In this section, we have posted an article written almost ten years ago. The article, written by Dr. Richard Klein, gives a perspective of our program as it was being developed and the thinking behind the Lose the Training Wheels program. It is also important to point out that the story below, the story of Kevin, is true. In working with now thousands of children as they face the mastery of bike riding hurdle, the stories that we have encountered are many and even heart breaking. This is just one story. Enjoy!
The Case of the Missing Bicyclist
Kevin, age ten, appears to be a typical child in almost every way. He lives with his family including a younger brother Mark, age seven, in a suburb to a larger city. Kevin has a shiny bicycle in his garage, and even occasionally leaves it out in front of his house, but is never seen riding it. On many Saturday mornings, Kevin and his parents get into the family car and ride to a different part of town. There they unload a bicycle, a different bicycle, and Kevin starts his ritual of riding. This takes place in a school parking lot some distance from his neighborhood and the prying eyes of his classmates and friends. The well-kept secret is that Kevin can't yet ride without training wheels, so the bike at home in the garage, without training wheels, is strictly for show. Kevin is embarrassed about his inability to ride a conventional bike, and especially as his younger brother, Mark, is able to ride.
As a sleuth detective, I was concerned with the matter of teaching children how to ride, and have come up with some revolutionary techniques. My experiences showed me that the near legendary ritual of a child being pushed off on a conventional bike and left to the capricious whims of falling is completely unnecessary and avoidable. Such approaches should be left behind just as the Spartan notion of throwing children into deep water to force them to learn-to-swim has been relegated to history. Of course, millions of children have made the transition to bicycle riding without these newly developed specialized techniques; but the fact that whole generations have endured this torturous rite of passage doesn't make it right or optimal. Moreover, the mystery of the missing bicyclist, like Kevin, can have its roots traced, in large, to the lack of an effective alternate instructional methodology. The old-fashioned ways, both with training wheels and without, unnecessarily complicate the transition, making the transition needlessly abrupt and accompanied by unnecessary anxiety. Using the old ways, it is not uncommon to suffer spills, mishaps, and even injuries such as lacerations, broken teeth, and broken bones. Moreover, even if these extreme injuries are averted, a bad case of pavement rash is not uncommon, and pavement rash isn't much fun. In short, children like Kevin needn't be subjected to injury, falls, embarrassment, and even, worst of all, failure – not when safe, scientific, and university-tested alternative methods are available.
THE MYSTERY UNFOLDS
The Benefits of Cycling. The constellation of benefits that come from cycling is large indeed. Because Kevin can't ride a conventional two-wheeler, he is denied aspects of peer inclusion. Kevin gets less exercise than most of his peers. Kevin tries hard but he has difficulty being "one of the gang." In fact, Kevin is prone to fantasies and exaggerated story telling, as he recounts to his friends his imaginary "exploits" in terms of bicycling when talking with friends. In short, Kevin is trying to perpetuate a hoax on his friends. His friends can obviously tell that something is awry as Kevin's stories get to be so self-serving and laden with impossible fantasies. Not being able to ride a bicycle has taken on severe ramifications in Kevin's case, to the point of altering Kevin's self-image and endangering his peer acceptance.
Kevin isn't alone. Significant numbers of children, and even adults, can't ride conventional bikes. The typical result is that they stop trying to learn when their inability to ride becomes a social embarrassment. Denial, fantasy, and disinterest in bicycling become central behavior mechanisms for children like Kevin. Of course, I routinely hear of stories and questions coming from, or concerning, the missing bicyclists.
I was concerned with the matter of “the missing bicyclists.” Significant numbers of children, and even adults, are somehow excluded or barred from learning how to master riding two-wheelers. Their stories, just as Kevin's, are well-kept secrets by and large. There are literally tens of thousands of children and adults in this country who have been barred from learning to ride two-wheelers, and hence they are indeed bicyclists missing from the picture. Of course, there are the usual suspects, those ever-notorious training wheels. Could it be that training wheels are the culprits, or at least the co-conspirators? Or, could it be that the children themselves, like Kevin, are to blame? On the other hand, does the guilt rest with inept instructors and dark-age teaching methodologies?
The shortcomings of training wheels, as well as present-day teaching methods, are suspect. I experimented, in university research programs, with a variety of methods as potential ways to teach children, especially challenged children, and have shockingly found all presently used methods and methodologies to have serious shortcomings. The evident lack of a suitable teaching method led to a systematic university-based research project at the University of Illinois starting in the 1980’s. The goal was to uncover a better way to teach beginning riders, and children in particular. The emphasis of that research soon focused on coming up with a better training alternative, in terms of hardware, to the conventional two-wheeler. I will highlight the findings of that research, as well as the clinical confirmation of results at several university-based institutions.
