The Great Debate: Balance Bikes vs. Training Wheels

Skuut_kids.jpgKids Skuuting during Mission Sunday Streets last year. Photo: SF Bike.

(This story originally appeared on the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s blog)

There are two factions in this city as polarized as Republicans and
Democrats, and the debate is taking place on playgrounds across San
Francisco: training wheels, or balance bikes?

For those of you who haven’t been to a playground in the past few
years, balance bikes are kids’ bikes that come without pedals or
training wheels. Kids sit on them and push against the ground, as if
running, to propel themselves forward. Some parents swear by them, while
others have forsworn them. The balance bike vs. training wheels
argument is a heated one in some families.

"The debates cook and sizzle," says Nancy Madynski, mom and Social
Events Chair for Friends of Dolores Park. "I am on the training wheel
side. My husband is on the balance bike side. My position is that we’ve
all learned on training wheels. We took a couple tumbles but we
eventually got it.  My husband’s argument is that most of bike riding is
balance and overcoming fear. He believes that because balance bike
riders can keep their feet down they get really comfortable with the
concept of two wheels."

Lack of fear-factor is one of the biggest selling points for balance
bikes and one of the biggest brands is The Skuut. Designed for kids ages
two-to-five, The Skuut "is perfect for learning balance, steering,
coordination and independence," says Jenny Stern, co-founder of Diggin
Active, Inc., maker of The Skuut. She explains that after kids get the
hang of balancing on a Skuut, the transition to a two wheeled bike is
easy.  

"We have seen many children who are able to use a Skuut the first
time they sit down on the bike," Stern says. "They intuitively learn to
coast with their feet up, and begin to balance as they glide."

But training wheels still definitely have their adherents.

"There’s no research that says [balance bikes] are better or more
effective than training wheels," says Dr. Jeffrey A. Potteiger, Director
of the Center for Health Enhancement at Miami of Ohio University. "The
main difference I can see is that they require the rider to exert a
little more energy.  I’m a research person. I’m a little skeptical."

Dr. Potteiger taught his kids how to ride with training wheels. "Kids will take advantage of training wheels so my wife and I made a
game: ‘can you ride from here to the end of the street without letting
the training wheels touch the ground?’  Each child is going to be
different. It comes down to when they have the confidence and skills to
ride safely and enjoyably."

Many parents look back on their memories of training wheels with
disdain. "I’m planning to avoid the whole training wheel fiasco," says
Steve Armijo, a San Francisco software engineer. "I remember how they
would ‘thunk’ into the ground on turns just when you had a little speed.
It was frightening."

diaper_kid_on_radio_flyer.jpgPhoto: Regina Hope Sinsky

Armijo is getting his daughter ready to transition from her
four-wheeled Radio Flyer Tiny Trike to a balance bike. 

"She barely fit over a Skuut as of our last Sports Basement trip,
however I expect that in two months, for her birthday, she’ll have a
Skuut hanging in the garage next to her parents’ bikes," says Armijo.

Meantime, other parents are taking a three-wheeled approach to
training. Bret "One T" Lobree, also of San Francisco, says his daughter "learned to ride a tricycle at daycare without any help from us. Peer
pressure, at two and a half years old." Bret’s daughter wears her helmet
out of that same mimic behavior. She wants to be like her dad who
commutes via bike to work. Her next bike will be a balance bike. Which
one, Bret isn’t sure. There are many to chose from.

Mike’s Bikes carries Specialized’s Hot Walk (they used to have
Skuuts). Unlike the wooden Skuut, these bikes are aluminum (one Mike’s
Bike employee with discriminating taste, Davin Pukulis, is waiting for a
titanium version). Zack Stender, the General Manager of Mike’s San
Francisco location, is a huge fan of balance bikes. The way he talks
about them you would think he’d ridden one before. He’s not a parent,
but he certainly knows kids bikes.

"I urge every parent to get a Hot Walk rather than a bike with
training wheels," says Stender. "Kids that start with balance bikes can
pretty much skip training wheels altogether. After the 12-inch wheel
balance bike, they move to the 16 inch pedal-bikes without training
wheels and they instantly know how to balance. All they need to learn is
pedaling, which is much easier than learning balance.”

