Developing a love of ATV’s is innate in some children, whereas other children are not going to take to riding as easily. Not only can a timid rider be difficult to teach but the stress of a young and overconfident rider can be just as overwhelming. My two daughters were complete opposites. One jumped on and sped off almost crashing, whereas the other crept at a snails pace. Teaching your child to ride is in important step in developing safe and sound habits for a family or individual hobby. Starting kids young is important, but starting with a plan is more important. Not every child will need as much instruction or formality when learning the drive their own ATV. Choose a few of the following suggestions to help you prepare your little, or not so little, one for safe ATV riding.
Start with a Plan
Before you begin riding lessons it is important to decide what you are hoping to teach your child. Of course each parent wants their child to have fun, enjoy trail riding, and have a competent understanding of how to handle their ATV, but there are other priorities every parent should consider. First, as most people could guess, is safety. When kids are little, we as parents do quite a bit to make sure our kids are safe, but one of the most important things we do is teach them how to think smart and think safe for themselves. When it comes to ATV’s, teaching safety is easier said than done. It will not be as simple as making sure they are wearing a helmet, instead it will be much more like teaching someone to drive a car. The hard part about this is that we are not always teaching our 15 or 16 year olds, in fact sometimes we are hoping to teach our toddlers valuable safety lessons. With the focus being on safety, the lessons and activities you provide your child with will be much more meaningful and long lasting.
It is best to start your child somewhere that they feel comfortable and that they cannot get into too much trouble or dangerous. For many of us this means riding around the neighborhood. If your neighborhood is not conducive to letting your children test their new limits, it is a good idea to look elsewhere. The best places are large, empty areas with flat visible surfaces. Places to look are business or industrial parking lots on the weekends, school or college parking lots on the weekends or after hours or a large grassy flat field. The whole point is to find somewhere that your child feels comfortable enough to take a few risks without worrying about hurting themselves or anything around them.
Once you have found your perfect location, it is time to make sure your child is ATV ready. This may seem pointless if your child is riding an ATV with plastic wheels and barely goes 2 MPH, but it is really setting a standard for the rest of their riding career. There is plenty of safety gear that will help keep little ones safe, but even starting with a helmet is going to prepare your child for understanding the importance of safety down the road.
With your child road ready, it is time to give them a little bit of instruction and a little bit of freedom. Depending on your child’s age and personality, they may take right to zooming around a wide open space or they may be a bit more timid. Either way, give them a little time to get used to stopping and going, accelerating and slowing down and allow them to just start to develop an enjoyment of riding.
After your child begins to get comfortable, it would be wise to start challenging their abilities. A fun and easy way to do this is by setting up an obstacle course. You can do this by using orange cones in a pattern and asking your kids to serpentine through them. If you don’t have orange cones, you can also stand in various places of the field or parking lot and have your child ride and circle you. Of course, this wouldn’t be as wise if your child has too powerful of a machine that you wouldn’t be able to avoid if necessary. As your child gets more confident, you can use cones or even household objects to create more difficult obstacle courses for them to drive through to gain confidence and skill in handling and turning. Different children will conquer this first step at different speeds. Young riders will most likely take several outings before they are feeling confident handling their ATV, whereas older children will seem to quickly master steering their ATV.
Learning to Focus
Once your child is comfortable with steering, accelerating, braking and generally being in control of their ATV it is time to introduce your child to focusing on different things while driving. This may seem odd, since we like to believe that driving is only focusing on where you are going and how to get there, but in reality, our focus while driving is pulled to many different aspects such as what the weather is doing, trail conditions, listening or considering other riders around us as well as many other non-ATV related issues. Preparing your child to consider these things while riding will help them understand how to best manage the multi-tasking necessary for driving any vehicle, not just their ATV. An easy game for young and timid riders to begin this process is I Spy. It is as simple as it sounds. Choose something in your surrounding and say “I Spy something ______” and fill in with a color or other description word. Let your child then drive to something that fits the description. Only tell them if they are correct once they have arrived at the object. During this game, they will be focusing on two things: what you are spying as well as controlling their ATV. This is a basic game that really only asks your child to consider two things and really your child can do them separately. They may start to drive before deciding where they are going or, more likely, will sit and consider their surroundings before they start to move. This game is perfect for young child or really timid riders.
