Spring has sprung, and it’s time to break out the bikes! Learning to ride a bike is a right of passage for many children, and it’s a skill they can take with them their entire lives.
While SPD and other sensory issues present some unique challenges, you can help your child feel safe and confident by breaking the process up into small, simple steps and allowing him to go at his own pace. Below is a method we’ve found successful with our own children–feel free to use it as a starting point and modify as needed.
Above all, stay positive and remember to celebrate the small victories. Good luck!
The Issue: Sensory Overload
Becoming irritated or overwhelmed by physical sensations like the wind blowing in his face, uncomfortable safety gear, or the sight of objects whizzing by quickly
What to Do
Let your child pick out his own helmet and pads and add extra cloth or padding if needed. Introduce new textures and sensations slowly.
The Issue: Vestibular Processing
Problems with balance, motion, or spatial orientation, such as feeling out of control, unsteady, or too far away from the ground
What to Do
Consider getting a tricycle, scooter, or balance bike first. Practice balancing and moving with speed before making the leap to a regular bike.
The Issue: Motor-Based Problems
Difficulties maintaining stamina, determining the order in which to make certain movements, or coordinating different muscle groups
What to Do
Break new skills down into small, simple steps and use repetition to reinforce new concepts. Physically guide your child through the process.
The Issue: Sensory Discrimination
Inability to properly gauge the distance between objects, the different shapes of street signs, or how much force is being used to pedal or turn
What to Do
Practice telling the difference between the shapes of two signs, the distance between two toys, or whether he’s going fast or slow. Make it a game and have him try to “trick” you.
The Issue: Fear
Meltdowns, anxiety, or refusal to practice caused by any of the above issues
What to Do
Be supportive and patient. Make sure your child is regulated before you begin, and allow him to go at his own pace.
Learning to Ride
- Have your child sit on the bike and stand directly in front of him so he can see everything you’re doing and knows you’re in control. Slowly move the handlebars left to right, back and forth, so he can both see and feel the movement.
- Have him practice getting on and off the bike while you continue to hold it steady.
- Slightly tilt the bike in either direction, as if it’s going to fall, and have him practice “catching” himself by leaning and putting his foot down on the correct side.
- Continue to hold the handlebars and have him practice getting on and off as you tilt. Make sure to practice on both sides until he’s comfortable.
- Stand behind the bike and repeat step #3 using the balance bar. When he’s comfortable with his footing, start tipping the bike farther–just enough so that he must catch himself.
- Use the balance bar to push the bike slowly forward. Have him practice steering while you keep the bike upright and steady. Move on to pedaling and braking when he’s mastered steering.
- Continue to hold on, but encourage him to go faster. Make a game of seeing if he can “make Mommy/Daddy run.” Let him be completely in control of speed and stopping.
- Tell him you can let go whenever he’s ready–and when he tells you to let go, do it! Practice pedaling and stopping over and over until he doesn’t fall and can confidently control the bike on his own.
- Start working on turns. Place cones or toys in a parking lot or other open space and have him weave around and through them. Focus on slowing down and making wide swings around objects, and move the objects closer together as he gets comfortable.
- Being on a bike automatically forces children to maintain a safe social distance from one another, but it lets them be just close enough to talk as they ride.
- Less traffic and more open parking lots allow new or less confident riders the privacy to practice and make mistakes and without feeling watched.
The Benefits of a Bike
- Social inclusion and participation – Riding with their peers allows children to make social connections and form lasting friendships.
- Mental health – Mastering a new skill can dramatically improve your child’s confidence, concentration, and independence.
- Physical health – Bikes are a great way to get fresh air, build stamina, and improve balance and muscular coordination.
Before You Start
- Make sure your child’s feet can reach the ground while he’s sitting on the bike and that he can operate the brakes on his own. Avoid flip-flops and loose, baggy clothing.
- Find a good place to practice. Empty parking lots are great because they’re generally flat and have plenty of room to practice braking, coasting, and making wide turns.
- Make sure your child is regulated before you leave the house. If he’s hungry, overtired, moody, or irritated by his helmet or clothing, it’s just not the right day for a lesson.
- Make sure you are regulated and have the time to totally focus on your child.
- Keep your expectations in check. Plan to focus on a single task or lesson per day.
Have another suggestion? Let us know in the comments!