Stender is shocked that balance bikes weren’t invented sooner. "It’s a
no-brainer," he says. "Not sure why this took so long. I think they
would be more popular if they came in larger sizes."

Many parents wish balance bikes had come out sooner too. 

"My first boy, now seven, learned to ride on a tricycle and then
training wheels and is just now shedding his training wheels and going
on his own," says San Francisco mom Elizabeth Sullivan. "But my
just-turned three year old, who used a Skuut, has the balance and
control without training wheels and we are now in the process of
teaching him too. It’s amazing!"

Regardless of what bike you choose, getting kids on bikes is one of
the best things you can do for their development. 

"No question whatsoever, bikes help kids with movement, visual, and
reaction skills," says Dr. Potteiger. "From a fitness and exercise
standpoint, kids on bikes are not playing video games, so that’s a good
thing. Riding a bike establishes the foundation for developing other
athletic abilities, like running, kicking a soccer ball, and body
awareness."

No matter what kind of bike your kids start out on, it’s better than
sitting around watching TV.  That’s something both sides can agree on.

You can have your child test out a balance bike during the San
Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Freedom From Training Wheels program in
car-free areas of the city. The next stop for Freedom from Training
wheels will be Sunday Streets
in the Bayview on Sunday May 23 (11am-3pm). The Bicycle
Coalition’s trained instructors will be on hand to give one-on-one
assistance to help kids learn to balance and ride without training
wheels and parents leave with tips to practice at home. More information
on the Freedom From Training Wheels program at: http://www.sfbike.org/freedom

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Skuut’s cute, but does anyone know why they cost a hundred bucks?

  • Nick

    Does the debate even matter if most kids stop cycling at 12 or 13 only to start again (if ever) in their college years?

    This is where the supposed Bike Network has failed.

  • patrick

    I don’t have kids, but I don’t really see the advantage of the balance bikes. Why not just get a kids bike, take off the pedals, and lower the seat? Then when the kid is ready put the pedals back on, and raise the seat. Voila!

  • Paul

    It looks like Nick never rode again after he hit his teens, others have a different experience. I would also like to know where your stats come from? I say train your kids to ride a bike the old fashion way. No training wheels, no balance bike, just your parent running behind you telling you to pedal. Yes your kid may fall and skin a knee, but that will teach your children to be bold.

  • Andy N

    @patrick – the Skuut and similar balance bikes are differentiated from a regular bike by the limited swing of the handlebars and fork – you can’t “cross-up” the bars, which is a common cause of spills for little riders. My niece managed to crash her tricycle on several occasions by getting the front wheel perpendicular to the line of travel.

  • Koa

    I disagree strongly with one of the statements above. We did not “all learn with training wheels”. My big brother put me on a bike and ran beside me. After a big push I promptly crashed. We repeated this process many times and many bruises. I eventually got it. I was the youngest kid around to ride a real bike. Geez guys, put a helmet on em and give them a shove. You’re not going to break the child at 3 miles an hour. A child that grows up with out a skinned knee or a goose egg on the knoggen once in a while. Will grow into a horrible horrible adult.

  • My son started with a balance bike at 4. He can ride it slowly right from the beginning and shows no fear of falling. By second day he rides pretty well already and start to propel himself faster and faster. My ‘teaching’ is minimal at best. Mostly he gets it by himself.

    I don’t know what debate we are talking about. Don’t use training wheel. It strikes me as the wrong way to learn biking.

    @Jeffrey, Skuut costs a hundred buck is no surprise to me. It is a novelty. Besides there are many many brand name kids product that easily cost multi-hundred dollars. This just reflects how much people are willing to spend on kids these days. Fortunately Target now carries another brand of balance bike with a lower price.

  • Mark

    Just take the pedals and drive chain on any regular bike, and you have a balance bike. No need to spend so much on a Skuut

  • Balance bike is the best way to go, no questions. It helps to build confidence in the kids balance first. That’s the hard part. Learning to pedal is the easy part!

    If you want more info on the efficacy of balance bike, I suggest you read this article. http://www.rollingonwheels.com/are-balance-bikes-worth-it/

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