"Watch out for the sharks!" Professional cycling instructor Sylvia Bergmann gets kids cycling with her fun stories and games
Here, the outdoor educator, cycling instructor, and mum-of-two shares her top tips for helping your child learn to ride their bike.
Copyright: Jens Vögele
Get the timing right and it'll be more fun
What's the best age to give my child a balance bike? How do I know when my child is ready to learn to cycle? How do I make sure my child feels confident riding their bike? Lots of parents ask themselves these questions, and rightly so. Because timing is everything: Get it right and your child will love learning to ride their bike; get it wrong and it will be a frustrating experience for everyone involved.
Sylvia Bergmann is an outdoor educator, cycling instructor, ski coach for the Austrian Ski Association, and mum of two. The question of when is the right time for kids to learn to cycle is one she's grappled with both in her work and with her own children. Her attitude has also changed over the years:
"When I first started out as a ski instructor, I thought that sports lessons were only really worth it for kids aged five and upwards. But then my youngest son proved me wrong," Sylvia tells us.
Her son, she realized, was talented and a proper little daredevil: "Two weeks before his second birthday, he told me and my husband that he wanted to learn to ski. He couldn't even really speak properly yet."
He took to cycling just as quickly.
"Watching him made me realize that some children are ready to do sports and even take lessons at a very young age."
Ever since then, Sylvia has adopted a much more individual approach.
"The right time differs from one child to the next. Some love whizzing around on a balance bike from the age of 2 and are ready to switch to a pedal bike by the time they're 4. Others only show an interest much later.
The best thing parents can do is be led by their child. If your child has the key motor skills and shows an interest, then you can ask if they'd like to try a balance bike or later a pedal bike. Your child can then decide for themselves if they want to give it a go or if they'd prefer to wait a bit."
The right time to learn to ride differs from child to child. Watch your child and, if they seem ready, ask if they'd like to give a balance bike or pedal bike a go.
Make sure your child has the key motor skills needed for cycling
Children need to be physically ready to learn to ride a bike. Otherwise, they'll just feel overwhelmed, tense up and be put off riding their bike for some time. To prevent this from happening, it's important to help your child develop some key motor skills.
"Actions that get children moving along the floor are really important because this helps improve their balance, which is vital for riding a bike", explains Sylvia. For instance, before having a go on a balance bike, children need to be able to:
- Walk confidently
Other actions that get kids off the ground can also help prepare them for riding a balance bike. These include:
- Riding on a swing
If the kids on Sylvia's balance bike courses are struggling with their balance, she first encourages them to develop all these skills. Once these are in place, kids feel more confident and start to have more fun on their bikes.
Children that can ride a balance bike confidently often find it easier to transition to a pedal bike, because the balance bike teaches them all the key motor skills they need. Nonetheless, this transition can be tricky and, for Sylvia, it's important that children don't feel overwhelmed by the process.
"In one of my courses recently, a five-year-old asked if he could switch back to using his balance bike. Of course, he can. That is absolutely OK. If a child feels more confident with their feet on the ground, they should just keep practicing with the balance bike. The transition to a pedal bike can come later."
Once your child can walk confidently, they are ready to give a balance bike a go. Balance bikes are a really fun way for children to develop the skills they need for riding a pedal bike.
Make it fun, not stressful
Sylvia knows from experience that kids learn to ride best when they're having fun. High expectations and rigid training regimes are only going to be counterproductive.
It helps if kids are keen learn and this seed can be planted from a very young age. Parents can inspire an interest in cycling long before their child tries out a balance bike for the first time. As Sylvia explains,
"Children's first contact with cycling comes from watching those around them. If your child doesn't have any older siblings, you can take them to the park so that they can watch the older kids whizzing about on their balance bikes and pedal bikes. Or you can take your child out with you on bike rides, either in a child's seat or trailer. The most important thing is that your child sees that cycling is fun."
