Tag Archives: teaching

The mystery of the bicycle

When a bike and rider are zipping merrily along, the mystery is that they seem to stay upright with relative ease, but common sense surely tells us that if nothing tangible is holding the bike and rider up — it must be quite possible that they could fall down? That makes sense now, doesn’t it?

In the process of learning to ride a bike, intangible matters such as faith and belief arise, as well as stability and balance in a metaphorical sense.

C. S. Lewis (1944) wrote in Perelandra, page 68, “There is no reason why a man on a smooth road should lose his balance on a bicycle; but he could.”

Our point is that there is a certain mystery about a bike. It seems to be so stable remaining upright, and yet common sense, if we actually examine matters, tells us that nothing visible seems to be holding the bike up. If nothing visible is holding the bike up, then it seems obvious that it might fall — unless we start to believe in the power of the invisible.

Should I teach someone else to ride?

As we go through life, we inevitably are faced with a fairly common decision situation – should you call in an expert or professional to solve a problem, or should you do it yourself? The matter might range anywhere from:

•Replacing a dripping faucet washer
•Removing a tree limb that is hanging precariously over the house
•Tying a string onto an aching tooth, securing it to a door knob, and waiting for the next person to happen by and open the door
•Staying at home for the birth of your baby
•Writing your own will, as opposed to hiring an attorney

The list could go on, but we’ve made our point.
There are usually a number of factors which come into play when you make the choice to “do it yourself,” or to call in an “expert.” In this section we’ll use the words “expert” and “professional” somewhat interchangeably, but we acknowledge that not all professionals are experts. We also acknowledge that some experts are not professionals, but merely people good at doing things without making a living doing so. It is important to note the following about professionals, even inept professionals. If a professional is inept in your opinion, there still must be something good enough in what they do if they are able to continue to be in the business. If they were grossly inept, logic suggests that they would not be able to make a living, unless they fell into the category of con-artist and hustler. Even the worst professional, assuming honesty, must be sufficiently good if they are able to sustain a living doing what they do.

Some factors opposing the idea of using an expert include
•I think I can do a better job than the so-called expert.
•I can’t find a qualified expert.
•I can’t find a qualified expert whom I can trust.
•I can’t afford what the expert will cost.
•I know how to change the oil in my car myself.
•I resent the idea that I can’t do anything as simple as …
•I believe that in order to be a whole person, one has to live life and do everything, including …
•This guy who claims to be an expert will track in dirt, leave ruts in my lawn, make a mess, and has barely been able to graduate from high school.

Conversely, some considerations make it reasonable to hire an expert, and these include
•It is hard to perform a root canal on yourself.
•I have ample money, and I’d rather spend my time doing something else such as …
•The expert has the tools, the know-how, and can get the job done right the first time.
•If I hire an expert I don’t look like a fool having to call him in the end after I’ve messed up the job.
•The expert is bonded and brings with him/her insurance in case that tree limb does fall through my roof when he’s working, or God forbid, he/she gets injured.
•The dentist uses Novocain® and I’d never even consider dental work without getting my Novocain® first.
•The job will be done quicker if I hire an expert.
•I don’t care to crawl under the car, and I certainly don’t want to get my hands dirty. Besides what am I going to do with the used drain oil?
•I don’t have the right tools.
•The job will be done right.
•I don’t have to deal with the prospect of what to do if I try and fail.

The decision to use or to not use an expert is entirely personal, and we make these decisions almost daily. We can all recall times when we tried to do it by ourselves, and really botched the job – even to the point of destroying something nice. We can also recall times when we called in an expert, and the expert tightened one screw and charged us an outrageous fee. Regarding bicycle instruction, most of us, and we say most, only have a countable number of children. Hence we don’t have to become bicycle instruction experts, except when our child faces the issue of getting rid of the training wheels.
An additional bicycle reality is that virtually millions of children make the transition annually from training wheels to riding conventional two-wheelers with only slight discomfort or inconvenience. In the face of all this we have the other side of the coin – some children can’t get past training wheels, and some get injured in the process of trying. Emergency rooms see injuries such as lacerations, broken limbs, broken teeth, and even eye injuries from bike related accidents, and with some due to accidents incurred while trying to learn.

Some warning signs:

If your child has excessive fears, has been injured, or has repeatedly failed on attempts on bikes without training wheels, then you are starting to ask, quite naturally –“Will my child ever learn to ride a bike?” “Is my child slated to be one of those who will never learn to ride a bike?” “Is there something wrong with my child?” If nothing else has given you any warning signs, one thing should – when your child’s younger siblings have learned to ride and yet the older child hasn’t. If your child doesn’t have younger siblings it is perhaps when the younger peers in the neighborhood start riding? When the taunts and ridicule from other kids come into play, that is when you know that you have a real problem.

