According to a 2011 study, over a third of children between the ages of six and fifteen surveyed had never climbed a tree. We both have vivid memories of finally reaching the top of favorite trees and spending time up above the world. How can the next generation be missing this in such numbers?
Clearly, the chance to make your own way up in a tree builds indelible memories, but it also offers a range of powerful benefits across areas of development. Today, so many parents we know worry that tree climbing is too dangerous. And, we totally get it...we gasp every time our little monkeys take chances on the branches. But, parental fear denies lots of kids this incredible experience. To make matters worse, kids are flat-out barred from climbing trees in many communities, seen either as too great a liability risk or as a nuisance.
Once you find the right tree, some good tips and the bit of faith it takes to let your kids take a try at tree climbing, we think you’ll agree that any risks, especially if well managed, are far outweighed by the benefits!
At the risk of making the simple (i.e. Find a tree. Climb.) too complex, here are some tips that reluctant parent friends of ours found really helpful to them as they let their kids climb.
- Find the right tree: You want to find a tree that is...
Big enough. According to Tree Climbers International, ideally, branches should be at least 6 inches in diameter to hold a person’s weight. And, the tree itself should be about 18 inches or a foot and a half in diameter.
Healthy. Avoid unhealthy, dying or dead trees. Tell tale signs include: lots of broken limbs; many fallen branches around its base; fungus on the roots.
Has lots of suitable branches to climb on and has a good way to get started (e.g. roots, knots and other “kinks” in tree bark or at least one strong, low branch).
- Get started up the tree:
Bring no gear and minimal fear. Many folks like to climb with ropes and other gear, but we still advocate the kind of tree-climbing we did as kids...just don’t go as high as the guy with rope, helmet, etc.
Model and demonstrate. As always, if kids see you do something, they’ll join in more readily, especially important if you have a reluctant climber!
Spot kids. Stay right there to spot or assist as needed as your kids try out a new method or attempt a new type or height of tree.
Method 1/ Walking up the trunk: (Easy for kids on a tree with a strong, low branch. Climber stands under/alongside the low branch and faces the tree trunk. Next, she wraps her arms around the branch and walks their feet up the trunk. Once her feet are up to the level of the branch, she can swing a leg up and over the branch. Quickly, she’ll be able to hoist herself up and onto the branch, straddling the branch. Then, she’s on her way.
Method 2/ Grab at knots and low branches: Lots of kids today try some kind of climbing walls, either on a playground or in an indoor playspace. So, they may feel at home with this method. Encourage the climber to find a place for her foot and a secure spot for her opposite hand. Trees have gnarls, knots, bark holes, smaller branches etc., that climbers can use as footholds. Beware of any overly thin or crumbling spots though! The climber can look for a new foothold for the other foot and hand, continuing up the tree this way until he finds a branch to either put a knee, leg or whole arm over and hoist his whole body up onto the branch.
Method 3/ Hug the trunk: The climber wraps her bodies around the trunk of the tree, gripping the soles of their feet against the bark and using the strength of their legs together with their arms to inch up the tree. The closer they get their bellies, hips and body to the tree, the more grip they’ll have.
- Climbing: Once kids are on a branch, they can easily climb to higher branches, drawing on their experience climbing on playground structures, up ladders, etc.
- Imagination can help up there: Suggest that kids pretend to be a great animal climber as they climb. For example, pretending to be a monkey could help kids worry less and use arms and legs freely as they move up the three.
- Getting down: This is often the scary part to kids and parents. With gravity on their side, though, it is certainly easier than the journey up. Encourage kids to take their time. Most of the time, it’s better to climb down while facing the tree trunk instead of facing outwards. The climber can go branch by branch until he arrives at a branch from which he can either jump or dangle from his arms and drop.
Why is this activity great for kids?
Kids not only feel the joy of accomplishment when they climb, but they learn their own limits and strengths—the key to developing healthy self esteem. They also get an incredible, integrated chance to develop balance, strength and body control as they climb (Cross-fit for kids!). All senses are activated as kids climb, feeling the bark, hearing the wind rustle the leaves, smelling the plant up close, and seeing the world from a new vantage point.
Believe it or not, climbing a tree demands that kids make a range of decisions and face real risks. This kind of risk-taking and decision making builds the basis for judgement and critical thinking.
Undoubtedly, the chance to commune so closely with a tree and the nature it supports connects kids to nature. Read more about author and expert, Richard Louv’s plea to "Let them climb trees."