If you are beginning with a child who is a little older, I Spy may not hold your child’s attention the same way. One game that works well for older, and more competent children, is hide and seek. Unlike the traditional game this one involves hiding an object somewhere in your child’s riding arena. It is best to play this game where they have begun their lessons so their comfort level is high and anxiety level is low, keeping it controlled so there is as little risk of injury or damage as possible. When hiding the object, keep in mind the game’s purpose. Begin with very large objects or easy hiding spots, so your child’s primary focus will remain on controlling their vehicle, and remind bystanders to stay relatively sedentary while the child is practicing having their attention drawn to many different things at once. As they show more mastery, you will begin using smaller objects, harder hiding spots and being less vigilant about providing a static surrounding. This game differs from I Spy because the child will now be driving and looking at the same time. This game is wonderful because the child is required to drive slowly, as to not miss anything and really observe their surroundings.
Once your child is trail ready, there is still a lot you can do to make sure they are learning how to be a safe and confident rider. The first of which is showing them how to care for their own ATV, while making sure they are not looking over important factors. This could include securing their ATV to a trailer or truck for transportation, obtaining fuel for the trip, packing and caring for safety gear such as helmets and pads, as well as being a part of the planning process. As a parent, these steps can all seem daunting because simply doing it yourself is so much faster and smoother, but teaching your child all that goes into being a responsible rider will pay dividends in the long run.
When your child is ready to take their new hobby off-road, which may be after a few hours or few years, there is still a lot to teach. Firstly, new riders should ride between two adult, or more experienced, riders to begin with. Although they may want to hit the gas and lead the pack, they are still not fully capable of observing everything they should to stay on the trail and keep everyone safe. It would also be easy for a new rider to zoom away and be lost before anyone was able to stop it. This is also why new riders should avoid the rear of the pack as well. If a rider is hesitant or slow, they may be left behind before anyone notices. This is also dangerous in case their ATV malfunctions or they could even have an accident or need assistance without anyone realizing. It is important that your young rider feel safe with how to get your attention during an outing because trails often do not lend themselves to cell service and our typical forms of communication are not reliable. This may mean coming up with hand signals or the use of a horn to signal when someone needs help, needs to stop or otherwise needs to communicate while on the go.
Installing a Kill Switch
If you have a child who is a bit of a wild child, it would be wise to consider installing a kill switch. A kill switch is either a tether or remote control that can immediately halt an ATV if the driver is unable to stop safely. The kill switch is wired to work with the electrical systems of pretty much any model of ATV, but it is important to consult your user manual when buying one. There are many different kinds of kill switches, but for new riders, a remote control that you can hold onto is a smart choice. This way if your child is having a hard time listening or is really in danger of hurting themselves, you possess the ability to help.
Feedback and Freedom
Once on the trail with your rider, take time to stop and teach them about the things you are observing. Children rely on us, as parents, to keep them safe, know where we are, where we are going and the best way to drive. While working with youth, I have often noticed that they cannot explain to me how to take them home from a location that they have been to nearly weekly! To help your child understand that there are many things they need to observe, consider and understand while riding, make sure to make frequent stops. Whenever you notice yourself making a decision about something, such as dark clouds that tell you a storm is close, stop and ask your child what they think about the situation. As your child becomes more competent in assessing his or her surroundings, give them more freedom to make decisions without overruling them. If you can give them the opportunity to safely fail, do that as well. Eventually, you will want your child to be able to ride more independently and sending them out as practiced decision makers is one way to create a lifelong rider.
Children of all ages will enjoy the ability and enjoyment that riding ATV’s provides. Since ATV’s are easy to learn to ride, they often provide a false sense of security. This sense of security is the primary reason it is important for parents to remain vigilant and committed to teaching their children how to be safe and thoughtful riders. Almost every child will take some risks, but using a few of the tips provided will help them make more thoughtful choices when as they begin riding more and more independently.