We now make the assumption that you as a parent are concerned, and that you are making the decision to intervene in the teaching of your child to ride a bike. A very logical question to ask is – what options do I have at my disposal? “Should I hire a professional?” “What if it’s not possible for my child to get into one of Dr. Klein’s camps?” “Will having to run beside my child hurt my already bad knee?” After giving credence to the above issues, if you decide to still go ahead with the home remedy route, the next task is to seek some tips for things that can be done at home. The question then becomes, “What can I do to get my child to ride a bike?” “What do I have to do to bone up for the job?”

How do I identify a professional?

Back while I was teaching, my wife and I moved to a 42 acre farmhouse about 20 minutes from the university. My father-in-law was ecstatic; he had been a dairy farmer for the past 40 years, and he insisted that we get a few head of cattle. So I headed to the sale barn to pick up some young heifers, which are cows that have not yet given any milk.

Well, as it turns out, one of the heifers I bought was pregnant. Four months after I bought the heifer, on a Sunday morning, it started to calve…but there was a problem. The calf’s foot was turned sideways, not allowing it to exit the would-be cow. As a mathematician, I hadn’t a clue what to do, so I called my father-in-law, the dairy farmer. He was full of advice: “Oh, you just push the calf’s foot back in, reach into the heifer, grab both feet, and tug!” Well, I tried that, and I tried it again. And again. I asked for more advice. I tried some more.

After an hour, I finally admitted that I simply could not pull the calf out.

I called the local veterinarian. He showed up, a lean man of about 5′ 4″. He took his shirt off, soaped his arms, and in three minutes had gotten the calf out. As he was washing up, I asked him, “Doc, I am a big, strong man with expert advice. How on earth could you get that calf out when I couldn’t?”

“I’ve studied the Rule Book. I am familiar with the basic moves. I’ve played the game before, and I had the right equipment.”

I paid him, and he left me with a calf, a cow ready to milk, and a story.

Professionals: Yes, they make a living doing whatever it is, but in the process professionals inherently possess five attributes (I added one that I observed):
•They have studied the rule book. They are familiar with the game that they are playing, and every game has rules.
•They are familiar with the basic moves. We stress “basic moves,” as most professionals don’t even have to resort to fancy moves. They usually only have to execute a few basic moves, but execute them reasonably well. After all, professionals practice over and over again what they do, and practice tends to “make perfect.”
•The professional comes to the job with the right equipment.
•The professional has “played the game before.” This means that the professional has encoded a sense of reflexes and even experiences so that the professional’s reactions become automatic, skilled, and certainly not reactions of emotional despair.
•The professional comes to the task with the right attitude. They know if the problem can be solved. They have the where-with-all to solve the problem. If the problem can’t be solved they will recognize that up front and tell you so in a heartbeat. The silly notion, for example, of taxi drivers taking you around the block in order to run up the meter is just that – silly. Taxi drivers usually make money by having lots of short trips so that more people can pay the high cost of the first portion of the trip. You need to get out of your mind the notion that the professional is ripping you off, or milking the job, because that is very seldom the case.

In what follows we are going to share some, but not all, of our professional secrets. Our intent is to provide some form of framework to allow you as parent to (1) know if you should be trying to do the job yourself, and (2) if you decide to go ahead on your own, to have some idea as to how to emulate a professional. Let’s get started.
Study the rule book. If you are serious, the first thing you should do is to read up on the topic. We recommend the sections of this web site flagged for parents and the lay public.

Become familiar with the basic moves. This is hard for us to describe in word form, but the first move is to believe in the bike and believe in speed. If you are going to pussy-foot around and go slow with your child, you are only compounding the problem. We could write volumes on this topic of the basic moves, but we hope that in reading all the varied portions of this web site that you’ll gain some feel for the basic moves.

Bring the right equipment to the game. For starters, you need to be objective about the bike thatyou hope to use. This is sad to say but a large percentage of the reasons why kids can’t learn is that the bike used, most likely purchased originally in some discount or mass chain store, is an ill suited bike. The most common problem is that the bike is of a BMX or racing style, with wrong proportions. The crank set (also called bottom bracket) is too high, and the crank arms are too long. This combination forces the pedal to go way too high as it comes up and over the top, and your child will lose balance and feel uncomfortable because of the poor ergonomic aspects of your bargain or even shiny “BMX” bike. That precious department store bike was designed with only one purpose in mind – to get you to buy it and pay money at the check-out. Do you recall how it shined and how the child liked its “cool” look? It wasn’t designed to be a good bike for the child, especially a child experiencing difficulty in learning.

