As parents of children with special needs, we understand that each milestone of theirs, often come with a consistent and often exhausting effort. Sitting, walking, jumping, balancing, running or climbing stairs are achieved with years of physical therapies or persistence of parents.
Which is why, many of us dread to start teaching a skill, which is going to take months or years of practice to achieve. The academics, the school, the reading and writing, the speech, the articulation often take precedence over physical sports and we lose the first decade and sometimes more, chasing the school and the skills that are needed to adjust in the class room.
Teaching to ride a bicycle: What research says
Recently when we decided to teach Aarshia, my daughter who happens to have Down syndrome, to ride a bicycle, we were extremely skeptical. I did not know how long or how hard the process was going to be. I did some research and found out about a study from University of Michigan which suggested that only 20% of children with autism and 10% of children with DS learn to ride a bike.
This wasn’t very positive and I remember how after our first few failed attempts, I was recalling this study and thinking if she would ever be able to do it. But her persistence and interest kept us at it. Deep inside we knew that she has a thing for outdoor activities and since she had already learnt skating and badminton, we decided to give it a serious shot. Also, the more parents I spoke to, the more I believed that it was mostly about one, the child being ready and interested and two, the parents putting in the consistent effort in teaching this skill. Once both these aspects are sorted, the child will surely be able to learn.
Our Children Can Learn
Even though she could cycle with support wheels from 2-3 years ago, taking those wheels away was something which was going to be difficult. It took us about 5 weeks, a few falls and some crying to go from balanced wheels to ride the cycle without them. With a lot of practice, she could go on long distances on her own, manoeuvring, balancing, saving herself from approaching vehicles, applying brakes suddenly, all associated skills were learned on the road in a few days. We were ecstatic and surely all the running behind her was well worth the happiness and confidence on her face.
Cycling is a huge confidence boost for our children
Seeing Aarshia bike and also remembering, when I was learning to ride the bike and one day when my dad had let go of the seat and I was riding on my own, how accomplished and fabulous I felt. I realised how important it is to let our children too experience this feeling of achievement. A little research led me to many programs like ‘I can ride’ or ‘Everyone can shine‘ programs in USA and Canada, where children with special needs are taught how to ride a bike independently, opening up the doors of freedom and self reliance. However in India, we still lack such dedicated group programs for imparting this skill, though many parents in their own capacity are trying to help new parents learn the tricks of the whole process.
Based on our personal experience and studying these workshops to teach cycling, It seems that a dedicated month long program can do wonders for your child, However, this skill like many others, has some pre-requisites. If the child is not physically ready, then it can discourage them as well as the parents when they start teaching, so it is advisable to read, learn and teach some of the skills that can help fasten the process of riding a bike.
A Slight Delay
Also, in my research with many parents that I did reach out to, I found that most of our children learn to bike much later than their typical counterparts. Most of our children have learned to bike independently, without balanced wheels, when they were 7 years or above. In fact many of our children learnt the skill well beyond 12-13 years. I can probably base it on the physical readiness of a child before they can actually learn and master this complicated process of cycling. If you too are in the line to help your child learn to ride, then you sure can start working in the background to strengthen their muscles to facilitate the process.
Riding a bike is a complex skill. It requires various motor skills along with depth and distance perception to work in tandem, which is why some of the following should be checked/taught before embarking on the actual teaching.
- Supine Cycling: pedalling with both legs while lying on a flat surface like bed.
2. Fully Pedalling: can be practiced with static cycles. I was also asked a few times on children doing only half pedalling, in that case, velcro strip can be used to tie their feet loosely to the pedals to help them for full rotation.
3. Bilateral coordination:
Bilateral coordination means the ability to coordinate both sides of the body at the same time in an organised manner. Good bilateral integration/ coordination is an indicator that both sides of the brain are communicating effectively. Children who have difficulty coordinating both sides of their body can have difficulty completing daily living tasks (dressing, tying shoes), fine motor activities (buttoning, cutting, beading), visual motor tasks (drawing, catching/ throwing), and gross motor activities (crawling, walking, climbing stairs, riding a bike).
Another important foundation in bilateral coordination is body awareness. Body awareness indicates the ability to know where your body is in space without necessarily using vision (For example, proper body awareness tells us how far to reach for objects or how close to stand next to a person); it involves proprioception, which is feedback from muscle and joint sensations.
Children who do not have adequate body awareness may appear a bit clumsy, be cautious with movement or fearful with feet off ground (tossing in air, swinging, fearful while taking feet off the road while cycling), can get too rough with things/ toys (wrestling, carrying/ pushing/ pulling heavy objects).
