An essential critical skill of riding any bike is maintaining balance. After all, it’s a skill that regardless of whether you intend on riding a road bike, mountain bike or even a motorbike is universal!
Enter the balance bike - a fuss-free way to get young riders started on two wheels with balance being the essential skill they develop. By using their legs to propel the bike forward and also stabilise themselves, these bikes are great in aiding children in developing fine motor skills and good habits from the very beginning.
Additionally, balance bikes are loads of fun!
On a standard pedal bike with training wheels, children are encouraged to pedal first and balance second, making progression difficult when the training wheels are removed. When it is time for your child to move to a pedal bike, kids that are comfortable on balance bikes need only to learn how to pedal, a much more natural progression.
So with that in mind, in this article, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about [Balance Bikes], including features to look out for and what to expect for your budget!
Related reading: Balance Bike Group Test
Benefits of a Balance Bike
Safety: In the early stages of learning to ride a balance bike if your child is unsure or lacking confidence, they can put their feet down when they need to. No, not to chuck a tantrum, but to stabilise themselves. With a balance bike, your child can comfortably stand over the bike, allowing them to walk along while standing over the bike to further improve their confidence!
Confidence: Confidence is everything for children and having the ability to learn at their own pace is crucial. Riding a balance bike encourages children to master the basics first and progressively develop more advanced skills associated with riding a bike.
Coordination: Riding a balance bike improves a child’s coordination and fine motor skills. Both of which are sure to carry over into other facets of life. Additionally, riding helps advance their depth perception, spatial awareness and overall physical abilities, including strength, flexibility and mobility.
Basic Traffic Rules: Riding outside with siblings, friends or parents teaches children basic traffic rules like stopping for lights, looking for traffic and crossing the road. Mastering these rules is essential before children can be left on their own to explore the world.
Health: With the abundance of electronic devices at our disposal these days, it’s great for kids to seek out as many active pursuits as possible. Getting out for a daily ride on the balance bike is a great way to keep young children active! And as they see their progression, they are sure to want to ride, even more, win-win! Additionally, being outside is going them to keep going for the rest of the day.
Fitness: Being active also improves their fitness. Obesity rates are rising at an alarming rate; not just among adults, but in children too. As such, anything we can do to increase activity and teach kids good lessons is sure to benefit them in the long run. Getting the little ones into a healthy, active routine is also vital to building lifelong fitness habits. If you start them young, physical activity will seem like an everyday thing, and not a chore.
React to stimulus: Riding outside encourages children to react to their environment and learn to deal with outside factors like temperature, wind, possibly rain and varying terrain. Getting used to these factors early will make the transition to riding a pedal bike on their own much more comfortable.
How To Know When Your Child Is Ready For A Balance Bike.
It’s important to not that your child needs to be able to walk confidently to use a balance bike. As well as being able to balance, they need to be able to push themselves along.
Your child also needs to be able to comfortably stand over the balance bike and place their feet on the ground. This ensures your child that they are in control and provides stability if they need to stop or put their feet down.
Additionally, it’s unwise to force kids into riding a balance bike. Children need to enjoy the experience and have a positive association with the bike to want to learn how to ride it and do it longterm.
Choosing The Right Balance Bike
Choosing the right balance bike might seem simple in comparison to a pedal bike. After all, there are less moving components, they appear easy to operate, they are small, and they cost far less than a full-sized pedal bike. But don’t be fooled, there are many things to consider to ensure you choose the right bike.
Below are the key elements you need to consider when choosing the right balance bike.
Size is the number one thing to consider when buying a balance bike. Don’t think of a balance bike the same way as a pair of shoes, the bike needs to fit your child right now, not in 6 months.
Getting a bike that is too big or too small can make your kid feel uncomfortable and lead to a negative experience. If they aren’t happy on the bike, they won’t want to get on it.
The most common size for balance bikes is either 12” or 14” which relates to the size of the tyres. Although tyre size is a useful measurement, it is not indicative of the frame size or seat height of the bike. As well as looking at the bikes tyre size, be aware of the minimum and maximum seat height.
Consider a few of the following questions when figuring out if the size of the bike is right.
Can the child easily stand over the bike?
Can the child walk the bike while standing over it?
Can the seat be adjusted as the child grows?
Can the child easily reach the handlebars when sitting on the seat?
Seat height can vary a large amount and isn’t dependent upon the size of the bike or tyres.
The seat height of balance bikes will typically begin at 10” and can go right up to adult-sized balance bikes measuring at more than 40”. The best way to know if your little one will fit the bike is to get them to stand over it. Failing that, measure their inseam and allow 1.5” - 2” leeway to the seat.
For example: if your child’s inseam is 16”, the seat height for their balance bike cannot be over 14”. Be sure to measure your kid’s inseam without shoes on.
