What the best kids' bikes have
- An adjustable seat and handlebars. A seat and handlebars that can be moved up and down will help you squeeze more than one summer of fun out of a bike.
- A frame that's not too heavy. It's not uncommon for a kid's bike to weigh half as much as the child riding it, but that heaviness can make the bike much more difficult to balance and control. Experts with TwoWheelingTots.com advise trying to keep bicycle weight to no more than 30 percent of your child's weight. For young kids, balance bikes are typically lighter than pedal bikes.
- Reliable brakes. While kids use their feet to stop on tricycles and balance bikes, most kids' pedal bikes have coaster brakes. That means the child brakes by pushing the pedals backwards. Hand brakes, most commonly available on older kids' bikes, can help a child slow down less abruptly than coaster brakes. The International Bike Fund says most kids won't be strong or coordinated enough to use a hand brake until age 5 and up.
- Additional safety features. Bright colors and reflectors will help your child stay more visible to motorists and others. A bell or horn will let them signal that they're approaching pedestrians. An easy-to-grip handlebar with large, knobby ends can protect kids' hands during scrapes and falls.
- Durable tires. While air-filled tires are still most common on most kids' bikes, flats will always be a risk. Foam or plastic tires, common on some balance bikes and tricycles, won't go flat but also don't provide as much cushioning or traction as air-filled tires.
Know before you go
How tall is your child, and what is their inseam? Correlating your child's age with bike size gives you only a rough idea of what bike to buy. Experts with IceBike.org recommend looking at height or, even better, inseam, to narrow the field. For instance, a child who is 3-foot-3 may be comfortable on either a 12-inch or 14-inch bike, but a shorter or longer inseam may help sway you in either direction.
What is your child's temperament? Just because your child is old enough and coordinated enough to ride a bicycle doesn't necessarily mean they are mentally ready, advises the International Bicycle Fund. Some children simply lack self-confidence or motivation until they're 10 or even older. If you think that might be the case for your child, don't fault the bike, and stay patient. Remember, your idea of when your child "should" learn how to ride and your child's might be much different. Experts recommend starting with a balance bike for younger children -- these bikes let them practice balancing while having the security of using their own legs to prevent a fall.
Try before you buy. It might be tempting to surprise your child with a shiny new pedal bike on their birthday, but it's crucial to see your child on the bike before committing. Kids should be able to easily put their feet flat on the ground when they straddle the frame, and comfortably put a foot down when they are seated on the bike saddle. Their limbs shouldn't be abnormally scrunched while pedaling, but they also shouldn't have to completely stretch their legs to reach the pedals in their lowest position. Experts advise against buying a bigger bike than your child needs so that they can use if longer. At best, this will make the bike uncomfortable for your child and can impact their confidence while riding; at worst, it can pose a safety risk.
Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it
Most parents don't want to overspend on a kid's bike because their child is likely to outgrow it in a couple of years. That's a valid point, but experts with Two Wheeling Tots advise at least considering getting a pricier bike from a local bike store instead of a cheaper big-box store bike. Why? Most bike-store bikes are lighter, easier to control and more durable. Together, those things could be the difference between a bike that fosters a long-term love of riding and one that mostly sits in the garage. If you're still skeptical of spending $200 or more on a kid's bike, remember that you can reuse it for multiple children and resell it once your kids move on, recouping some of your investment.