Family bicycling

Bike riding together as a family is a great way to bond outdoors and makes exercise fun for all. Learning how to get your kids off on the right foot, or pedal, is time and energy well spent.

This article picks up where the REI Expert Advice article, Cycling with Young Kids, leaves off—when your child has first learned how to ride a bike. See also our Teaching a Child to Ride a Bike article and video.

The Goal: Make Cycling Fun

When starting out, keep the end in mind. In this case, your goal is a child who says something like, “This is fun!” The goal is not distance, speed, endurance or perfect technique. The goal is just fun, even if it means frequent stops and snacks, so that they’re eager to participate the next time around.

So, what are the key ingredients to making bike riding fun and helping your child develop a positive attitude toward the sport? For many older kids, just riding the bike is fun in itself. For younger kids just starting out, it pays to be prepared.

Pre-ride Prep

Choose flat terrain

Choose beginner terrain: Start in your child’s comfort zone, which is likely a flat, paved path, away from traffic, a few miles long. In time you can increase distance, incline, amount of traffic and explore unpaved trails.

Start fresh: Get a good night’s sleep the night before and a good meal about an hour before heading out.

Helmet fit: Bike helmets are mandatory. They should fit snugly and not rock side to side or back and forth. Helmets should sit level and low on the forehead, about 1-2 finger widths above the eyebrow. Side straps should form a V under each ear, and the chin strap should be snug, allowing room for no more than 1-2 fingers between chin and strap. Do the yawn test; ask your child to yawn big and the helmet should pull down on the head. Make sure you model good helmet habits by wearing yours, too.

Saddle height: Kids like to have their seats low when starting out, but make sure their leg is almost fully extended in the 6 o’clock position (bottom of the pedal rotation) to get enough power when pedaling.  

Clothing: Dress in layers so kids can easily take off a sweatshirt if they get too hot or add a rain jacket if it should start to sprinkle.  Also try to wear tapered sweat pants or tuck pants in socks to avoid fabric getting munched in the bike gears.

Provisions: In addition to your helmet, make sure to bring sunscreen, plenty of water and snacks.  Make hydrating easy by keeping water handy.  Does your child’s bike have a water bottle cage? If not, consider installing one for easy access. Many kids also love drinking from water hydration straws.

A-B-C check: Make sure tires have plenty of air, the brakes work and the chain has plenty of lube to work properly.

Safety tools: Make sure to bring a small first-aid kit to patch up any minor scrapes. Also bring a bike tool kit for changing a flat tire (see our fix a bike flat video for instructions) and learn how to fix a slipped bike chain.

Tips for the Trail

Keep instructions brief: Kids learn better by doing rather than listening.  Keep instructions short and to the point so they can get on the bike and learn through experience. 

Review basic skills: If your child is still a bit uncomfortable on a bike, start out practicing braking slowly. Eventually move into using hand signals (see below) and passing other riders on the trail.

Illustration courtesy of the city of Portland, Ore.

Use powers of observation: Tell kids to use their eyes and ears to "stop, look, and listen" to avoid potential hazards such as cars, potholes, curbs and broken glass. Also help hone their powers of observation by pointing out interesting sites along the way like animals, road signs, creeks and trees.

Enjoy a treat: Include a special treat on the ride, either by stopping for something yummy or bringing something they don’t usually get to have (consider healthy motivators like a novel fruit leather or a chocolate-y granola bar).

Tune into your child’s cues: Tune in to what your child might be needing throughout the ride. If they’re lagging behind, complaining or looking hot, it’s probably time for a break. If they’re keeping right up and looking content, ask if they want to go further, add more challenge, or keep the ride as is.

Be positive: Model a great attitude; your enthusiasm is contagious. Offer kids lots of specific praise for their effort, e.g., “You’re pedaling really smoothly,” or “I like how safely you’re riding” or “It’s fun riding with you!”

Traffic Safety

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), children less than 10 years old do not yet have the maturity to make decisions necessary to ride safely in the street, and are better off riding on the sidewalk. (But, first, check if sidewalk riding is legal in your town.)

If you feel that your older child is ready to ride in the street, follow these tips:

  • Bikes are vehicles: A bicycle is considered a vehicle, and you and your child are both expected to obey the same traffic laws, signs and signals that apply to cars and drivers.
  • Be alert: When crossing the street or turning, always look both ways and make eye contact with drivers to make sure they have seen you. Watch out for doors opening from parked cars.
  • Be visible: Wear bright colors, make sure you have both front and rear reflectors, and mount a bell or horn to be heard in traffic.
  • Ride with the flow of traffic: Always ride in the same direction as traffic, not against it, and ride in single file.
  • Familiarize your child with rules of the road: Rules of the road include such things as using arm signals, how to position your bike in the road when turning right or left, obeying traffic lights and signs, dismounting when crossing in crosswalks, letting pedestrians know when you’re passing and slowing down at intersections and railroad crossings to ensure it’s safe to cross.

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Family cycling photos courtesy of Debbie Steinberg-Kuntz.