A huge milestone in any kid's life is learning to ride a pedal bike. Perhaps your child has been buzzing around on his or her strider. Perhaps they have never set their feet over 2 wheels before. When shopping for a pedal bike for your child, there are things you can look for that make the first ride easier, eliminate potential frustration and thus hopefully increase the chance for success and excitement.
Weight of the Bike
First thing to consider is the weight of the bike. Many bikes sold at big chain retailers, for instance, weigh 30-40 lbs. Imagine riding a bike that weighs as much or more than you do. It would be so much more challenging maneuvering the bike. Ideally, you should look for a bike that is no more than 30% of the weight of your child. The Frog 40 (14" bike) or the Frog 48 (16" bike) are our favorite first pedal bikes. These bikes are feathery light and come standard with a freewheel (and a free coaster wheel if you'd like). Our advice: purchase the lightest bike you can afford. Compare bike weights in our 1st Pedal Bike Comparison Chart.
Standover Height (over the frame AND over the seat)
The second thing to evaluate is the stand over height. Measure your child's inseam and compare with the height of the bike's frame and lowest seat position. At a minimum they need to be able to stand over the top of the middle section of the frame with at least 1" of room. If your child is just learning to pedal, we also recommend finding a bike where your child can touch the ground (even if it's just tippy toes) when sitting on the seat. If your child can't touch the ground when they're on the seat, learning will be more intimidating. Starting will take much more coordination if they have to get speed, balance, and move their body up onto the seat all at once.
If you have a really small child, we would recommend the Cleary Gecko, the only 12" bike we feel has the right geometry to help your child learn to pedal. This bike only requires a minimum inseam of 15".
Compare minimum seat heights on all our beginner bikes at our Pedal Bike Comparison Chart.
Reach and Wheel Base
The third thing to look at is how long the bike is (top tube length). Your child needs to be able to reach the handlebars easily while seated. However, a shorter wheelbase means less stability. Imagine if the bike is longer, it ensures the child's center of gravity is lower. Lower center of gravity means more stable.
Coaster Brake vs Freewheel vs Handbrakes
Kids bikes come with a coaster brake (operated by pedaling backwards) or a freewheel (no foot brake) and those with coaster brakes come either with or without handbrakes. Regardless of whether you have a coaster (foot) brake, we recommend finding a bike with handbrakes so kids will get used to them and for the extra braking power. Many places in extreme hilly areas do not even allow bikes without handbrakes to ride on the mountain because they don't have the necessary braking power to sufficiently slow the bike without them.
When considering whether to look for a bike with a coaster brake or a freewheel, many people feel pretty strongly one way or another. The coaster brake is considered a safety feature. However, we recommend starting a first time pedaler on a bike with a freewheel. Most kids first starting to pedal accidentally pedal backwards sometimes. If the bike has a coaster brake, pedaling backwards slams on the brakes and scares the child. We have seen even the most confident balance bike rider start to get nervous when trying to learn to pedal using a coaster brake. With a freewheel, there are no negative consequences for accidentally pedaling backwards as you learn. Only positive results as the bike propels forward as the child pedals in the correct direction. Additionally, the handbrakes on children's bicycles these days are made to fit tiny hands and be operated easily by a small child's hands. They have come a long way over the years.
That being said, if the bike only has hand brakes, ensure your child can reach the brake and squeeze it easily while holding the handlebars. Also ensure your child is very comfortable using the handbrakes before riding any hilly terrain.
The bottom line is to look at the details. Compare the weight, the height and the length of the bikes within your budget and before long, a winner will emerge.
You may also be interested in looking at our Pedal Bike Comparison Chart to see how the 12" - 16" bikes stack up against each other.