Tyres come in many different forms; solid foam, pneumatic (A tyre inflated with air), honeycomb rubber, solid rubber and hard plastic.
The two main types of balance bike tyres are pneumatic and foam.
Pneumatic – Standard Air Inflated Tyre
These tyres are most common thanks to the all-round benefits they provide. Pneumatic tyres provide a cushioned ride and good grip. Additionally, they will come in multiple tread patterns. Either knobby tyres, similar to mountain bike tyres, or a standard tread pattern, which is similar to road bike tyres.
Depending on the area you live in and the type of terrain your child will be riding, the tread pattern can make a big difference. Choose the relevant tread type to your area to provide the best possible platform for your little one to enjoy their riding.
As with mountain bike and road bike tyres, pneumatic tyres are prone to flats. If kids run over a piece of glass or runs into a curb at speed (it happens), this can cause a pinch flat or puncture.
Sealant can be placed into the tyre to avoid having to change a tyre with every flat, quickly covering up any cuts or holes that occur while riding. Your local bike shop can provide you with some sealant or a puncture repair kit. Ensuring the tyres are kept inflated to the recommended pressure should generally be sufficient prevention from flats.
These tyres are commonly used thanks to their lightweight, durability, low profile, low maintenance and low cost. They don’t provide the cushioning or grip that standard tyres do, but they are cheap, and there’s nothing to puncture. Additionally, these foam tyres sit with a lower profile and so are sometimes used to create more economical and smaller bikes.
The material used for balance bikes can vary according to price and will affect the durability, weight and look of the bike.
Here are the most common materials used for balance bikes.
Steel balance bikes have a significant advantage over other materials: durability. There are not many more ‘kid-proof’ materials that will stand up to the rigours toddlers, and young children will put their belongings through.
This durability does come at a cost. Steel balance bikes are going to be heavier than some other materials and generally more expensive. The extra weight of the bike may be an issue for some smaller children. Steel is also subject to rust if left out or ridden in all weather conditions.
Aluminium is a material commonly used in full-size adult bikes thanks to its lightweight and performance characteristics. Aluminium balance bikes will be lightweight, durable and rust-proof, but can be more expensive than other materials.
Plastic is a material commonly used on smaller and cheaper balance bikes. Plastic is typically not as durable as other materials but is lightweight, potentially making usage of the bike more comfortable than more substantial materials.
A key exception to this is seen with the ‘FirstBike’ out of Germany which uses an incredibly strong glass-reinforced plastic for high strength, durability and lightweight. Of course, such materials don’t come cheaply.
Wooden balance bikes are making a resurgence thanks to their stylish appearance, classic feel and sometimes recyclable. Wooden bikes provide a good option at an affordable price, striking a balance between cost, weight and durability.
The concern with choosing wood is it will most likely deteriorate more rapidly if it is left outside in the elements for long periods. They also typically allow for limited seat height adjustment.
Be mindful of how much the balance bike weighs. The heavier the bike is, the harder it is going to be for a child to maneuver. The harder it is, the less likely a child is going to want to do it.
The weight of the bike will depend primarily on what material it is made out of and the type of tyres fitted. As a rough guide, aim for a bike that weighs no more than 25% of your child.
A distinct yet crucial factor to consider is the maximum weight limit of the balance bike, it is unsafe to ride if a child exceeds the recommended safe weight limit.
It’s also worth considering the weight of the bike from the parent’s point of view. Anyone with kids will tell you about the short attention span and potential for wild mood swings. There’s a high likelihood, thanks to the fickle nature of toddlers attitudes, you may end up carrying the bike and your child home from a ride.
Children will most likely stop by using their feet, either by simply putting them down and standing up. Or, if they are going fast enough, putting them on the ground and gradually slowing themselves down.
Some balance bikes will come with a secondary brake operated by hand. This can be a key learning consideration as it will get your child used to pulling the hand brake to slow down rather than using their feet (and ruining their shoes!).
When your child is prepared to do this will vary depending on their physical ability, confidence and strength. Around three-four years is a useful guide.
Hand-operated brakes on balance bikes are designed to fit the hand of a child and require minimal force to work. Before buying a balance bike with a hand-operated brake, ensure it is a ‘short-reach’ lever designed explicitly for small hands.
As the name suggests, turning limiters reduce the amount the handlebars can turn. The theory behind the design is to provide a safer platform for children to steer the balance bike, preventing them from turning the bike sharply.
Your child will still be able to steer and easily move the front wheel. However, they won’t be able to perform a complete revolution of the front wheel, which could lead to a crash or trip over the handlebars. Additionally, it’ll prevent your little one getting trapped between the bike’s frame and handlebar.
