I learned to ride a bike with training wheels. During my childhood, one first learned to ride with training wheels, and then they got taken off, and your parent ran alongside your bike as you tried to pedal and balance. Finally, somehow, you learned to bike. Actually, I’m a dangerous cyclist, so I’m not sure how well this worked for me.
In more recent years, we have seen the rise of the “balance bike” as an alternative approach to learning to ride. The balance bike is almost the opposite of training wheels: it aims to teach balance first and pedaling second. A balance bike looks like a regular bike — no training wheels — but is pedal-free. The basic idea is that kids can push the bike along with their feet and then lift their feet to coast along. They learn to balance and, when they move to the regular bike, they have that skill.
There is significant balance-bike hype. Like here, an article on “5 reasons why balance bikes are better.” But really, what does the data say?
Perhaps not too surprisingly, the academic literature on “Are balance bikes better?” is pretty light. However, I did find one paper with survey data from Portugal, in which (by parental report) children who started learning on a balance bike learned to ride at a younger age than those who started on training wheels (4.16 years versus 5.97 years).
It is, of course, very hard to tell anything from this, since one of the main pitches of the balance bike is that your child can start learning at a younger age. A result is that it attracts parents who want their child to learn at a younger age. Is it the balance bike or the parents’ desire? Impossible to know.
What is true is that a balance bike is quite small, and can therefore be used at a younger age. An 18-month-old can, in principle, toddle around on a balance bike, but it is likely hard to get a training-wheel bike for that age.
So: if your goal is for your child to learn to bicycle as young as possible, if you have visions of zipping around with your 3-year-old on their two-wheeler, the balance bike may be your friend. If you just want them to learn to bike sometime during childhood, training wheels also work great. With the added bonus that you do not have to buy a separate bike to use them.
USA Cycling — what I’d argue passes for an expert in this space — says either works fine.