The missing bicyclists, along with the solution to this mystery, were the focal points. I will review the origins of the problem, with an emphasis on examining training wheels and the previously held notion that beginning instruction should be done using a conventional two-wheeler. I will then present an alternative that is based on a dynamically adapted bicycle, a bicycle-trainer fitted with scientifically designed rollers in place of conventional bicycle tires, as well as specialized instructional techniques. On the trainer-bicycles, the rollers can be progressively adapted to gradually cause the bicycle-trainer to progress from first being a very stable and near impossible-to-tip trainer, to that of a conventional bicycle. A collaborative team of Adapted Physical Educators clinically tested the innovative technique for teaching difficult-to-teach children how to master riding a conventional two-wheeler.
Case #1. Joshua is 9 years old is visually impaired and has mild autism. He loves to move and is an active athletic boy. He is self-conscious about not being able to ride a bike. In six weeks of an in-school bike program with only 20-30 minutes each week, Josh progressed from a very easy bike with little challenge to balance to a bike with a traditional front tire and a fat back tire. He has the biggest smile and tells all his friends he is an “awesome” bike rider.
Case #2. Stephen is 8 years old with mild mental retardation. He is 4’3” tall and weighs about 200 pounds. He has extremely poor balance, and low muscle tone. He was scared to ride a bicycle. Stephen started out on the least challenging bike with no challenge to his balance and learned how to pedal and move. He was tired after 5 minutes and had to rest. He was extremely happy he could ride the bike and practiced on this bike until he was red faced and sweating. After six weeks he can ride for ten minutes straight and has moved on to a more challenging bicycle.
Case #3. Erica is 6 years old and is diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Her parents never taught her how to ride a bike because they though she couldn’t. She has low muscle tone, but is very active and likes to move. Erica progressed through the bikes and is now riding the most challenging adapted roller bike before the “traditional” bike. I expect her to be able to ride the conventional bike before too long. Her parents were so amazed they came and took pictures. In tears her mother said “She looks so normal, she is doing something so normal…”
Distinct behaviors become predominant as the child “rides” his/her bike fitted with training wheels.
- Brake Slamming. The child will tend to slow down and routinely brake whenever the child perceives any danger of tipping or falling (I’ll call it “tippiness”).
- Upper Body Movements. The child will tend to use upper body movements and/or shoulder shifting as a pseudo-balancing mechanism.
- Erratic Steering. The child’s steering actions will tend to be erratic, abrupt, and even stiff at times, almost to the point that arms and elbows are frequently locked straight.
- Visual Preoccupation. Visual focus becomes fixated downward and on the handlebars in particular.
The above cause and effect relationships and fixations have been wired, by conditioning, into the child's brain, muscular response and reflex systems. Moreover, all of these "learned" actions, or reactions, are a direct result of the child having had to deal with training wheels. In the final analysis, the training wheels have indeed been responsible for “training” or internal creation of motor reflexes. Such motor conditioning (or “training”) is harmful because (1) successful bike riding doesn't happen by use of these conditioned motor responses, and (2) these conditioned responses impede the orderly transition to conventional bike riding. The normal transition to conventional two-wheelers can stagnate, as training wheels often become a crutch that isn't readily given up.
Up to now, virtually no other alternative to training wheels has ever been available. Moreover, when the day comes that the child using training wheels needs to make the transition to a conventional bike, that transition is abrupt, exasperating, and often characterized by nasty falls.
Now Comes the Matter of Disabilities. For children with developmental delays and other physical and mental challenges, training wheels can be the equivalent of the end of advancement in bicycling skills. The challenged children that I have dealt with include those with Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, and other disorders. Considerable portions of these children are simply left behind as the peer group rides away down the street with apparent ease.
The State of the Art. Until now, few alternatives have been available to permit challenged-children to progress into the realm of conventional bicycling riding. Training wheels and patents for training wheels go back at least fifty years. Moreover, an early attempt to use barrel-shaped rollers as a training aid in lieu of conventional tires was patented by Cudmore [U.S. Patent 3,794,351, April 24, 1974]. Nonetheless, training wheels have become institutionalized to the point that bicycle dealerships and the mass-marketing stores routinely sell them, and families routinely end up buying juvenile bicycles fitted with training wheels. Others have addressed the search for a better way to get children to learn to ride two-wheelers. The editors of Bicycling magazine, for example, distribute a pamphlet describing methods such as removing the pedals to practice coasting and balancing, and then eventually progressing on to pedaling. One marketer has even introduced a pre-riding conditioning exercise that he calls “pedal magic.” [See ].
