I know we are in a pandemic. So, let’s teach a child how to ride a bike! You can do it safely at or near your home with nobody around.
Bike riding is important, too, a veritable rite of passage for children and parents alike. The child moves light years ahead in mobility and independence. The parent no longer has to push the child around in a stroller or drag or coax them as they amble along. Instead, parent and child can now ride together as equals, side by side, and for long distances in a reasonable amount of time.
And to top it off, you can teach them in about 15 minutes with this method.
The old-fashioned method
Here is what bike-riding teachers have done for time immemorial: Get the child up on the seat of the two-wheeler, his or her hands on the handlebars, feet on the pedals, and then you hold onto the seat so the child doesn’t tip over immediately. Then you walk alongside while telling the child to turn the handlebars a little left and right to keep the bike upright and going straight.
At some point you take the leap of faith, give the bike a little push, let go of the seat and holler at the child to pedal and steer, somehow thinking that divine intervention will keep the kid upright. Of course, God does not intervene, and the poor child falls over and gets skinned up and cries.
So, what do you do but try again with the same method? You give the child another push and pick the boy or girl up crying again, and you do it repeatedly maybe over a period of days.
What really goes into riding a bike
The essential element of bike riding is balance. Therefore, balance should be taught first before ever thinking of feet on the pedals and pedaling.
To teach balance, find an extended, gradual downward slope, I mean, just a little more than being flat. It could be your driveway, a nearby parking lot or even a fairway on a golf course with nobody around in the evening and the grass cut short enough that the bike can roll through without pedaling. The main thing is to reduce the fear of going too fast or of falling.
Now, put the seat down all the way and have the child sit on the bike with his or her feet touching the ground on both sides of the bike. The instruction, then, to the child is as follows: “Give the bike a little push with both feet and see how far you can go with your feet off the ground. If you start to fall to one side or the other, just put your foot down momentarily to catch yourself, and then go back to trying to keep both feet off the ground.”
With the assurance that they can always put their feet down to catch themselves, they can try coasting without fear of falling and go a little further each time with both feet off the ground, thereby balancing the bike.
Beyond balance to pedaling
Once the child is making the whole ride coasting with both feet off the ground, then the next move is simple: “Put your feet on the pedals, but don’t pedal yet. Just coast knowing that you can take your feet off the pedals anytime and touch them to the ground, if you feel like you are going to fall.”
Having made the ride coasting with feet on the pedals, the child then is ready to try a little pedaling, which should be an easy transition since they now know how to balance and they can also still put their feet down to catch themselves, if necessary.
Forty or so years ago when my daughter was 5, I taught her how to ride a bike using this method. This being my first go-round with bike-riding teaching, I must have appealed to my background in behavioral psychology, analyzing bike-riding behavior down to its basic components. Anyway, she learned in about 15 minutes.
The next day when I got home from work, I found out that in my absence my 5-year old daughter had taught her 4-year-old brother how to ride the bike using this same method. Two for the price of one! Efficient parenting, I thought. I’ve got this thing down. Then came the teenage years!
Bonus applied-psychology tip: walking the beach
Moving right along while I have your attention, let me humbly submit my behavioral analysis of beach walking, so you are prepared when it is safe to go back in the water again.
Here’s the situation: Most beach-walkers walk in a straight line, parallel to the shoreline with eyes straight ahead. Since it is natural to orient your head in the same direction as the rest of your body, 90% of the walking time finds the beach-walker looking at the sand straight ahead of them, if not immediately in front of them. Maybe 10% of the time they make the effort to turn their heads to the right or left to look at the water, the crashing waves, the distant horizon and the deep blue sea. What a shame to be spending most of one’s beach time looking at just sand instead of the ocean.
A revolutionary idea for efficient beach walking
Here’s a suggestion: Zigzag when you walk the beach. Since, again, it is natural to orient your head the way your body is facing, zigzagging will allow your head to be naturally oriented toward what is most interesting on the beach — either the majestic dunes and homes at the back of the beach or the ocean at the front, and you won’t have to remind yourself to turn your head to look at these desirable features.
This technique can be easily adjusted to your preferences: You could go at uniform 20-degree angles away from and back toward the shoreline; that is, if you want to look equally at the front and back of the beach. Or you could take short, sharp zigs (60 degrees) toward the homes, and longer, gradual zags (10 degrees) back toward the water; that is, if you want to look at the ocean more of the time.
These are times that try men’s souls. Teach your child to ride a bike, dream a little about beach walking and before you know it, you will all be biking together on the beach. See you oceanside!
Dr. Tom Dorsel is a professor emeritus of psychology at Francis Marion University who now lives on Hilton Head Island. He can be found at Dorsel.com and on Facebook under his own name or his two business names: “Sport Psychology of Hilton Head” and “Music of Hilton Head.” His latest book, “GOLF: The Mental Game,” is available in bookstores and on Amazon.