Having worked as an instructor for many years, Sylvia also has another handy tip:
"Don't try to explain too much. For instance, when I'm teaching the kids on my cycling courses how to cycle around a corner, I don't tell them what parts of their body or bike to move where. Instead, I tell them we need to swim around the shark that I've drawn on the ground in chalk. The kids love the story and so are excited to practice their turns."
It's also important to think about your child's temperament. "Some children are naturally more cautious, while others just go for it. Everyone learns to ride at their own pace. And that's how it should be."
Spark your child's interest by encouraging them to watch other children having fun on their bikes. Let them learn to ride at their own pace and don't overwhelm them with explanations.
Invest in a good bike, because the better the bike, the quicker your child will learn
"Time and again, I've seen how important it is to choose the right bike," says Sylvia. "High quality children's bikes, like those from woom, make learning to ride quicker, easier and more fun." (Great to hear – thanks for the recommendation Sylvia 😊!)
As well as getting a good quality bike, you also need to make sure it's the right size: "It's so important that the bike fits the child. If their bike is too big, children find cycling unnecessarily hard and they quickly lose interest," says Sylvia.
The woom bike finder is a quick and easy tool to help you find the best bike model and correct frame size for your child. >>Check out the bike finder here.
"Of course, you will also need to adjust your child's bike depending on their height and, most importantly, their skill level," Sylvia continues. "For balance bikes, I always start with the saddle in the lowest position, so that the kids can place their feet firmly on the floor and feel more confident. Over time, I then raise the saddle very gradually so that the kids don't even notice I'm doing it."
A lightweight well-designed and well-adjusted bike will help your child make faster progress.
Focus on the experience, not how far you've cycled
As parents, it's helpful not to set ambitious targets. When planning a family bike ride, remember more miles don't automatically make your child a better cyclist and it won't necessarily make the ride more fun.
The opposite in fact.
Young children want and need variety. They want to go on an adventure, let off steam, and explore the world around them. A few stops along the way and some >>fun games to help them practice their technique and try out some new moves are all part of the learning experience.
"It sounds strange, but the focus of my cycling courses is not necessarily on the cycling, says Sylvia. "For me, it's all about the kids. Young children often cling onto their parents at first. I go over, bend down so I'm at their level, and just ask if they want to have some fun. It's so important that kids feel welcome. That's when they learn best."
Children love an adventure. Make your bike rides exciting and you'll inspire a lifelong love of cycling.
Use games to make cycling practice fun
Kids don't need a pump track to learn to cycle with confidence. As Sylvia explains, "Kids just need a safe environment where they can give cycling a go. With a few simple household items you can set up some fun games to get them practicing."
All you need is:
Sylvia uses chalk to draw different symbols, such as a pond, flowers, trees or sharks, on the ground. She then gets the kids to "swim" around the sharks or "sniff" the flowers from all sides in order to encourage them to practice their turns.
The kids are having so much fun slaloming their way across the chalk meadow that they're not thinking about their technique – it's all completely intuitive. "I never use technical terms to explain how to slalom. I just talk about crossing the meadow," says Sylvia. "That way they keep their eyes looking in the right direction."
A piece of string is also great for practicing accurate braking. Sylvia lays the string on the floor in the shape of a snake. "The children have to make sure they stop just before the snake; otherwise it'll bite them."
There are also plenty of great games that don't require any equipment:
"Sometimes, I pretend that I'm a police officer. When I make different signals with my hands, the children have to do certain actions such as stop. They think it's really fun."
During her courses, Sylvia puts a lot of emphasis on the children riding slowly. "Of course, it's much easier to keep the bike balanced when you're riding fast, but when they're with me, I want the children to practice riding at snail's pace using the correct technique. They can practice riding fast with their parents," she laughs.
Fun games avoid the need for complicated technical explanations, especially when combined with an exciting story.
How Oscar the Bike Knight became part of Sylvia's cycling courses
A few years ago, Sylvia discovered woom's very own children's book "How Oscar became a Bike Knight". The book tells the story of little Oscar who is given a bike for his fourth birthday and wants to learn to ride it.
He succeeds and at the end of the story is dubbed Oscar the Bike Knight.
