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training wheels reconsidered

The cognoscenti are down on training wheels these days: balance bikes are all the thing. And I used to be right there with them. I wanted Harvey to get one back when he was three, and was a little disappointed when grandma Beth, instead, delivered a 12-inch bike with training wheels. At least it was a beautiful 12-inch bike, with full fenders and a rack. And in the event it was perfect for what Harvey needed. So I didn't mind at all when Grandpa Ira recently procured Zion his own, even smaller, first bike.

Zion's new bike: red 12-inch with training wheels

little bicycle

This recent Metafilter thread reminded me of the balance bike/training wheels dispute. Amidst discussion of countersteering and neoroplasticity one commenter wrote, "training wheels taught me nothing about riding a bike except where my hands and feet were supposed to go." I said something pretty similar back when we were thinking about Harvey's next step after the tricycle; my thought was that the tricycle had already taught him to pedal, so balancing was all that was left to learn. And of course, I figured it'd be best done on a balance bike.

What didn't occur to me back then was, at least for Harvey, there was a lot of value in letting him ride with his training wheels over distance. Sure, the pedaling action is pretty much the same as with the tricycle, but the tricycle is a direct drive machine with a pretty small drive wheel, so it is not at all the thing for transportation. On his 12-inch bike, on the other hand, he was able to travel as far as three miles in a trip, and he used it many times to get to Whole Foods or the library. It may be that some kids use their balance bikes for trips of similar length, but balance bikes do have some drawbacks: no brakes, for one!

For whatever reason, at the age of 5 3/4 Harvey was then able to learn to ride on just two wheels without any trouble at all. He just pushed off with one foot and lifted up the other one, and trusted the natural balance of the bike to keep him upright. He fell once or twice, but mostly just from crashing into things; it wasn't the pathetic parade of tipping over that we're given to expect from a first timer (how much trouble he may have had with countersteering is a subject for another post). I can't say for sure, but I do believe that the advantage of being very comfortable on a bike with training wheels did transfer when he took them off.

And of course, the advantage of having already experienced longer rides also transferred. Towards the end of our recent trip of over eight miles, he told me he was ready to go lots farther. As much fun as riding with friends in the street might be, cycling for transportation at age 5 is useful!

I don't know how much of Harvey's experience is transferrable to other kids—even to Zion—and I still think balance bikes are super cool, but I can't be disdainful of training wheels like I was. For our determined but cautious firstborn, they were just the thing.

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