Benefits and “Rules” of Tree Climbing

You’ve probably heard about some of the amazing benefits of letting your children climb trees. In our #150hoursoutside Project, we even had a tree climbing challenge one week to encourage everyone to get out into the forest and give it a try. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, not only have we seen an epic decrease in the average amount of time our children are spending outside in free play everyday (4-7 MINUTES on average! Yikes!), but along with that, the enjoyment of tree climbing has all but disappeared.

Some of the reasons we’ve seen this decline are that many parents are afraid of the risks of falling, so they don’t even allow it to happen, purely out of misunderstanding of the benefits and ways to teach safe climbing. In addition, with so much cutting down of established forests to create new housing developments, even when new trees are planted in yards and parks, it takes many years for a tree to be large and strong enough for children to climb safely, meaning that for good tree climbing, many families need to leave their neighborhoods and head into the forest to find good climbing trees. Overall, the art and joy of tree climbing has been lost and replaced by climbing on man-made play structures, which does not provide the same benefits as climbing in a tree.

What are those amazing benefits, you might ask? The short answer is that it truly helps your child on every developmental domain. But let’s break down some of the big ones:

Physical Development – Have you tried climbing a tree recently? It’s not easy! Your body needs to implement an incredible amount of arm and leg strength, core balance, hand-eye coordination, assessment of branch strength, awareness of all parts of your body, etc. Tree climbing encourages so much physical growth and development in children.

Creative Problem Solving Skills – Risk assessment is, of course, the most important problem solving skill that is developed in tree climbing or any kind of risky play. Learning to trust themselves, boosting confidence, and understanding their own limits is something that risky play offers in an incredibly unique way. In addition to risk assessment, children learn to judge their hand/foot holds, figure out ways to get from branch to branch, realize the difference in climbing up a tree vs back down the tree, and more. Being problem solvers in this real-world way is so beneficial!

Social Skills – Did you know that children are developing positive social skills every time they spend time in nature even if they’re alone? Pretty amazing, right? Empathy, positive communication skills, reading body language, etc. are all skills that are developed uniquely when one tunes in with nature. This is amplified when your children are climbing trees with a sibling or friend. Needing to communicate where each person is stepping/holding, being aware of where others are, and assisting those who need it make tree climbing a wonderful social development tool.

Ok, so you may now be thinking, “Yeah that all sounds amazing… but I’m still totally freaked out that my child will fall and break their wrist.” Believe it or not, statistics about the safety of tree climbing are pretty scarce. Unfortunately, tree climbing accidents are always lumped in with “accidental falls” or they combine childhood tree climbing accidents with professional logger accidents. So, of course, there can be some scary statistics if you don’t realize what you’re really looking at. Most nurses and doctors, however, will tell you that most childhood tree climbing-related incidents usually result in only scraped knees or elbows and, at most, a broken bone, but that the benefits to their social, emotional, physical, and mental well-being far outweigh the risks of climbing. So, yeah, theoretically your child could fall and break a wrist, but they can just as easily fall off of a playground slide, a bunk bed, a stairwell, or a bike (by the way – all of those things are statistically more dangerous to your child than a tree!).

One of the best ways to ensure that your child is as safe as possible in a tree climbing situation is to teach them some simple tree climbing “rules” that will help them best assess their own safety and ability. These are the things we teach our children at my home and in my Forest School Meet-up Groups, and (knock on wood) we haven’t had an injury more serious than a scrape.

  1. YOU MUST CLIMB INDEPENDENTLY. This rule helps our younger children know their limits. If you can’t get into the tree by yourself, it’s not a tree that you can climb. We don’t help children get into a tree or boost them onto higher branches. If they don’t have the strength or confidence to get into the tree, they don’t have the strength or confidence to STAY in the tree, and this invites falls and accidents. For older children, we say to only climb up if you are confident that you can get back down. Occasionally this rule is broken and a child finds themselves too high and needs help navigating down, but it’s always a great learning experience and there is rarely an issue again.
  2. VISUALLY ASSESS THE TREE BEFORE CLIMBING IT. Teaching your child to look for certain safety risks in a tree before climbing it helps to make the experience astronomically safer. Things to look for are dead or rotten limbs (these should be avoided as they cannot bear much weight), hanging or broken higher branches that could fall on you as your body shifts the tree, and objects on the ground around the bottom of the tree that could cause harm in the event of a fall (like jagged rocks, for example).
  3. ONLY STEP ON BRANCHES THAT ARE THICK AS YOUR ARM. Generally speaking, if a branch is as thick as your arm, it can withstand your weight. This simple rule helps children navigate safe passages up and down the tree. At first, have your child hold their arm up to the branch to compare, and overtime they will be able to quickly and accurately judge with just a glance.

Pretty simple rules, right? Easy enough to remember, quick to teach, and all three rules help your child stay as safe as possible when climbing a tree!

One other thing we typically encourage is when possible, climb barefoot. If the weather and situation permit, barefoot climbing gives your child a better sense of where they’re standing, the strength of branches, and getting a better foothold.

Now get out there and find a good climber! Make sure to snap some pics and come share in our Facebook Group!