Sylvia loved the book and so decided to build her courses around Oscar and his story. All the children who complete her courses are appointed Bike Knights in a special ceremony and given a copy of the book to take home with them.
"Kids can really relate to Oscar." The shy ones, in particular, are really proud when they become a Bike Knight like Oscar. I get them up on a big stone (so that they're taller than me) and they just stand there beaming, enjoying every second."
For Sylvia, it really doesn't matter if the kids switch back to riding their balance bikes even after they've graduated as Bike Knights.
"In that moment, they're all my Bike Knights. And they should be proud of what they've achieved. If they decide they still feel more comfortable on their balance bike, then that's absolutely fine. They'll make the transition in their own time."
The best bit, according to Sylvia, are the stickers that come with the book: "The kids love sticking them on their bikes and it gives them a bit of extra motivation. The knight with the lance is especially popular."
The children are so proud when Sylvia dubs them a Bike Knight.
Why working with children is Sylvia's life's work
Sylvia's done a lot in her life so far. In the past, she's worked as both a kindergarten teacher and special educational needs teacher, and she now runs various skiing and mountain bike courses. She has also been an outdoor educator since 2011. Throughout her career, working with children has been her passion:
"I've been working with children since I was 15 years old. I just love nurturing their strengths and empowering them to achieve their potential. It's what I was born to do. Even when I've stepped away for a bit, I've always come back. It's such a wonderful job and there's always a new challenge.
She especially enjoys her current role as a cycling instructor:
"I get to do everything I love all at the same time: working with children, keeping active, and getting out in nature."
Her philosophy is all about making sure that kids feel valued.
"Of course, sometimes you have to be firm. But it's so important that you meet kids at their level and seek to understand what they need. For me, it's a privilege to support them on their journey and help them develop their strengths."
Sylvia's tried-and-tested tips for parents
As a cycling instructor, Sylvia is well versed in the different needs of children aged between 2 and 12.
"2–4 year olds are a rollercoaster; their mood and interests shift constantly. They need lots of variety and love listening to exciting stories. By around 5 or 6, kids are more engaged and able to concentrate for an hour's session. Then from 7 upwards, you start to encounter a bit more friction and their competitive spirit comes out.
To recap, here are Sylvia's top tips for getting your child cycling:
How to inspire your child's love of cycling:
- Take your child to the park so that they can watch other children riding their bikes.
- Set a good example and use your own bike in your day-to-day life.
- Use a child's seat or trailer to take your child on bike rides from a young age, so that they can see that cycling is fun.
- Get your child a good quality bike – like a woom ORIGINAL– to make it easier for them to learn.
- Don't put any pressure or added stress on your child; let them set the pace.
How to help your child transition from a balance bike to a pedal bike:
- Only suggest that your child gives a pedal bike a go once they feel happy and confident riding their balance bike.
- Make sure that the bike isn't too big and that it is properly adjusted for your child.
- Let your child switch back to their balance bike if they're having difficulty balancing on their pedal bike. The woom ORIGINAL 1 PLUS is a great balance bike for kids that want to stick with the balance bike for a little longer.
- Help your child feel more secure by running alongside them and supporting them gently with your hands.
- If possible, book your child onto a cycling course so that they can have fun practicing with other children.
How to help your child improve their cycling technique:
- Explain to your child how the different parts of their bike work (handlebars, drivetrain, brake lever, gearing) and how to maintain it (pumping up the tires, checking the brakes, tightening any screws).
- Let your child play around on their bike and enjoy the full sensory experience of coasting downhill and whizzing around left and right.
- Make sure your child has the right kit; a helmet and gloves are essential.
- Draw symbols on the ground using chalk and set your child exciting challenges to get them weaving in and out of the pictures.
- Take your child on a short but varied bike ride that's fun for you both.
Profile: Sylvia Bergmann
Sylvia Bergmann is an outdoor educator and cycling instructor for children aged between 2 and 12. She has two sons, aged 4 and 7, and lives with her family in the Dolomite mountains in South Tyrol.