Most Americans learn to ride on training wheels, and through a process of bumps and bruises, work their way toward real-deal bicycles. But your kid doesn’t need to tear up their knees and elbows learning to ride a bike. A simple balance bike can save them from that trouble and build their coordination faster than bikes with training wheels.
What Are Balance Bikes, and Why Are They Better Than Training Wheels?
As you already know, training wheels add an extra set of wheels to keep kids from falling flat on their faces. This way, kids can learn to kick their pedals and eventually move on to a real bicycle.
But pedaling is the least important part of riding a bike. You can be an expert at pushing pedals, but without a sense of balance, you’re bound to crash and burn. Training wheels may help to build up a kid’s confidence, but they don’t provide the sense of balance or coordination that a child needs to safely bike around the block.
And that’s where balance bikes come in. Balance bikes are short two-wheel bicycles without pedals. Instead, they’re low to the ground and propelled entirely by your child’s feet. As your kid grows comfortable “walking” on a balance bike, they’ll naturally try to propel themselves into a glide. If they lose their balance while gliding, they can safely brake with their feet (instead of busting their ass), and repeat the process until they build a reliable sense of balance.
Along with a sense of coordination, balance bikes teach kids how to properly turn a bicycle. Like a regular bike, balance bikes require kids to lean into turns, even if they’re just using the balance bike to waddle around. This is the total opposite experience that your kid will get with training wheels, which cannot lean.
Strider ST-S4GN - 12 Sport Balance Bike, Ages 18 Months to 5 Years, Green
Strider's 12-inch balance bike has an adjustable seat, adjustable handlebars, and grippy puncture-proof tires. It's affordable, durable, and sized for kids aged 2 to 5.
What Should I Know Before Buying a Balance Bike?
There are a few things to take into consideration before buying a balance bike. The first thing is, quite naturally, the size of the bike. Most balance bikes are sized for kids between the ages of 2 and 5, although brands like Strider sell options for bigger kids. Generally speaking, 10 or 12-inch wheels will work for small or young kids, while 14 or 16-inch wheels will work for bigger and older kids.
Whatever sized bike you need, we suggest picking one with a height-adjustable seat and height-adjustable handlebars. This ensures that your kid can use their bike for a long time, and adds to the hand-me-down potential of your purchase.
You should also consider what tires you want your kid to use. Some budget balance bikes are made with hard plastic wheels, which don’t have enough traction for real-world use (but are fine on grippy sidewalks or carpet). Mid-range options have foam tires, which work like real tires but wear down over time, and the most expensive options have actual rubber tires that are equivalent to what you’d find on a real bike.
Additional bells and whistles are less important than a balance bike’s size, adjustability, or tires. Some balance bikes have hand-operated brakes, which are a good option for kids who practice in hilly areas or trails that are near traffic. And some large balance bikes, like this 14-inch option from Strider, have attachable pedal systems that you can quickly install once your kid is ready to start pedaling.
Strider - 14x Sport Balance Bike, Ages 3 to 7 Years, Awesome Blue - Pedal Conversion Kit Sold Separately
Strider's 14-inch bike is fully adjustable, and sized for kids aged 3 to 7. It comes with an attachable pedal system, saving you from buying another bike further down the line.
Shopping for a Balance Bike
Once you know what you’re looking for, shopping for a balance bike is a pretty simple process. We strongly suggest buying a balance bike with an adjustable seat and handlebars, and if your budget permits it, shelling out a bit extra for a bike with foam or rubber tires. Additional bells and whistles, like hand-operated brakes or add-on hardware, may help you get more use out of a balance bike, but they aren’t worth stressing over if you’re on a tight budget.
As you can probably tell from the content of this article, Strider makes some of our favorite balance bikes. Strider’s a fantastic mid-range option, with durable foam tires, adjustable seats and handlebars, steel or aluminum frame options, and add-on pedaling hardware for large 14-inch models. You can find Strider’s 12-inch and 14-inch balance bikes on the company’s website.
If you’re looking to save a bit of extra money, then we strongly suggest going with a brand like Radio Flyer or Banana GT. There aren’t too many 14 or 16-inch balance bikes with “budget” pricing, but just under $100, the Bixe balance bike is a solid option.
As for premium bikes, we suggest sticking with big brands like Specialized, Cannondale, and Trek. These companies sell high quality, fully adjustable balance bikes in a variety of colors and sizes. Bikes from these brands are made with premium rubber wheels and balanced frames, and they often have a better resale value or a longer lifetime than cheaper options.