Like many kids, I have fond memories of my first two-wheeled bike, a pink-and-white Barbie extravaganza complete with streamers and a nifty little bell that I rang incessantly. The white training wheels were a little wobbly, but they gave me enough confidence to pedal around the block. Training wheels are often seen as the first step in learning how to ride a bike, but the exploding popularity of balance bikes promises to shake up that tradition.
Also known as running or push bikes, balance bikes are designed for toddlers ages 2 to 5. They have no pedals and low seats, so kids propel themselves forward with their feet and lift up their feet to glide. Unlike tricycles or kids' bikes with training wheels, balance bikes teach kids how to balance on two wheels.
Many experts say balance bikes are a superior alternative to training wheels or tricycles for a kid's first ride. Babble.com, a parenting website, says balance bikes help instill confidence and make the transition to big bikes easier. "As far as pre-bike preparation, we much prefer balance bikes (or "running bikes") to tricycles," says Michelle Horton. "Besides being a more intuitive playing process (even the smallest toddlers can hop on and scoot with their feet), balance bikes teach the most important bike-riding skill: balance." Parenting magazine agrees, calling balance bikes a "better way" compared to training wheels.
Parents say the balance concept really works. Numerous reviews attest to the fact that balance bikes help kids learn how to balance, and a number of parents say their kids transitioned to a regular two-wheeled bike without needing training wheels.
However, some parents say there's nothing wrong with training wheels. After all, that's how most of us learned how to ride a bike. Not to mention that balance bike fans will need to purchase another bike when their child is ready for a regular two-wheeled bike, unlike other parents who can just remove the training wheels.
How to choose a balance bike
Most balance bikes come with a steel or wooden frames, although you can also find some plastic models. Wooden balance bikes are insanely cute, but reviews indicate that they're not as durable as their steel-framed counterparts. The popular Skuut Balance Bike (*Est. $70), for example, gets high marks in many reviews, but we saw a number of complaints that the wood frame can crack easily. On the other hand, the steel-framed Strider PREbike (*Est. $100) earns raves for its sturdiness and durability.
Fit is also very important. In order to be used safely, your child should be able to rest both feet on the ground while sitting comfortably on the seat. An adjustable seat will help ensure a good fit. See our updated report on kids' bikes for the best balance bikes, as well as good picks among traditional toddler bikes.
Because whether your child learns to ride with a balance bike or a pink-and-white Barbie or--even Thomas the Tank Engine--extravaganza, she or he will have fond memories of their first two-wheeler.