There are pros and cons to both a balance bike or stabilisers, although nowadays all the emphasis is on balance bikes to teach a child to ride. A balance bike doesn’t have pedals, but relies on a child pushing on the ground with their feet to get themselves moving.
You can still buy a kids’ bike with stabilisers though. These are small wheels bolted onto the side of a bike’s frame at the rear that help hold it upright. They can usually be set at different heights, so that as a child gets more assured in their riding they can be lifted up and the child balances more on the bike’s actual wheels.
Unlike a balance bike, a bike with stabilisers will have pedals too. Eventually, the stabilisers can be removed altogether and the bike can be ridden like a normal bike.
So what are the benefits of each type of bike?
Balance or pedalling first?
Kids’ bike specialist Frog Bikes points out that there is a range of skills to master to ride a bike: balancing, pedalling, steering and braking. Whereas the emphasis with a bike with stabilisers is on learning to pedal, with a balance bike, as its name suggests, it’s on learning to balance the bike with pedalling following later.
When you’re riding a normal bike, a large part of the skill required is keeping the bike upright and leaning into corners, something that a kid can’t learn on a bike with stabilisers, as the extra side wheels are designed to keep the bike upright. That means that when turning, they have to lean out of the corner rather than leaning into it, to keep the bike upright.
That’s something that has to then be unlearned once they start to ride a bike without stabilisers, says Islabikes, which specifically advises against using stabilisers. It says that the transition to a standard bike will be smoother if they have learned to ride on a balance bike first.
On a balance bike, that knack of leaning into turns and keeping the bike upright is learned first and transfers directly to a bike with pedals. Frog Bikes points out that a child can start to learn to ride a balance bike when they’re much younger, with its balance bikes suitable for children from 18 months.
At that age, the child’s centre of gravity is lower and because they have both feet on the ground they are less likely to fall than on a larger bike with stabilisers. There’s a natural progression from walking on a balance bike to scooting then gliding as their confidence increases. A balance bike, unlike a bike with stabilisers, can be ridden easily on uneven ground too.
There’s also the option to remove pedals from a bike sized for a larger child and use that as a balance bike if your child is too tall for a balance bike when they start to learn to ride. It’s even an option for adults.
Stabilisers still have their place
Frog Bikes points out that there’s still a place for learning to ride with stabilisers though.
A bike that comes with stabilisers will last a child longer than a balance bike, making it a cheaper option than replacing a balance bike after a year or so. It’s a good way to learn to pedal, Frog says, without you needing to hold the bike upright. That’s particularly useful if you live on a quiet flat street where children can ride up and down without too much supervision.
You need to be careful with raising stabilisers though. When turning, it’s easy to ground a stabiliser that’s not been in contact with the tarmac, increasing the risk of the bike actually becoming less stable, pivoting around the stabiliser and falling.
Falling is more of a risk once the stabilisers are removed completely, as a child who has learned to pedal a bike with them may not have learned to balance. They may be older by this time too and taller, making balancing more difficult.
Frog says above all be patient and let your child learn at their own pace. There’s no typical age when a child will get the hang of riding their bike; it might be anything from two to nine years old.