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Climbing Trees is Good for You

Science says climbing Trees is good for kids.

You may have thought you were just having fun climbing Trees as a kid, but Tree climbing actually has many benefits for children (and adults, too, for that matter!) beyond simple pleasure. Scientific studies back this up.

Should Kids Climb Trees?

If you climbed Trees as a kid, then you know the special thrill that this classic childhood pastime holds. Testing each branch to make sure it would hold your weight, you’d cautiously maneuver from limb to limb. Or maybe you’re the type who would shimmy right up like a squirrel. When you lost your footing, you’d hug the trunk tightly, feeling the warm, rough bark against your skin. Perhaps you’d climb a little too high, look down, and feel butterflies in your stomach. Eventually, though, the fear would subside, replaced by pure joy.

Pausing to survey your domain, you’d rest on a sturdy branch, listening to the sound of the leaves fluttering overhead and the songs of the birds whose domain you’d entered. You’d look for acorns and caterpillars and send Maple Tree “helicopters” whirring to the ground. Now and then, a gust of wind would make the whole Tree creak and sway, rocking you in its embrace. To have had these kinds of intimate connections with Trees is a gift, and if you’re lucky enough to have had them then you’re likely to cherish those memories your entire life.

Tree climbing improves large and fine motor skills

Climbing Trees is good for children’s physical development. Kids work their large motor skills every time they step, lunge, squat, push, or pull themselves up while climbing, and they exercise their fine motor skills when using their hands—say, when adjusting their grip on a branch. Tree climbing is a whole-body activity that engages both of these skill sets simultaneously. It helps improve children’s strength, dexterity, balance, coordination, and spatial awareness. It’s a great workout that masquerades as play.

Tree climbing improves cognitive skills, too

A 2015 study out of the University of North Florida indicates that Tree climbing may also improve cognitive ability. The study examined adult subjects, but there’s no reason to believe that children wouldn’t receive the same benefits. In the experiment, Drs. Ross and Tracy Alloway measured subjects’ “working memory,” which is the ability to retrieve information from short-term memory while actively engaged in a task. When the researchers gave subjects dynamic, physically challenging activities to do before the working memory test, such as Tree climbing or walking on a balance beam, their scores improved by 50 percent. A jump like that is quite significant! Could it be that the focus needed to climb a Tree primes the brain for the next task at hand and helps keep the mind sharp?

Risky play is healthy for kids

Tree climbing gives kids a unique opportunity to learn how to assess risk. It also lets them test their limits. It can be exhilarating for children to feel fear—and to push through it anyway. They enjoy the burst of self-confidence that follows when they succeed, and they learn to recognize and respect their limits when they don’t. When they climb with friends, social interactions add another dimension of learning to the experience.

Some parents think that letting kids climb Trees without safety gear is too risky to allow. Certainly, serious injury can occur, and it’s up to parents to decide if they want to let their children take that risk. But they should consider how risky play can enrich a child’s experiences. In 2015, a review of 21 papers on children and risky play by a team of researchers, led by Dr. Mariana Brussoni of the University of British Columbia, found that children who engaged in risky play such as Tree climbing were significantly healthier and more well-adjusted on a number of measures when compared with kids who were only allowed to do “safe” activities. The risk-taking kids were more physically active, and they were less likely to lead sedentary lives. They also showed more creativity, resilience, and better social skills over the kids who always played it safe.

Tree climbing gives kids a connection to the Earth

We’re constantly bombarded with news about the damage we’ve done to the environment. Every day, it seems, there’s another waterway polluted, another species on the brink of extinction, or another pollinator emergency. More than ever, we need passionate people who can lead the way in addressing these issues. We need to expose more young people to nature now in the hopes that they will be good stewards of the Earth in the future. Encouraging kids to climb Trees is an excellent way to introduce them to the natural world around them and to help them forge relationships with Nature that will last a lifetime.

Nature-Deficit Disorder

Unfortunately, kids aren’t climbing Trees like they used to. They’re not even going outdoors much, unless it’s for a soccer match or for some other organized sport. They’re spending more and more time indoors, and they’re losing the connection to nature that their parents and grandparents took for granted when they were kids. In 2005, author Richard Louv described this disconnect as “Nature-Deficit Disorder” in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

The situation has not gotten better. A poll in 2016 of 12,000 parents in ten countries around the globe—including the US—by a British laundry soap company found that children were spending less time outdoors than American prisoners, who are allotted two hours outside every day. That same study found that 54 percent of parents couldn’t identify an Oak Tree, although 80 percent could identify Justin Bieber.

Why don’t kids climb Trees/spend time in nature any more?

  • Electronic devices have taken over kids’ lives. Louv likes to quote a fourth-grader who once told him that he prefers to play indoors because “that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” A 2010 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that American kids from ages 8 to 18 spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes each day using entertainment media.
  • Natural spaces are disappearing, yards are shrinking, wild spaces are being converted into building lots, and good climbing Trees are becoming few and far between.
  • For liability reasons, Tree climbing is discouraged in parks, on school grounds, or on other properties. Your best bet is having a friend or relative with a suitable tree if you do not have one in your own yard. 
  • Parents have become more protective in recent years, and many have come to believe that Tree climbing is too dangerous for kids. This is something that parents have to decide for themselves. The risk of injury is a real possibility. At the very least, trees with deadwood or other hazardous features should be placed off limits.

Climbing Trees with ropes and safety equipment

If you’re a parent worried about the risks of climbing, or if there aren’t any suitable Trees in your neighborhood for your kids to climb, another option is to enroll them in climbing classes offered by professionals. These pros use harnesses and ropes to make climbing easier and much safer. This method can be costly, and it doesn’t offer the same sort of physical challenge to youngsters, but it gets the kids away from computer screens and in direct contact with the Trees. They can attain dizzying heights with this method and get a real rush. Who knows? They may even go on to make a hobby of it, as many adult Tree climbers around the world have done.

We want to know what you think!

Did you climb Trees when you were a kid? Do you think kids should be allowed to climb Trees without any safety equipment?

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