THE SEARCH FOR A SOLUTION
An Adapted Trainer. I innovated the concept of a progression of bicycle dynamic responses that can be varied to match the child's needs. The crux of the methodology is the ability to mechanically slow down the speed of the tipping or dynamic characteristics of the bicycle, while still preserving the natural characteristics of a two-wheeled bicycle. In short, the roller-equipped trainer-bicycles slow down the harshness of tips and turns, as well as forward speed, while still preserving the inherent nature of the bicycle's ability to tip and respond naturally to steering inputs. I use progressively crowned rollers in place of conventional tires as the means to achieving this dynamic adaptation. The rollers tend to slow down the harshness of the tipping action of the bicycle-trainer, because the rollers tend to lift the bicycle and rider as the bicycle leans, and thus mitigating the speed and harshness of the falling. In essence, the bicycle-trainer equipped with rollers, in place of tires, acts similar to a rocking chair, as it can tip to the side, but will tend to do so slowly. Moreover, the bicycle-trainers even come back to equilibrium as opposed to just falling out of control when fitted with sufficiently flat rollers. By being able to switch to rollers of different crown characteristics in a progressive manner, the dynamics of the bicycle-trainer can be gradually progressed towards normalcy.
The rollers are similar to those proposed by Cudmore in 1974, but the rollers of my design are augmented with certain additional adaptations. The primary adaptations that I have innovated include: (1) a progression of rollers with varying crown contours; (2) a corresponding progression of bicycles with higher gearing, so as to permit faster speeds when the more crowned rollers are used; (3) an innovative center-line drive train system (unlike Cudmore's design that employed a tricycle-type front pedal); and (4) the use of qualified instructors to supervise use.
Clinical Tests. I developed a distinct teaching methodology and an Adapted Physical Educator (APE) training program to accompany the line of adapted bicycles. My innovative approach has been successfully tested at a number of university-based camps and research programs.
Some Terminology. The methods and training aids developed are deeply rooted in the concept of how motor skills are learned. Researchers in the area of adapted physical activity make reference to a body of theory called "dynamical systems." I deliberately create an environment where the learning child is not totally comfortable, but the child is sufficiently close to being able to perform, and can learn and strive to perfect desired motor tasks. Assuming that the learner can thereby perform the tasks, even awkwardly, given the opportunity for repetition, the tasks become refined and performed with greater efficiency and grace. In short, the environment of being on one of my bicycle-trainers is sufficiently stable that the learner becomes more graceful and efficient.
The strategy is quite simple – My trained staff members or I continually monitor each child's progress and continually keep adapting the environment so that learning goal is continually being perfected. The trick is in knowing how much the environment, which I call the attractor, can be ahead of the child or learner in terms of challenge. Should an upset or degradation in the learning occur, I merely lower the dynamical response requirements of the attractor and initiate the learning process at an appropriately reduced level of challenge. In my methodology, the learning child is functioning in an environment where the sensory-motor skill tasks can be successful, and refined and thus better with repetition.
When children are started on the adapted bicycling training program, they are immersed in a different environment (in terms of dynamics of the bicycle), one where the bicycle-trainers with rollers dynamically tip in response to steering actions, but not so much as to be frightening or threatening. New feedbacks will be accordingly wired or encoded within the child’s reflex system. The internalization of these motor responses in response to environmental dynamics is what "learning to ride a bike" is all about, or should be about. What makes my approach superior to previous methods such as training wheels is that the gentle progression of trainer bikes makes the transition natural, fun, gentle, and non-threatening.
Some others advocate specialized training aids such as extension handles fitted to conventional bicycles and harnesses, with which to better grab children, primarily focus on saving the bicycle and rider from bad falls. I disagree with the use of such "aids" as a primary training tools. Instructor intervention devices contaminate the bicycle's natural dynamics and motion. Grabbing onto a learning child or holding onto the bike won't enhance the orderly learning (encoding) of sensory-motor feedbacks essential for easy acquisition of skills related to bicycle riding.
The Time Requirements. The length of time for successful riding varies, depending upon the child, his/her abilities and disabilities, and somewhat on the prior experiences related to bicycling attempts. As a general rule, children in my programs are not placed on rigid time schedules, but rather just allowed to relax, to have fun, and to work through matters at their own pace. In my experience, the time required for a "typical child," may be as little as several minutes to as much as an hour or two. For children with special needs, the time may be as much as six hours, or even longer.
It is important to emphasize that each child is on his/her own time schedule. By using a progression of bikes, each tailored to each of the respective children at his/her particular level, the required motor skills are sufficiently compatible that the children can be successful. The children thereby improve in their skills and confidence. The results at the various participating institutions are in agreement. The age span of subjects as the program was first instituted ranged from six years of age to thirty-nine, and the results have been consistent. As a disclaimer, the younger children at times learn, but less consistently. Hence, the age limit for participation has been raised to the present minimum of eight years.
Based on the collective clinical experiences to date, significant numbers of children who have been heretofore barred from bike riding can make the progression using my bicycle-trainers and methods. Most participants become independent and efficient bicycle riders. Moreover, these were mostly children with special needs for whom the bicycle had been a non-achievable goal, and yet the dream of bicycle riding became a reality for large numbers of these children.
