Tree climbing is not what it used to be. Parents, teachers, and carers are largely responsible for this decline, as children are told it’s dangerous, not safe or simply not something they should be doing. It doesn’t help that climbing is forbidden on any trees in any US National Park and figures vary but data shows as many as 25-30% of children have never climbed a tree, and this really is their loss and a shame. Tree climbing is a rite of passage in childhood and it can be a fun, beneficial and mentally challenging activity.
Why should you care about kids climbing trees? Why should we be encouraging it? The argument that it’s a highly dangerous activity has been disproven time and again, most recently with researchers at the University of Phoenix in 2016. They surveyed 1600 parents who allowed their children to climb trees and 94.84% of those surveyed said their child had scraped a knee, elbow or other skin due to tree climbing and under 2% had ever broken a bone. This idea that tree climbing is an immediate route to the ER seems to be a fallacy and as with all adventurous activities, a little support and guidance can be all they need to succeed.
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Benefits of Tree Climbing and Risky Play
Tree climbing is about more than just seeing how high you can get and risking a broken limb or two. It is a type of risky play which gives the developing child many opportunities to expand and challenge their growing body. By taking on a physical challenge, the child is giving their self-esteem a huge boost and that exhilarating feeling of accomplishment once it is achieved.
As well as physically challenging themselves, tree climbing is a problem-solving and puzzle-like activity. As they scale the branches, the child has to find their route, map their way up and find their way out of difficult problems as they look for the next sturdy branch to climb. Throughout and on accomplishing this challenge, the child builds the invaluable skill of resilience and an “I can do it” attitude which will serve them well as they face physical and mental problems in the future.
Researchers at the University of North Florida measured the cognitive benefits of risky play such as tree climbing. They concluded that using your mind to navigate up the tree as well as operating your hands and muscles has a hugely beneficial effect on your cognitive development and abilities. Such activities also have a surprisingly positive impact on working memory, a skill which is linked to performance in everything from sports to academic grades.
Some of the wider benefits of tree climbing include:
- Hand-eye coordination
- Spatial reasoning and understanding
- Physical and mental strength
- Gross motor skill development
- Neural pathway development
- Cognitive skill development
- Emotional intelligence
- Memory enhancement
Risky play in general, including activities such as climbing stumps, walking along fallen trees and bouldering do have that chance of danger which makes them so attractive to adventurous kids. However, taking on manageable risks and challenging yourself is something we all should practice and getting this in early helps children to build self-esteem and confidence even earlier in life. Risky play can also help to identify weaknesses and build resilience when committing to learning a new skill and practicing it over and over again.
We live in a world where children could happily spend 24 hours a day in front of screens if we let them, so it’s more important than ever to encourage outdoor and imaginative play. The challenge and adventure of learning to climb could be exactly what you need to coax the kids away from their consoles and experience something new and exciting in the great outdoors.
Tips for Safe Tree Climbing with Kids
Climbing a tree is great fun and has all those benefits already discussed, but you do need to be prepared and ensure you’re heading out in the right conditions, in the right clothing and of course, that you find the perfect tree for the occasion. Consider the following tips before setting out on your tree climbing adventure:
It should be common sense but never take your child climbing in a storm when there are high winds and probably not when it’s raining. Rain will make the branches and boughs slippery and more dangerous to climb. Climbing in any temperature or climate is fine but remember, colder temperatures mean the trees are more brittle so more care should be taken when testing each branch.
While you don’t need some special tree climbing gear, you should ensure your kids are properly dressed for comfort and safety. Don’t go climbing with accessories or jewelry on, for example. Clothing should be comfortable and not baggy, as this increases the risk it may snag on branches or get caught during the ascent. Flexible shoes should be worn unless you’re following expert advice, which recommends always climbing barefoot.
Choosing the Perfect Tree
Assessing your tree of choice is important to ensure it’s the right fit for your child’s climbing experience and safety. Hardwood trees such as oak trees, maple trees, buckeyes, pines and sycamores are renowned as good climbing trees. Faster growing trees such as tulip trees, poplars and willows are a less sensible choice, as their branches are usually brittle and may snap. It goes without saying you should never disturb wildlife with your climb so do not attempt to climb any trees with nesting birds or other wildlife. Keep an eye out for wasps nests too and avoid trees which are near power lines or phone lines.
Other key factors to consider include:
Tree Climbers International assert that branches should be at least 6 inches in diameter to safely hold a person’s weight. The diameter of the whole tree should be at least 18” too to ensure it won’t be at risk when taking the climber’s weight.