Subsequently, children with low sense of body awareness can have difficulty in completing bilateral tasks (i.e. wearing pants, putting on socks and shoes, throwing/ catching a large ball with 2 hands, playing badminton, cycling).
The following activities can be found helpful for developing bilateral coordination:
- Playing with marbles or pebbles by throwing and catching with alternate hands.
- Tearing/ crumpling paper.
- Connecting and tearing blocks like legos
- Playing catch/ throw games to encourage coordinating both hands
- Holding the paper with one hand and cutting it with scissor with the other hand.
- Jumping, pushing/pulling trolleys in the grocery store or at airport.
- Playing mirror games.
- Playing obstacle race: can be done at home by putting pillows, chairs, toys as obstacles.
- Climbing on slides from the incline side.
- Playing tug of war.
4. Depth perception: means the ability to focus in on an object and calculate approximately how far away it is. While most children do develop a good depth perception by age three, a few may struggle and take longer. For cycling, this is an extremely important part. To recognise the distance and speed at which another vehicle or a person is coming towards you is integral to learning this skill. Here are some activities that can be done to help children develop this further.
a. Using a flashlight in a dark room and making left to right, right to left, up-down, down-up patterns with it on the wall and asking your child to follow the light.
b. Following the pencil: often recommended by our eye doctors, here you can keep a pencil directly in front of his eyes and then slowly take it away while his eyes are still on the pencil. Gradually moving it back and forth a few times will help in depth perception.
c. Solving maze, puzzles, jumping over the puddles, obstacles can also help/
6. Vision: Keeping a check on visual challenges and also making sure that he is wearing his glasses at all times is one of the most ignored but extremely important point.
7. Core strength exercises: Simple exercises like rope walk ( you can put the rope on the floor), crab walk, making a bridge, leg lifts, snake curls, climbing up an inclined slide etc. can be good exercises for core strength.
Your child may or may not need most of the pre-cycling exercises however if you are planning on teaching him this skill, these exercises and activities will prepare his body and will give him strength and confidence to give his one hundred percent to this skill learning.
While Teaching cycling
Here are the few steps of teaching to ride a cycle. Each step is important and a few children may take longer at one of these steps, so waiting without pushing too much will also help. Read on…
- Bike size: Making sure that the bike is appropriate size, which means while sitting on the seat, your child’s feet should be touching the ground on both sides.
2. Taking the pedals off: If you are not using a balance bike then you can take the pedals off of your existing bike and use it as one. We did the same. Most bike’s pedals are just connected with two nuts.
3. Safety Rules: Letting them get comfortable with the bike and safety rules: This means wearing helmet, letting them walk with the cycle, put it on the stand. Learning to climb on and off it many times and also to put brake when asked to do so.
3. Teaching Scooting:
Once they are comfortable with the cycle, move to scooting, which is using feet to push on the ground to move the bicycle. Initially the child may do one foot at a time however our aim is to get him/her to use both their legs simultaneously and subsequently going fast and balancing the handle.
Once the child is able to scoot independently, the next step is to ask them to scoot faster and when they are doing so, lifting both their feet off the ground. Keep reminding the child to sit straight and look up on the road and not down, as that’s the default tendency while learning this step. You can also hold the cycle from the back and let the child manoeuvre rest of the things. It will help to give them a small distance to scoot with their feet up and gradually make it longer. You may have to run with the child in this case, so your fitness is also important 🙂
5. Pedalling and braking:
Once the child is comfortable riding with his feet off the ground, it is time to put the pedals back on. The child should be seated on the bike with one pedal up. Hold the handle with one hand and support the back of your child with the other. Tell your child to push the pedal down and move forward slowly.Take the hand off the handlebars and the back one by one once the child is confident.
A few more sessions with holding the bike from the back or gently holding the child’s t-shirt at the back might be needed to give them enough fuel to fly in 2-3 days from here. You can also check out this innovative product that I recently saw somewhere and find out if you can make this at home.
6. Keep practising: At this juncture, it is likely that your child is on the verge of taking on his own and all he needs is a little more push and support, so continue with that. Starting to pedal without any support needs practice and confidence. It is also possible that a few children may need a little longer than others at this point, especially ‘pushing and starting the cycle on their own’ . There, you can tell them to push off the ground with the back leg to facilitate the starting, which again can take a few more hours but is very doable.
If you have read the whole article, I am sure that you are an extremely committed parent and will give it your all to teach your child and I have no doubt that your child will soon be flying with his cycle. My only advise would be to not give up and keep trying and once learnt, keep practising.
Here is an excellent resource with videos if you need more information about cycling
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Happy cycling 🙂