By Shanti Kurada, MS, MBA
Summer is a great time to work on skills that are hard to find time for during the school year. Biking is both a fun activity and an important skill for our kids – it builds stamina, strengthens their leg muscles, and is a social, therapeutic activity that keeps them engaged during the long summer days. The best part is that this is a skill that parents can teach their children, without worrying about cost.
1. Begin with the concept of pedaling.
The first step is to teach your child to ride a tricycle (if he is 3 to 5) or a bicycle with support wheels. Some children with autism have a hard time learning how to keep pedaling, due to challenges with bilateral coordination. Certain OT centers have stationary bikes to teach them this concept. Some parents use tandem bicycles and put their child in the back. If you do not have access to such an OT gym or a tandem bike, simply put your child on his bike on a flat path, and actually put your hands on his feet and prompt him through the action of pedaling. This sounds grueling but it does not take very long for the child to understand what he needs to do. As you prompt pedaling, push the bike a little, so he sees the connection between the pedaling and the motion of the bike. However do not push so much that he gets a free ride. Push a little but make him work for it. Within a few sessions of this, he will start pedaling by himself.
2. Teach speed regulation.
At first your child may bike too fast and crash into a fence. Teach your child to pay attention to his environment by placing some obstacles in his path. Have him maneuver his bike around the obstacles and praise him when he does so independently. As he approaches the edge of his space (say a fence in the backyard), give him some warning that he needs to start turning. Place a giant sign on the fence, if needed. Or run ahead of him and start making turning signs. Some children may need hand over hand prompting for turning, to avoid crashing. At first, you will need to run a lot to moderate your child’s speed. At this stage, your child knows how to bike but lacks control. So it is better to practice in a smaller space such as a backyard (rather than a large school playground, where your child can shoot off into the distance and you can’t keep up). As you practice more, your child will learn to pay attention to his environment, regulate his speed as needed, and come to a gradual rather than an abrupt stop.
3. Inculcate safety awareness.
Now is the time to get to a slightly larger space and start practicing in a neighborhood park. Select a park with a clearly laid out path, if possible. Your child will need to learn to pay attention to balls being thrown, children running, dogs, babies, and strollers. Most importantly, your child needs to understand park boundaries. You don’t want your child biking rapidly toward the street. Teach your child to slow down, well ahead of the boundary with the street, and then make him come to a complete stop several steps before the boundary. This is very much like how you taught him to heed the fence in your backyard. It may require you to run ahead and block him and gesture for him to stop or physically prompt him. If you do this on a regular basis, your child will understand that this is a rule that cannot be broken.
4. Transition to a bike without support wheels.
At this stage, your child must know how to ride his bike (with support wheels) with confidence. He must understand the basics of starting, stopping, turning, and slowing down as needed. The best place for this stage of learning (taking off the support wheels) is an empty school playground. This part of the process is not that different from what you would go through with a typical child.
You put your child on the bike, with his feet firmly on the pedals, you place your left hand on the handle and your right hand on the back of his seat (if you are right handed), and you move him forward. He will start pedaling because it is now habitual for him. As you move him, let go of some support occasionally. When you do this, you will notice him leaning toward you. As you do this more and more, he will stop leaning on you as much. This indicates that he is learning to balance himself partially. At some point, (a couple of hours for some kids, a couple of days later for others) you will be able to let go of the handle, and only support him on the back of his seat.
This process is exhausting on your back due to the bending required, so recruit a friend or family member to take turns, if possible. Eventually you will be able to take your hand off his seat, and he will ride off into the distance without your support – an exhilarating moment for you and your child, and an important milestone!
5. Build confidence through practice.
Take his bike everywhere and generalize to various parks. Practice riding on slightly uphill or downhill paths. Practice riding on circular, straight, rectangular, and wavy paths, to build a good sense of direction. Increase the amount of time you spend biking gradually. The more you practice, the more confidence he will gain, and this will prepare you for the next stage – engaging in biking as a social activity.
6. Teach biking as a social activity.
If you’d like to have your child participate in a group biking activity with your family, he must learn to follow the biker in front of him, adjust his speed to the other bikers, slow down and stop when he sees the others doing so. This requires a lot of regulation and the ability to adjust and respond to variations.
Start with a simple rectangular path. Enlist the help of an older sibling, your spouse, or a friend. Have the ‘leader’ bike in the front, and have your child ‘follow the leader’. At first, the goal should be to maintain a safe distance without falling too far behind, to slow down and stop when he sees the ‘leader’ stopping. Once this is mastered, the next goal is to turn right/left as the ‘leader’ turns right/left. The final goal is to adjust speed according to the leader’s speed – to slow down or speed up as needed. Teach your child to respond to variations and regulate to people in other situations in his everyday life. You can play fun games like throwing and catching the ball, ‘tag’, or a relay race to teach this skill in other settings.
Ultimately, you want your child to belong in his circle of family and friends. You want him to engage with people, and share fun times with them. Biking is a great way for him to spend time with his loved ones, to make connections, and gives him an opportunity to be part of his community.
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