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Are Balance Bikes Worth It? I Asked A Physical Therapist For Her Perspective

Here’s the scoop on these trendy toys and motor learning.

A child rides on a balance bike.
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Is there a right or wrong way to teach your kid how to ride a bike? Many moms swear that balance bikes are a must-have step in the process, but this trendy toy isn't in everyone's budget. Still, moms are gonna mom — and that means doing everything in our power to get our kid a damn balance bike if it really does boast amazing developmental benefits. Are balance bikes worth it, though?

While kids today may not live on their bikes as much as '90s kids did, the summer months still mean a lot more time outdoors. And if big sis or big bro are cruising around on a scooter or a "big kid bike," the little sibling of the family will for sure want something to scoot around on, too. So, it tracks that many parents of preschoolers start teaching their little ones to ride a bike in the summer.

If you're on the cusp with your kid but are curious about the benefits (or potential drawbacks) of balance bikes, keep reading for a physical therapist's perspective and more.

What is a balance bike?

Simply put, a balance bike is a two-wheeled bike with no pedals and no training wheels. It's propelled entirely by a child's initial "push off" from the sidewalk. That means it keeps their feet close to the ground as they continue to occasionally push themselves as they roll and steer.

Are balance bikes "useful" first bikes?

With a balance bike, your child's initial momentum starts with their feet on the ground (as opposed to on pedals). Between push-offs, your kiddo's feet stay near the ground at first to catch them if they wobble. However, as your child picks up speed and balance, they'll pull their feet higher. This lays the groundwork for the switch to a pedal bike and possibly skips over the need for training wheels.

"As a physical therapist and a mom, I have a lot riding on my kiddo's motor milestones and physical abilities (pun intended)," says Katie Gill, PT, DPT, at Dignity Health Mercy General Hospital. "Of course, I want him to have fun and expend some of that neverending toddler energy, but I also want to support the development of his balance, strength, and confidence."

Gill opted for a balance bike over a traditional bike and training wheels, explaining, "The balance bike allowed him to be successful from the first ride and to be in control of his learning. These two factors, success and autonomy, are fundamentals in motor learning science."

She continues, breaking down how and why balance bikes help kids with this motor learning.

"With balance bikes, kiddos can start out merely walking with the bike between their legs and their hands on the handlebars. They get to control their speed and direction. They get a feel for the mechanics and a sense of achievement in their independence," she says. "As strength and balance improves, and confidence grows, they pick up speed."

For Gill's son, it only took a few short days for him to go from walking his balance bike to zooming up and down the street and speeding down the driveway. "The freedom was exhilarating, but it also helped develop balance and strength, which carry over to other physical challenges like climbing, running, twirling, and jumping," she shares.

Are balance bikes better than old-school training wheels?

"While there is nothing wrong with an 'old school' bike with training wheels, I think the benefits of early independence, success, and development of righting reactions and balance lead many parents to the balance bike first," Gill says. "It is also pretty awesome to avoid the whole training wheel stage (annoying squeaks and bruised ankle bones)."

What concerns are there about balance bikes?

"The two main concerns about balance bikes for our family were speed, i.e., would our kiddo go faster than he could safely handle, and the transition to a traditional bike when it is time," says Gill.

After weighing the pros and cons, Gill's family landed fairly easily on the balance bike. "For us, the benefits of trial and error, the development of trunk control, and the ability to be in control of his own speed without bulky, heavy equipment outweighed any risks of him going too fast."

And although her son hasn't made the move to a "big kid bike" yet, she's hopeful that his time on the balance bike will make for a quick and easy transition.

Are there other ways to improve your child's balance and prepare them for bike riding?

Yes! Some kids find a scooter to be an easier first step in learning to balance and roll at the same time. After all, those wheels keep your kiddo a lot closer to the ground.

However, you don't need wheels to learn to balance.

"Get outside and explore," suggests Gill. "The best way to help a child develop balance and independence is to give them the opportunity to test their limits! As a risk-averse individual myself, it has been quite challenging for me to allow my child to do 'unsafe' things like climb big rocks, jump over logs, walk on a curb, or climb to the top of the play structure. While every ounce of my being wants to shout, 'Be careful!,' that would only communicate my worry."

Instead, Gill says things like, "Wow, that is really high" and "Do you know how you will get down safely?" (After wiping off her sweaty palms, naturally.)

"This teaches him to appraise the risks and his capabilities. Each time he encounters a new physical challenge, he learns physics, cause and effect, and has an opportunity to improve his balance, strength, and confidence — all while giving me more gray hairs," she jokes. "Any opportunity to be physically challenged, successful, and autonomous helps build a strong, happy, and independent kiddo."

Having a balance bike, she says, helped them do just that.