Some Other Requirements. The adapted bicycle-trainers are designed for use in a clinical environment, and for use on level surfaces such as gymnasium floors and all-purpose rooms that have an appropriate surface. At present, the adapted trainers have each been handcrafted, for exclusive use in clinical settings. In my experience, most children who are enrolled in suitable programs and under the supervision of qualified instructors progress quite readily and the learning children transition onto conventional bikes. In my experience, the family of a typical child has no long-term need for one of my bicycle-trainers.
In order for a child to be successful: (1) the child must be ambulatory with all limbs including the ability to grip the handlebars; (2) must be able to function in a social setting with other children; (3) the child must have the ability to pedal to some degree; (4) the child must have some minimal level of motor skill; (5) the child must have sufficient vision and/or spatial awareness so as to control his/her movements and to avoid obstacles; and (6) perhaps most important of all, the child must want to ride a bicycle – a real bicycle. No person will ever learn a skill, any skill, if that person refuses to try or refuses to participate. Kevin wanted to ride a bicycle without training wheels, and so he mastered his goal within a few short hours once enrolled in the riding program.
The children involved in the bicycle program have exhibited great progression through the use of the “Adapted Trainer”. The children are gaining confidence each that time they ride one of the bicycles in large part due to the almost immediate experience of success.
The stability factor of these bicycles is a form of a safety blanket for the children but the design also provides a realistic experience as far as tipping over is concerned. The gradual progression from two rollers to one on the back and a conventional tire on the front is a great idea as it allows for a base of support for the rider, allowing that feeling of security and confidence, at the same time providing a greater challenge for the cyclist to maintain a stable position. It has been observed that if a child experiences a set back, they will go to the previous level gain their confidence once again then return to the more challenging situation.
The success of the program is evident by the laughter and smiles on the faces and the exuberance of the students riding freely through the gymnasium.
OUR DREAM AND A SUMMARY
Dreams are Important. Kevin's dream, as well as the dream of many children unable to ride a conventional bicycle – is to be able to ride past his friends and just shout out, "Look at me. I can ride a bike!"
Life would be far less meaningful if we couldn't identify a dream and follow it – wherever our dream might lead us. In my work, I have marshaled the adaptation of technology and instructional methodology to overcome the barriers to bicycling. I see an orderly progression of adapted bicycles as the key that unlocks to doors to Kevin's dream. Moreover, in order to provide a visual reference to the concept of an orderly progression, both for learner and instructor alike, I envision the rainbow – the colors of the rainbow – as a central key or roadmap for that progression. Simply stated, imagine if you will, an array of bikes in the progressive colors of the rainbow. The different colored bikes can represent the different levels of bicycle progression. Each color or level of challenge can stimulate the encoding of sufficient sensory-motor feedbacks to permit the learning child to be successful at each particular step or stage, and thereby to also be able to progress in a safe and non-threatening manner to the next step in the succession of attractors. After all, the teaching (or better yet, the learning) is actually a matter of internalization of motor skills related to balancing and steering a two-wheeler. In my mind, the utopian riding "instruction" methodology then becomes transparent. I would merely let the children go and play pretty much by themselves on varying rainbow colored "bikes." In the process they will experiment, and ultimately tend to improve in their bicycling skills, progressing at their own speed from color to color of various bicycle-trainers. They will ultimately teach themselves. Some minimal degree of supervision would be provided, of course.
Summary. The specialized learning program I have developed and university-tested makes the ever-illusive learning-to-ride process a relative breeze – even for many children diagnosed with varying special needs. Given the results enjoyed to date, I would never dream of going back to pushing a child, much less a child with special needs, down a street, or across a parking lot, on a conventional bike, only to see the child fall over and risk injury, emotional damage, and possibly failure.
I specialize in teaching everyday kids with "normal" development, as well as those children with diagnosed disabilities, both physical and cognitive. Some of the disabilities with which my colleagues and I have experience include Down's syndrome, Prader Willi syndrome, cerebral palsy (mild), spina bifida (mild), developmental delay, gross motor delay, the residual effects of polio, cognitive delay (mental retardation), chromosome disorders, autism, visual disorders, brain injury, Williams syndrome, and yet more. The techniques and bicycle-trainers are effective. University-based clinics focused on special-needs children have proven the results. I have personally worked with thousands of children. The results conclusively demonstrate that large numbers of children, especially the difficult-to-teach, can have the barriers to biking eliminated.
I want as many children as possible to overcome the barriers to bicycling. That, quite simply, is my dream. I want the mystery of the missing bicyclists, the obstacles that impeded Kevin, solved and eliminated once and for all.
With blessings and kind regards,
Richard E. (Dick) Klein