How to Teach Cycling to Kids with Special Needs?

It takes constant exhausting efforts by the parents and teachers to teach children with disabilities. With years of regular physical therapies and the persistence of guardians, the child learns to sit, walk, jump, balance, and climb stairs. Teaching complex skills can take months and even years to master, and it is the enervation that makes the job hard for the parent and the teacher. According to the University of Michigan, only 20% of children with autism, and 10% of children with down syndrome can learn to ride a bicycle. It requires consistent work both from the child as well as the parent to make riding a bike reality. Riding a bike for a kid is a huge accomplishment for their parent. It is not a simple task. It requires proper coordination of eyes & hands, perception of the field of depth, balance formation, and following the safety rules. If you live in the U.S. or Canada, a program like ‘I can ride’ or ‘Everyone can shine‘ can help kids learn to ride a bike independently.

These things take time, and one should not reschedule such skills for later years. Starting earlier can give your child the benefit of coordinated motor skills, and help them cruise through life in the years to come.


Step 1: Pre-Cycling Exercises

We all know riding a bike is a complex skill. Various parts of the body are required to perform a synchronized and repetitive action to make the bike move. Practicing these actions separately in isolation can help strengthen the muscles. Developing necessary motor skills and distance perception can help a long way in the learning process.

    • Supine Cycling Exercise: This exercise will help in two ways. First, it will help strengthen the leg muscle used, and second, it will make the child remember the cycling motion performed via the legs. To practice this exercise, find a flat surface either on your bed or the floor. If you are doing this on the floor, make sure to spread a yoga mat or a piece of cloth. Now, lay down with your belly upwards and raise your legs in the air. Keep your hands flat on the ground along your body and your head looking straight to the ceiling. While lying down, perform the cycling motion using your legs. You can reverse the direction after a while and perform it backward. Make sure to watch your child while they perform and keep giving them the assistance they need.
    • Full Pedaling: In this exercise, the child needs to practice on the exercise bike. By using an exercise bike, the child can apply force against the pedal, unlike in the case of supine cycling exercise where there is no resistance against the legs. Muscles from parts like the hip, thigh, and feet are all trained in this exercise.
    • Bilateral Coordination Exercises: The term bilateral coordination means the strength to regulate both sides of the body at the same time and in an orderly manner. For example, holding a ruler with one hand and drawing a line with the other. Good bilateral coordination means that both the hemispheres of the brain (left and right) can coordinate and work collectively in sync. These exercises help coordinate your body so you can move through space a little bit easier. Here is a video of various bilateral coordination exercises one can practice.
    • Depth Perception Exercises: For this exercise, you will need a pen with a removable cap. To begin off, stand straight and hold your hand out with the pen. Now using your other hand, remove the cap and move it down beside your body. While doing so, always keep your eyes focused on the tip of the pen. Gently, raise your arm and try to recap the pen. Even while recapping, your vision should be on the pen. Repeat this exercise for various heights and distances from your body. Doing this for 10 minutes every day will improve the depth perception. Here is a video tutorial for this exercise.
    • Vision: During the pre-cycling phase, make sure the eyesight of the child is okay. If there is a requirement for any spectacles, do make sure they use them while riding the bike.
    • Core Strength Training: Before getting on to the bike, doing some of these core strength training can help activate the muscles. Here is a video with 10 essential cycling exercises.

Step 2: Getting a Bike

A cyclist using an Adaptive Cycle.
    • Bike Size: Make sure the bike size is appropriate to the age of the child. Set the seat height per the inseam height of the child. A comfortable height would be when the foot firmly touches the ground. Getting a Balance Bike can drastically improve the odds of success when learning to balance when compared to training wheels. After a balance bike, the child can quickly shift to a regular pedal bike. Here is an in-depth article on how to purchase a perfect balance bike.
    • Adaptive Bikes: These are bikes that are overhauled to personal needs or choices. There are various parts of the bike that can be modified to account for kids’ specific disabilities.
    • Safety Rules: Make sure the child knows the basic rules of safety like how to brake, how to wear safety gear, walk with the cycle, and put a stand on the bike.

Step 3: Teaching to Scoot

Push the ground to move the bike forward; scooting. Start with one foot and slowly try to get a simultaneous leg action for scooting. Slowing build up the pace. Once they start to scoot fast enough, command them to lift their leg and try steering the bike while balancing it. Gradually tell them to shoot longer distances. You can hold the bike for them until they are comfortable enough to ride freely. Once they master the balance bike, time to get the pedal bike in the picture. Give support to your child from the back and help them get accustomed to the pedaling action. Let go of them once they seemed to be confident enough. Do not give up; keep trying, and once learned; keep practicing.


Tips to Follow:

    • Use visual cues to teach the child instead of verbally teaching them. You can demonstrate certain activities or show videos to the child. Visual learning is far easier to comprehend when compared to auditory learning.
    • To get the hang of the cycling action, you can opt for bicycles with no freewheel, aka fixies. These bikes tend to move backward when pedaled back, or in other words, the pedal moves in sync with the rear wheel. This will help the child learn the rhythm and pattern of pedaling.
    • Use short phrases to communicate. Like, to instruct the child to move forward, just teach them the word “pedal”. Similarly, you can use the word “brake” to make them stop the bike.
    • Each child is different, and it wouldn’t hurt a bit if professionals are there to guide them. Do keep in touch with a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist for their guidance.


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