The inclusion of turning limiters has its positives and negatives. If you are unsure whether turning limiters should feature on a balance bike, it is possible to get removable and flexible options. These options allow you to adjust and/or them remove as you see fit.
Footrests are not a standard feature on balance bikes nor an essential component. As the name suggests, they are a platform for children to rest their feet on while the bike is in motion.
Footrests are best considered for children that are confident on the balance bike and considered strong and physically capable of riding the bike without assistance. Footrests will be useful for long downhill sections or if your child can produce enough speed, allowing them to coast for long periods.
It is essential when considering buying a balance bike with footrests that they don’t hinder the movement of your child or have the potential to cause a crash or injury. Look for footrests with a non-slip surface to provide sure-footing.
After getting the right size, the grips and the seat are the two most important points to consider. They are the two’ touch points’ of the bike and will influence how the child handles and controls the bike.
Make sure the grips and not too thick and can easily be held onto. To provide extra protection for little hands, look for grips that have large bulges on the outside. These large bulges will provide protection for children if they scrape their handlebars against walls, bushes or other sharp objects.
They will also prevent your child’s hand from hitting the ground if they do fall off the bike or slipping off the side of the handlebars.
Exposed, covered, rounded and recessed are all varying ways that wheel bolts present on balance bikes.
Exposed bolts have the potential to cause injury if your kid was to fall or brush up against them, and can also interfere with the walking / running action required to move. Covered and rounded bolts provide some protection from falls and injury but can still interfere with powering the bike.
Recessed bolts are the best option as they are hidden, protecting children from any potential damage and interference with moving.
As with any new purchase, be sure to check the warranty. Check what it covers, for how long and what you have to do to replace it if required.
Most bikes will have a lifetime warranty on the frame and manufacturers warranty on parts but check before your purchase as each bike will be different.
Depending on how many children will be using the bike, the warranty may be crucial. The balance bike you buy today could end up going through half a dozen kids and possibly even a couple of generations.
Price of balance bikes will depend on the brand, frame material, tyres, size and parts. Typically speaking expect balance bikes to range from $50 to $450
Spending more doesn’t always lead to a better product, so be sure to follow the above guidelines and buy a bike that fits, suits the local terrain, is lightweight and one that your child loves.
In addition to meeting the practical guidelines above, look for a bike that speaks to your child’s interests and gets them excited. Choose one in their favourite colour, features their favourite cartoon character, maybe go for one that looks like mum’s or dad’s, or maybe pick the one with racing stripes? Whatever balance bike option gets your child excited about riding is a winner.
There are some basic things you can do to improve the function and longevity of a balance bike (and all bikes for that matter).
Tyres Ensure tyres are pumped up to their specified pressure and any dirt or grit removed. If you don’t inflate the tyres, they will be more prone to pinch flats and adversely affect the handling of the bike, making things unnecessarily hard for children.
Check the bearings: Check the bearings of anything that moves; wheels, handlebars, the seat and brakes. Lubricate the bearings regularly to prevent them rusting or squeaking.
Clean and dry: Make sure the bike is always clean and dry. As mentioned above, if your bike is made from steel or wood, it can be prone to rust or degradation. If possible, keep the bike indoors at all times or at least out of the elements.
Once you have purchased the perfect balance bike, it’s time to think about the essential accessories to accompany it.
**Helmet:* Having a properly sized and fitted helmet is the most obvious and perhaps the most important. Helmets are mandatory in Australia for any age, so your child will have to wear a helmet regardless.
Wearing a helmet will develop good habits for later in life when they have grown up and are riding out on their own.
**Pads: * Knee and elbow pads are not compulsory but could speed up a child’s development on the balance bike.
Having the extra security of padding may make your child more willing to take small risks and expedite their development. Risks they may have been too afraid to take had they not been wearing them. Using elbow and knee pads while your child is in the early stages of using the balance bike can develop their skills, confidence and coordination.
As soon as they feel comfortable and their skills are good enough, it’s time to take the pads off.
Slow and steady wins the race: When trying to teach children how to ride a balance bike, take it slow and steady. Provide a safe environment, free from obstacles and hazards, that’s quiet and allows for plenty of time practising.
Back on the horse: Falls are inevitable, but the quicker children can get back on their bike and restore their confidence, the better. Encourage them to get straight back up and on the (metaphorical) horse.
A gentle decline is best: Pushing the bike and trying to balance can be too much too soon for some kids. If possible, find a very mild decline and let children roll down with their feet in the air, so all they have to focus on is balance. A driveway is an excellent option for this as it is short so children can’t build up too much speed, and the surroundings will be familiar, adding to their confidence.
Be their cheer squad: Encourage children as much as possible and praise small achievements.
Be involved: Learning to ride a bike is one of those life goals we remember for the rest of our lives, so make sure you are a part of it. It can be a great bonding experience and a moment in time you can share forever.