The next thing to do is to strongly consider the purchase of a bike training handle. A bike training handle is an after-market handle that you can purchase and fairly easily attach to your child’s bike. If you can’t get the handle attached, your neighbor’s 16 year-old kid can usually do the job. The handle is up and behind the rider so that you or another adult can run alongside seeing that the child is both guided and prevented from falling. The purpose of the handle isn’t for you to forever be holding onto, but to be there more as a safety feature. You need to be prepared to catch the child as if you are using “the back of eagle’s wings.” Please refer to our section on “Bicycle Theology.”

The “equipment” must also include a proper riding surface. Avoid sidewalks. Avoid even streets. The best surface is a paved vacant parking lot. Saturday mornings often mean that some commercial business parking lots are available. Another option for a riding surface is often a church parking lot so long as you don’t arrive when a wedding, funeral, or other event is scheduled. In selecting a parking lot, look for one that is level, and free of obstacles and serious hazards like pot holes, storm grates, concrete light pole bases, and steep inclines.

Avoid the spotlight. Your child doesn’t need a cheering section, so leave as many unnecessary people and kibitzers at home. Grandpa, siblings, and neighbors can be surprised later. You don’t want them present unless deemed necessary and for a specific purpose.

Select a time of day when the child is rested, and preferably when it is cooler so that the child feels comfortable with longer length protective clothing. Riding gloves are a good idea as the child might fall and road rash will cause pain. If you don’t have riding gloves, consider garden gloves the type used when working on thorned plants. Pain, if it occurs, will normally shut the learning process down.

Come to the game with some experience.

If you are really serious, you should approach your special needs child with a few practice plays under your belt. Try going out onto a parking lot and running with a riderless bike, or getting a sibling who can ride to serve as a trial guinea pig. We note that the Wright Brothers had each flown hundreds of flights prior to the first powered flight on December 17, 1903 – because they had practiced extensively with gliders. Our recommendation is that you get your equipment ready and then offer services to neighbors with able-bodied children. Under your tutelage, your neighbors kids will learn quickly, you will gain in confidence (leaps and bounds), and your neighbors will love you for what you are doing.

Come to the game with the right attitude.

This is hard to convey, but we note that a frequent factor for children not learning is improper parental meddling and pressuring of the child. Yes, you are emotionally involved, but please do not allow your emotions and fears to get in the way of objectivity. Parents tend to do a number of things, some of them detrimental:
•They get the child all worked up and excited, often days in advance. The fearful child is sure that they will fail – and disappoint or let down the parent. In short, don’t build up the event, but rather treat it almost as a non event. We’d be happier if you didn’t even tell the child in advance that you are scheduling a bike learning experience. We must comment that one type of child requires advance notice – the child with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. They don’t do well with the idea of surprises.
•Keep your mouth shut. In pilot training flight instructors use a more polite phrase, “Minimize conversation.” A child intensely trying to ride a bike doesn’t need a parental megaphone blaring in their ears. All people learn based on three modes of learning – oral, visual, and kinesthetic. We want the bicycle to teach the child kinesthetically. If you’re going to bombard the child with oral commands or even encouragement while riding, the kinesthetic will freeze as they will try to comprehend what you are shouting about, and they become more prone to failure. Keep your mouth shut. Minimize conversation. Talk to them gently before and gently after, but keep your mouth zipped shut while they are riding.
•Be careful about your choice of words when working with learning children. Parents tend to throw out words like “turn right,” “steer,” and “turn.” These are adult abstractions that mean little to children, especially when under the pressure to ride a frightening bike for the first time. Even the concepts of right and left are often not in place by the time that children are trying to learn to ride. They don’t need your oral help, and they certainly don’t need you shouting out in words that only bewilder them. Save up your entire urge to shout out commands for the Little League Tournament where you will behave like all the other over-agitated parents.
•In conversations, the parent will at times bring up negative ideas and thoughts. “This bike is tipsy.” “This bike is fast.” “Do you think you might fall?” Forget all the negatives. Instead, think and talk positive. “This is fun.” “Your grandma will be so proud.” “Wow, we’ll have to get you a new bike.” Of course, do this before or after the ride – not during.
•Learn to let go. Please, please, learn to let go. By holding on, you totally change what the bike is doing, and thus, the child may learn incorrectly. Even on our adapted bikes, we are always telling people to let go of the handle.
•Be patient and never let the child know that they have not done well.
•Allow the bike to be a bike, allow the bike to move forward.
•Never promise what you can’t deliver. If you say “You won’t fall because I’ll be here to catch you,” you have dug a hole. A time will come when the child will fall and you won’t adequately react in time. The child will realize that you are a liar, and not trustworthy. Instead say, “I’ll be right beside you and I’ll do my best to see that you don’t fall.”
•Know when you are over your head and out of your league. If your child is going downhill and not progressing, know when to quit and to call the professional in. Quite frankly, we have skills, attitudes, experience, and equipment that you can’t touch or even dream of.

