You're bound to have seen toddler balance bikes; when I lived in London they seemed to be all the rage with the Yummy Mummy set but I'm going to be completely honest: I could never entirely understand why anyone would pay serious cash for a bike without pedals.
Isn't that the definition of madness? You pay more money for a balance bike than you do for an average toddler cycle, and yet there's no chance of your tot actually learning to ride a bike since, duh, there are no pedals.
And the Specialized Balance Bike certainly isn't cheap. The best price I can find online is £99 and that's considerable cheaper than the one we bought when my kids were little. It does seem pretty steep.
But balance bikes are one of those items for kids that only really make sense when you hand it over to the kid. Adults look at balance bikes and scratch their heads, wondering what the heck is the point of a bike with no pedals, and how long it's likely to be before they'll have to fork out all over again for another bike. One with actual pedals this time.
My son was three years old when he got his first balance bike - the Specialized Hotwalk Boys Starter Bike, and from the second he sat on the saddle he was smitten. It didn't seem to faze him at all that we'd given him a bike with no pedals. He just seemed to understand, completely instinctively, that he could propel himself around using his legs, without the need for pedal power.
The beauty of this, of course, is that your child can literally ride their balance bike from the minute they get it; there's no need to 'teach' them how to ride because they basically just perch on the seat and use their legs to zoom along, going as fast or as slow as they like. Nervous little cyclists don't need to worry about crashing into obstacles or cycling too fast; they literally control the speed of the bike with their legs.
And gradually what happens is that your child gets the feel of how to balance on a bike, positioning their weight and moving their legs in such a way as to keep themselves upright and ride faster. It's pretty tricky to explain exactly what happens and how without sounding absurd, but using a balance bike is all about learning all the skills required for cycling, without having to get distracted by the pedalling part.
The interesting thing is that once kids have cracked riding a balance bike, they are often able to progress straight from that to a bike with pedals, without going through the tortuous learning to ride a bike debacle that many of us remember from our childhoods with a mixture of fondness and horror.
Certainly both my lads were hurtling along on their balance bikes when they were three years old, and by the time they were five they were both riding 'normal' bicycles with no problems. They learned to ride their bikes earlier than most of their friends and I'm 100% convinced that's entirely down to the balance bike, and the confidence it gave them in terms of how to hold their balance when cycling.
Interestingly, my boys have remained bike-mad too, and once again I feel sure that this is in part due to the fun they had on a bike from day one. Riding a bike never seemed like an insurmountable challenge to them; they've never had to overcome anxieties about falling off or being laughed at for using stabilisers. They're just nifty, zippy cyclists who appear to love the open road and the wind in their hair.
So if you're thinking of investing in a toddler bike then I'd really encourage you to give a balance bike some serious consideration. You see lots of wooden models around but the Specialized version is really robust yet light, and something about the 'bikey' feel of it makes the transition from balance bike to 'real' bike easier too, I think.
And while they are expensive, they last well. My boys both had the same balance bike, passed on as a hand-me-down, and we've loaned it out to lots of appreciative friends long after my lads outgrew it. It's also the sort of item that sells well second-hand, so you could certainly make back a decent bit of money on a balance bike once your little rider has found their balance.
Pros: Brilliant for teaching little ones to balance and ride a bike; a great introduction to the basics of cycling, and really good for building little cyclists' confidence.
Cons: Not the cheapest bike out there but in this case you do get what you pay for.
Overall verdict: Give a balance bike a go. I don't think you'll regret it.