Parent: "My 3 year old has mastered his balance bike. I feel he is ready to transition to a pedal bike. But when I put him on a pedal bike, he struggles with spinning the pedals. Do you have any advice to get my son pedaling?"
Struggling with learning to spin pedals is not uncommon, particularly for riders transitioning to pedal bikes younger than 4 years old. There are two common independent causes that could make it difficult for a young rider to spin pedals and it's helpful to try to identify the cause(s) so that you can offer the right kind of help.
Let's go through these one at a time.
Children need to understand some very basic things about how pedals work. They need to know (1) that when they spin pedals they are making the wheel turn (that is, that by spinning the pedals they will be propelling the bike forward) and (2) pedals need to spin forward to make the move.
A good exercise is to turn the bike upside down (or put it on a rack if you have one) and let your child spin the pedals and observe the back wheel spinning. This would also be an opportune time to make sure you child understands that when spinning, the chain, gears, cranks, wheels, and tires, are all danger zones for little fingers.
Children need to be able to get their feet on the pedals and consistently pedal them forward. I see two common issues here:
I generally teach first time riders to get moving by building momentum. First by running with their feet and then, once moving, finding the pedals and pedaling. This method requires that the rider be able to quickly get feet on the pedals. If the rider can't do this fast enough, the momentum will be lost and the rider will stall.
If the rider isn't pedaling at all, it could be that they don't fully understand that they need to pedal forward to spin the rear wheel. But another common issue is that the rider alternates between pedaling forward and backward. The former is typically an understanding issue (see above). The later is typically a coordination issue.
Some ways to address coordination issues:
Some parents whose kids struggle with pedaling ask if they should put their kid on a bike with training wheels. The idea is that the training wheels will allow they child to focus on pedaling without worrying about balance. However, if a rider is exposed to training wheels, there is a risk that (1) it will be difficult to ween them off of training wheels and (2) they will develop techniques (like leaning to the outside of turns or putting feet on pedals on a bike that isn't moving) that will then need to be unlearned. Please, just say "no" to training wheels.
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