Yes, other devices and methods are on the market as options for you. Bicycling magazine‘s editors published a fairly neat little pamphlet, circa 1991, about how to teach your child. Their method involves four steps. It amounted to the first step being initially taking the pedals off and coasting down a slight incline. The second step is coasting but with feet on the pedals (now reattached). The third step is to again go down inclines but to pedal gently. The fourth step is to proceed to start regular riding. Another bike instruction method was published, Richard’s Ultimate Bicycle Book, 1992, pp. 114-115. This method is similar to the previous, but with a slight variation. The first step is to remove the pedals and then to allow the child to shuffle along. Next, the child can coast and balance with feet up. The third step is to attempt riding by pedaling.

These types of published methods are actually great ideas if several things are true:
1.You are restricting yourself to able-bodied children
2.You use standard bike configurations
3.You aren’t dealing with deeply engrained training wheel learned behaviors
4.You aren’t dealing with ill-configured bikes notably BMX styled racing bikes

When we work with large numbers of special needs children, these cited methods are hardly up to the job. Our response was to develop a special line of adapted bikes; and we actually use an array or sequence of adapted bikes with most children. We have also developed our own pedagogical techniques or procedures.

Tips on teaching someone else to ride?

This may be a lot of material to remember, so we made it simple for you and summarized everything in “How We Train” right here. Simple and easy, just for you.

A Summary of Home Remedy Tips:
•It seems that the best place to start with home remedy is to get a bike that is user friendly. Avoid racing and BMX types.
•Have the seat sufficiently low so that the rider can comfortably reach the ground.
•You want a firm triangular seat, and not a banana seat.
•Either raise the handlebars to promote forward vision, or get an extender or a raised set of handlebars — see your friendly bike shop.
•Purchase an after-market bicycle training handle.
•Practice first with other people’s children.
•Read up as much as you can.
•Keep calm and cool.
•Find a level and open spacious parking lot or other flat surface.
•Be prepared to run, and consider recruiting a helper also capable of running.
•Schedule times when it is sufficiently cool so that the child can be wearing longer length trousers and long-sleeved shirt.
•Avoid floppy clothing, or at least tie up that right pants leg with elastic or a Velcro® strip.
•Zip your lip, as you shouldn’t be cheering all the time or barking commands.
•Forget trying to explain cognitive concepts like “right,” “left,” “steer,” and “turn.” These are abstractions and countless others are precisely that, abstractions that the learning child isn’t able to process while in the midst of balancing precariously on a two-wheeler.
•Remember to get the speed up, almost to the point that you are somewhere between a jog and a run. If you are walking, you are going too slow.

Learn to let go!
If your child hasn’t acquired the ability to ride by himself/herself after an hour or so, consider calling in the experts.

What is the cost of not learning to ride?

The real cost of not being able to ride a bike is in the lost opportunity – the opportunity to smile and to be like everybody else.
For a child with special needs, if bike riding isn’t mastered then other options are often considered. One option is often an adapted three or four-wheeler. These adapted bikes may be suitable last alternatives for some, but a significant percentage of children here-to-fore outfitted with awkward and cumbersome three-wheelers or large training wheel-equipped bikes can be taught to ride conventional bikes. Typical costs for special purpose bikes can run as high as several thousand dollars. Beyond the dollar cost of these special bikes and trikes, the real cost paid is in the lost opportunity – the opportunity to smile and to be like everybody else. Some children are placed on tandems and what are called “tag along” bike trailers, but these bicycling solutions have distinct limitations. Quite apart from the passive nature of these bike environments, the problem with tandems and tag along trailers is that as the child grows to adult size, their weight combined with uncoordinated and erratic body movements of the child soon cause the dual riding experience to become perilous. In short, riding in a stoker capacity with a responsible adult is destined to be a short-term solution, and a solution that essentially closes future windows of opportunity.