I'm not going to spend a lot of time writing about the pros and cons of balance bikes. There's plenty of stuff out there for that. If you're intrigued, the Strider blog invariably has videos and pictures of children using them. We have the Strider brand, but The Parent’s Guide to Balance Bikes, Complete Reviews & Comparisons of 16 Different Brands gives as thorough a discussion of what to look for when purchasing as you'll find anywhere.
What I am going to write about is our experience with my three year old son on his. Obviously, my husband and I never had balance bikes when we were kids. My only experience was seeing one of the children ride one to school, but we loved the concept. Our son loved his tricycle and riding in the chariot (a bicycle trailer). My husband is a cycling enthusiast who likes the sound of our son's name followed by "winner of the Tour de France!"
We bought the bike at the start of summer right before it was blisteringly hot and we only made a couple of half-hearted attempts to go out with it, because I am a wuss when it comes to heat. In September, we tried again. My son took a little while to get the idea of how to sit and scoot along, but he was game to persist with us. It was when Daddy demonstrated on his mountain bike that he really caught the idea.
I took him to the same park with short paved trails that we'd used with his tricycle, but I soon realised that the advantage of the balance bike is that it's lighter and easier for the child to control (he can just plant his feet and hitch it over an obstacle for one thing). So we started doing more ambitious walks with me pushing his sister on one of those long-handled tricycles.
This is, of course, the key. Practice as much as possible. But there are a few things to bear in mind:
- Your child will go faster than you, particularly if you're pushing another child. He's never going to get up to full cycling speed, but two months on, my husband has to run to keep up with him.
- Your child can balance for longer than you think... especially when motivated. An early shock for me was when he attempted a long incline. I was sure he'd fall over before he reached the bottom, but instead he kept going--and accelerating.
- For your child, the most logical way of stopping is to crash into something. That hill from point 2? He was terrified by his own speed, so he steered straight into a massive stone block. And so I got my first (and preferably only) sight of my son flying over his handlebars.
The Skate Park
After the experience of a crash, I wanted to find somewhere suitable for him to practice on the bike, learn how to moderate his speed and deal with inclines at his own pace. It never occurred to me to try the local skate park until I saw an online video of a family doing just that with their two year old. I realised that that would be a great place. The only problem was that I was even more unfamiliar with skate parks than with balance bikes (they didn't have those in our day either), and the concept of letting my barely-out-of-toddlerhood son loose in one was terrifying.
So we attempted to go at a quiet time of day, but there were still up to a dozen people on bikes, skateboards and scooters whizzing around. My son and I (and twenty-one month old daughter) stopped at the entrance, hugely intimidated. He declared he didn't want to go in, and rode up and down the entrance ramp a few times instead. I privately agreed with him, but I was determined not to back down.
So I talked him through the gate and we self-consciously tried to find an out of the way corner in which to practice on a couple of small ramps. There really aren't any out of the way corners in our skate park. Not being a connoisseur, I have no idea how it compares to others, but I thought it was a fantastic piece of stunt architecture--and felt ever more out of place as I held my squirming daughter and encouraged my small son on his tiny bike.
Eventually, we did find a good spot where I could sit on a bench and my son could practice on one ramp over and over. There was another one behind it, for a sequential effect, and after a few minutes, he tried going up to the top of that one. Once at the top he shook his head and pushed his bike back down, but a few minutes later he was back to the top, and this time he rode down. After ten minutes, he was pushing off from the top ramp, coasting down the second and holding his balance to go up the ramp opposite. He was ecstatic.
The other great thing was that the other adults and children using the skate park (who were five to twenty years older than my son) were thoroughly considerate of us and if anything seemed tickled to see my son having a go at it. My son, fortunately, was also pretty good about watching out for other users, though I prompted him to wait or stop on occasion.
Despite my fears, having other skaters around was helpful. Seeing how other people used the various ramps, whatever they were riding, was a good example for him. And there were enough stunts going on for my daughter to sit quietly in sheer fascination.
We went back again today. It was colder and quieter, and my son took off all over it, scooting around to try different coasting routes and shrieking an incongruous "Whee!" as he shot down the ramps. The plan is to become hardcore skate park visitors, sticking it out through the winter while it's quieter and my son has the added padding of warm clothing. He took a couple of falls today and was absolutely fine.
Come next spring, he might well be able to hold his own alongside the skater boys, but we expect to be buying him a proper bike and hitting the trails. We will of course be handing the balance bike over to our daughter, who will be two by then. God only knows, she's already itching to have a go!