that the training wheels sit on a solid block or a thick piece of lumber.
- Hold down the front of the bike to steady it.
- Have the child pedal maniacally until it becomes as easy and natural as balancing on the bike and steering.
4. Awkward Bike Geometry
Geometry isn’t super important when it comes to choosing a bike for a kid. But this doesn’t mean it’s absolutely unimportant. In fact, nothing can make a kid’s bicycle more difficult to ride and maneuver than bad geometry.
But what’s bad bike geometry? If the kid isn’t sitting in a comfortable position, if pedal placement is awkward, if the saddle doesn’t sit right, if the distance between the saddle and handlebar (cockpit) is too short, if the space between the back of the saddle and the rear tire is too huge, that’s bad geometry. And bad geometry adversely affects the little rider’s ability to pedal the bike efficiently. Learn more about bike geometry here.
How to Set Up a Kid’s Pedal Bike Correctly
One way to help a kid pedal better is to set up the saddle correctly. Setting the saddle is the single most important fit-related adjustment you can make on a kid’s pedal bicycle. Here’s a video demonstrating how to fit a bike properly to a kid.
Have your kid stand beside the pedal bike with their shoes on and notice how high the saddle sits in relation to the hip line. If the saddle is below the hip, move it up until it sits at the same level as the hip line. Do the opposite if the saddle sits higher than the kid’s hip line.
Next, have your kiddo sit on the bicycle. They should be able to touch the ground with their feet so they can get off the bike quickly whenever they need to bail.
Then, move the pedals to the lowest position, the 6 O’clock position. In this pedal position, the knees should be slightly bent rather than too bent or too straight. And if they can’t reach the pedal, move the saddle down.
With most kids’ bikes today moving the saddle up or down is pretty easy. You don’t even need a tool to do it. Simply work the quick-release lever around the seat post, move the seat up/down, and return the QR mechanism to its original position.
As for the seat angle, use a level or a smartphone app to make sure the saddle stays horizontal to the ground. But if your kid prefers a slightly tilted saddle, loosen the nut under the seat and move the front of the seat up or down as needed.
Finally, move the seat backward or forward to make sure the young rider rides in the most comfortable position possible.
To know how much you need to move the seat either forward or backward, have your kiddo sit on the bike and move the pedals to the 3 O’clock position. In the 3 O’clock position, the front of each knee should coincide with the middle of the pedal. Move the seat backward or forward as needed.
Wrapping Up on How to Help a Kid Learn Proper Pedaling
Most kids aged 4 easily transition to a pedal bike without wheels but kids 3 years and younger sometimes struggle with pedaling. If they’re too young, be patient and they’ll gradually grow into pedaling a bike in motion.
Get a bike with good geometry and set the saddle angle, saddle height, and handlebar height correctly. If the kid still struggles, use a DIY trainer to help them focus on pedaling. You hold the bike down by the handlebar to keep the bike stationary so that the child doesn’t need to do any steering or balancing.
One more thing: get a pedal with a freewheel instead of an option with coaster brakes because coaster brakes diminish bike momentum, making pedaling that much harder.
I'm Esther Moni, a proud stay-at-home mom and a psychology graduate of the United States International University (USIU) . I hate it when anyone calls me a housewife, because what does housewife even mean? Being a mother of two babies and a pup, Bailey, as well as being Ricky's wife tires me to no end, but I still manage a smile at the end of it all. And when my boys aren't done doing mischief, I juggle writing a post on parenting or baby gear performance for this blog and running my little counselling office based out in Nairobi. <a href="https://www.facebook.com/esther.moni/">Visit my Facebook profile here</a>, and this is my <a href="https://ke.linkedin.com/in/esther-moni-3841b573/">LinkedIn profile</a>, and here's my <a href="https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKcVb3NNDrURDH8C0KiAE1g/">nascent youtube channel.