Monday, March 19, 2012

Stabilisers vs. balance bike...

I had a thought this morning... and it came off the back of a conversation about my kids learning to ride their bikes.  With my daughter, we dutifully bought a bike with stabilisers - because that's what you did. She would pedal furiously to get herself going - backwards.  And go nowhere very fast.  When she did get herself going, if the road was at all bumpy, she would wobble and scare herself and stop.  Or, the stabilisers would form a stubborn bridge, suspending the wheel in the middle so that it could gain no friction to get her moving.  Going up hills was torture.  And the noise of the plasticky wheel on the ground.  Eurgh!

When my son was about three, rather than getting him a bike with stabilisers we bought him a balance bike.  How much fun did he have on that?  And the speed he got up to!  And the independence!  And the freedom... for him and us.  It was brilliant.  Rough surfaces he scooted over with ease.  Slopes were walked up and were simple.  And it was quiet.  We could go walks with the children and they would whizz ahead on their bikes, scooping up the space ahead of them with gusto.  Co-incidentally, one of our friends had also bought my son a balance bike for his birthday, so we had two - which meant one each for the children and my daughter discovered how much fun riding could be as well.

One day, when he was four, we were walking around a lake with him on his scoot bike and my daughter, by now aged 6 and riding a 'proper' bike.  Out of curiosity I said to my son, 'do you fancy having a go on her bike?'.  'Yes', he said.  And we swapped the children over.  I held the saddle, he sat on it.  And started to pedal... and that was it.  He rode the rest of the way, pedalling happily and never ever fell off once.

My thought this morning was about the way people learn and how it relates to those two different approaches to supporting their learning.  The first, provided a rigid scaffold which is then removed.  The second, a far more authentic experience of bike riding - attain balance and experience, then move to pedals later.  Stabilisers present the bike as a given, and then add on the metal struts and wheels to support it.  A balance bike strips back the experience of learning a bike to the most important bits - getting your balance and feeling the freedom of riding.

I'm wondering whether scaffolding students' learning is the wrong approach.

I'm wondering whether we're approaching things by saying 'this is the whole and I want you to get there... I'll support you en route' rather than 'this is how it truly feels to be competent in this area, I'm going to light that fire of enjoyment which gets you to take it further'.

This really is just half a thought.  I just wanted to record it before it slipped away.  Does any of what I've written strike a chord with anyone?  Or even vaguely make sense?


  1. Great post, thanks Sarah. I am also coming to the realisation of the scaffold-approach myself (and the decision of balance bike vs stabilisers for my two boys) and this has helped me understand where we are going.

    All the best, David

    1. Balance bike every time as far as the kids are concerned! It's just the most liberating way for them to learn to ride a bike. I guess it's that feeling my son had when he was on his balance bike which is so often missing from education. It seems to capture some of the gap between being 'educated' in something vs. learning about it and exploring the limits on your own terms. With stabilisers, the system is in control. With a balance bike, the learner is in control.

    2. I like the idea of the learner being in control, it seems more important (I learn by doing and seeing what works, not by being told what works).

      All the best, David

  2. I had to google balance bike to find out what it was - looks like a sit on scooter where child has low centre of gravity. I cast my mind back 25 years to when my three children learned to ride their bikes (each in their own different way). Two things I remember was gradually raising the stabilisers and secondly - having an intensive session without stabilisers when they were ready at the end of which the stabilisers were removed and banished to the garage. I really do feel that stabilisers can be left on too long and the take up a of a 2 wheeled bike (with stabilisers) can be started too soon.
    So I agree with your statement about lighting the fire of enjoyment.
    A memory from my own childhood is of 'slow bicycle races' where the winner comes last - not sure how that metaphor would translate to learning.

    1. I wonder how we can design balanced learning vs stablised learning though? I think some of it is about stripping the learning back to the key themes of what's being learned / experienced rather than viewing it as discrete tasks to accomplish. It's hard to describe, but it's a little like applying the apprenticeship model to formalised learning but giving a learner the freedom to set their own goals within an activity with the feeling of progressive mastery of what they're learning being the reward itself. There was something so fundamentally different about the way in which my children experienced riding a bike and it the difference between the artificial experience of stabilisers vs. the authentic exhileration of the balance bike feels like it's important some how.

      More half formed thoughts from me, sorry!

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  4. Balance bikes are the iPhone5 of teaching balance to kids. Bikes with training wheels- not so much they are more like a rotary telephone!
    The part about stabilizers that is misunderstood is that these low end and very heavy department store bikes have tiny crank arms- the shorter the crank, the less leverage you have in turning the crank. This is why you will see so many parents yelling at their kids, "just pedal!", and the child can't- the leg strength just isn't there (yet)
    This is also about instant gratification that Americans are so accustomed to. A 5 year old can't ride a two wheeler, but parents can create an artificial sensation of success by using training wheels. In one instant, they can claim that their kid is "riding" a bike, which is a delusion. They may as well put their child in the driver's seat of their car and claim that they can drive, too.. Stabilizers rob kids of several important things: 1. you can't feel the sensation of balance when training wheels are supporting you. Therefore, it isn;t possible to know when you are successfully balancing. 2. You cant counter steer or lean into a corner with training wheels- it's impossible if the bike is fixed vertically- and bad habits created have to be un-learned/reversed later on. 3. There is no speed on a bike with training wheels. They can barely get it moving on a flat road, never mind uphill, while 2 year olds on balance bikes are whizzing by at 3x the speed. How embarrassing!
    Yeah it's about time we took a hint from the Old World and accept the fact that training wheels are a gimmicky way to sell a "bike" to the parent of a 5 year old. The smart parents are teaching their kids fundamental motor skills at the age of two, and this very early success doing a relatively complicated activity pays big dividends: socially, academically and physically, plus the kids are three years ahead of the curve and riding a pedal bike by the age of four- as it should be.
    We are the owners of a distribution company that sells the FirstBIKE brand of balance bikes to dealers all over the United States. We hope your readers will check it out. But no matter what brand they include in their buying decision, we're happy to see one less department store piece of junk on the sidewalk. It's time to stop torturing kids with these 30 pound monstrosities and liberating them with a 7 pound balance bike! Thanks for the great post. I really enjoyed reading it and nodding the whole time.


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