Never attempt to climb a dying or dead tree, or one which shows signs of illness. Look out for clear signs of unhealthy trees such as broken branches and limbs, lots of fallen branches and fungus around the roots. Also look out for hanging branches higher up the tree as they may become a hazard once your child starts climbing and the branches are moved and come loose.
You need to choose a tree that has plenty of accessible branches, knots and kinks for your child to clamber onto and begin their climb. Your child should be able to easily reach the first branch they plan to climb and grasp it firmly. Remember, if your child can’t begin the climb themselves, then this tree isn’t for them. You should never help your child climb into a tree or boost them onto higher branches, as this isn’t encouraging their skillset or helping them develop, it’s just lifting them up. If they haven’t yet built up the strength and confidence needed to climb the tree, they should try a smaller alternative or wait until they feel ready.
Beginning the Ascent
Getting started up the tree can be the most daunting part but also the most fun, keep these tips in mind to encourage and support your child’s first climb:
1. No Gear, No Fear: while professional climbers use all kinds of rope and pulley systems, we’re trying to get back to basics and experience the joy of climbing as a kid, so simply go for it.
2. Set an Example: if you want your kid to climb up that tree, why not show them how it’s done? Setting an example, even by climbing just the lower branches could be the encouragement they need.
3. Be a Reliable Spotter: it goes without saying parents and carers should stay close by and ensure the child is comfortable and fully spotted as they climb. Be there to offer assistance when necessary and provide encouragement at every step.
Three Methods for Starting your Climb
There are three main ways your child can get started when beginning their climb up the tree:
1. Walking the Trunk: this is recommended if the tree has a strong, low branch. The climber can stand under the low branch, facing the trunk and wrap their arms around the branch and use the trunk as a walking platform, walking their feet up the trunk until they’re level with the branch, and then swinging their legs up and over onto the branch. Then they’re ready to go.
2. Use Knots and Low Branches: kids’ playgrounds are packed with climbing frames and climbing walls, and this method of tree climbing mimics that. Your child will be familiar with looking for safe and secure spots on a climbing wall, so you can encourage them to do the same with the tree. Gnarls, bark holes, knots and small branches are all stepping stones to bigger branches and reaching the top of the climb.
3. Trunk Hugging: wrapping their body fully around the trunk of the tree and gripping the soles of their feet into the bark, the climber uses the strength of their legs and arms to inch slowly up the tree. This definitely isn’t the easiest climbing method, but it can be a cool skill to master.
Climbing and Playing
Once the climb is underway, the fun can begin. Once they’ve reached that first big branch, they can put into practice their experience from the playground, grappling for foot holes and finding routes further up the tree. Once they’re comfortable and enjoying the climb, it’s time to throw some imagination into the mix, pretending to be a monkey, a bear or any of the other great climbers from the animal kingdom. Focusing on the fun side of things may erase some of the fear some kids feel once they’ve reached a higher point. Play and fun should be at the center of everything kids enjoy, so a bit of imaginative exploration during the climb is a great way of ensuring it remains fun.
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
You’ll often find that the descent back down after a climb is when your child suddenly gets cold feet, but if you want them to learn and develop this new skill, the downward element is just as important as climbing up. Encourage them to retrace their route back down and to take their time and not get overwhelmed. It is recommended to climb down facing the trunk, to avoid any risk of sudden onset vertigo or fears of falling. The climber can slowly go from branch to branch until they reach a safe branch to jump from, or dangle and safely drop.
Not just for Kids
If a tree branch is as thick as your arm, it’s generally believed it can hold your weight, so if you find the perfect tree, why not join the kids for their ascent? If you model and show them good climbing techniques, then they can replicate these and develop their own skills in line with your teaching. Nobody is too old to climb a tree and if it’s a skill you want to pass on to your kids, it’s only fair you get involved.
If it becomes a passion, you can consider joining one of the tree climbing communities or societies and in time, introduce ropes, pulleys and other systems so your children can experience another level to their climbing experience. Keeping it fun is great but learning a valuable life skill is even more exciting. You may even be helping a future champion of the International Tree Climbing Championships find their feet and experience their first climb.
Finding a tree which is safe (and legal) to climb may be more difficult than it used to be in the US, but it’s certainly still possible. There is no need to limit your child’s abilities and if they feel confident and are ready to take on the challenge, who are you to stop them?