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Teaching someone to ride a bike

The Learner Method man.

Learning to ride a bike with the “no boo boo method” works for kids and adults

The Learner Method Man

 

Noah Learner has been at the heart of Nantucket’s bicycle rental business, on and off, since 1993. When he started renting bikes on the strip, kids about to be old enough to buy their first legal beer were busy being born.  As an employee at Young’s Bike Shop, he has performed every task from running bikes from the second floor as a young man to running the show as the general manager for the last nine years.  Many of you will know his name and even more will know his face as he has been a Broad street fixture for so long.  As he and his family prepare to make a big life change, moving to Colorado, it has become clear that he has many skills and much knowledge that he has accumulated over the years. As his co-workers mine him for his vast stores of information about long running customers, well-worn methods of conflict resolution, or how to keep the shop bathroom in such tip top shape, I’m concerned with a service he has quietly offered to those in need.  Noah has a great method for teaching people to ride a bike. He has honed it first with his own children, then on to kids and adults from five to fifty and he clearly loves to do it. 

Noah taught his own kids to ride “with varying success” he admits. “I brought, not the best energy into the process.”  His son is athletic so Noah assumed he would take to riding easily, instead it was a challenge.  He realized he himself “was the roadblock to (his son) learning to ride a bike”.  Learner, a natural teacher and a curious guy thought about what went well and what might need improvement in his method.  He had heard good things about the balance bikes and wanted to incorporate them into teaching his younger son when the time came.

Teaching his youngest son went much more smoothly and Noah found the joy of helping someone learn such a monumental life lesson addictive. New riders have “an instant connection with being free”. It’s that same feeling we all love about bicycles and to introduce someone new to it is a joy and an honor.

 In his capacity at Young’s parents often ask for his help in teaching their kids to ride and now he was not just ready but had become passionate about the process. “The look on their face when they ride a bike under their own power is amazing magical.”  Rather than a coach or drill instructor, Noah sees his role as one of cheerleader and guide, there to keep them safe while they learn. It’s all about positive reinforcement and making them feel special, “Your doing so great, I’ve never seen a kid learn this fast.”

To date, in addition to his own kids Noah has taught nearly a dozen people, from kids five to thirteen, to a handful of adults.  He has noticed that if kids haven’t’ been able to learn by eleven or so they have “a lot of negative emotions and negative feelings about themselves and what they are capable of” Adults as well can begin to assume that if they haven’t learned by the end of their teens that it’s too late.  Nantucket being the microcosm it is, there are people from many countries and cultures here.  In some places women might not be encouraged to learn to ride a bike.  Now as adults they feel left out in a culture where nearly everyone, man or woman knows how to ride.  Noah has taught several ladies from the island’s large Jamaican community to feel the freedom of biking on our island.

We all know the old school methods.  At the risk of making sexist stereotypes I’ll will oversimplify them and call them the Dad method and the Mom method. 

The Dad Method-

  • Find a hill
  • Ride down it
  • Crash a couple times
  • Suck it up
  • You will get it eventually

or

  • You will get sick of skinned knees and give up.

 

The Mom Method:

  • Put on training wheels and hope they will figure it out eventually.
  • The training wheels stay on for so long the kid thinks they are riding a trike and that the world on a bike is always slanted to one side or the other.
  • Family rides become tortuous exercises in patience as the kid can only creep along at glacial place.
  • Biking loses most of its joy for everyone, never becomes a fun, family event and many kids give up.

 

Neither of these methods get you or your kid where you want to go.  Noah refers to his style as the “No boo boo method”.  There is no falling, no pain and the associations with riding are positive and fun.  No matter how tough your kid is, falling is not fun and as humans we have a natural fear of it and an aversion to both pain and failure.  The “Dad” method nearly guarantees some level of failure and the “Mom” method doesn’t allow for either failure or success. 

It’s already so easy for kids to give up on cycling.  There are rolling shoes, scoters, ten year olds in strollers and a world of electronics to suck up the motivation and desire to learn to ride a bike. It’s easy for parents and kids to become frustrated and disillusioned. “When the parents contact me they need help” says Noah.  “They assume they can’t do it, they feel like they don’t have the tools, they feel like they have tried and haven’t been able to do it, and they need a hand.” He spoke about the expectation that parents will be the ones to teach their kids to ride a bike because that is how we think it has always been.  He recalls sitting in a room of 25 ski instructors years ago and he asked if any of them had taught their own kids to ski.  No one had.  “Kids don’t listen to their parents” This is hardly news to parents out there.  Also not all parents are natural teachers, or have a method for getting their kid up and riding.  So many kids and adults learn to ski from someone not just an expert at skiing, but an expert at teaching it to others; it seems that bicycle riding should be the same way.

Noah’s opinion on training wheels is unambiguous. “Never ever use them ever.” This opinion is due to the success he has seen in his own method. “Four hours of work, rather than training wheels for two years and have the kid afraid of falling the whole time.” There is a wide pool of opinion that agrees that training wheels don’t usually teach kids to ride in a meaningful way.

He can’t recall his own experiences learning to ride, but his mother tells him it was at the age of three and like many younger brothers, his motivation was to keep up with his older brother and his friends.  Noah suggests introducing pedal bikes at 4-6 before kids have built up a big fear of falling.  “The longer they go the more fearful they become.”  Using a balance bike beforehand can lay a good foundation. The payoff for both the teacher and the student is huge. That moment where they finally take flight under their own steam is powerful.  “They start off so afraid of falling, not believing in themselves” after working through the process they can “get to a place of ‘I did it’”

Here is a breakdown to Noah’s method to go along with the video. For simplicity I’ll call then student and teacher.

  • Take the pedals off the bike (or ask your local shop to take them off)
  • Lower the seat until the student’s feet are flat on the ground while sitting in the seat (or as close to this as you can get. This gives a low center of gravity that makes balance easier.
  • Have the student, seated on the bike, with feet on the ground; slowly walk themselves and the bike forward.
  • Encourage them to try out the brakes a bit at this stage so they can use them later on.
  • As they get more comfortable, encourage them to walk faster and pick their feet up to feel the glide.
  • Have them spend a couple hours getting comfortable with gliding in this way
  • Re-install the pedals (keep track of which is left and which is right, very important!)
  • The teacher holds the bike by the rack or under the saddle and gives the student balance.The student puts their feet on the pedals and begins to pedal while the teacher runs along.
  • When they get up to speed you can let go and run alongside. Don’t tell them that you are letting go until they feel comfortable.
  • Inform them that they now know how to ride a bike.
  • Commence with the joy.