Tree climbing is dead. What was once a staple of childhood is now disappearing. We might want to blame it on the fact that childhood has headed indoors. Or on parents’ and teachers’ safety concerns. Or the fact that we live in a litigious society, making schools, towns and private owners paranoid about safety risks to children— and lawsuits.
The truth is that kids just don’t climb trees anymore. One-quarter of kids have never climbed a tree— ever. Many schools ban the activity, fearful of the risk of injury to children. Even if children are encouraged to climb trees, good luck finding one they are allowed to climb. Many parks, gardens, zoos, communities and institutions will hand you a fine if your wee one scales a tree. Climbing is forbidden on any trees in the U.S. national parks. However, state and city parks will vary on the topic so check with your state or local park service ahead of time.
Why should we care about tree climbing? Isn't it, after all, a risky activity that will end up with a visit to the ER or worse? Actually, the statistics tell a different story.
In 2016, researchers from the University of Phoenix surveyed 1,600 parents who let their children climb trees. Of the participants that responded to the survey question, 94.84% reported that their child scraped a knee, elbow, or skin as a result of climbing a tree, and less than 2% reported a broken bone.
Yes, your child could fall and break a bone, but they can just as easily fall off of the playground monkey bars, a bunk bed, or a bike—all of which are statistically more dangerous to your child than a tree.
And here’s the best news. Climbing trees is great for your kid physically and emotionally. The same University of Phoenix researchers found that parents of tree-climbing kids felt that climbing trees encouraged adventure, creativity, and inspiration in their kids. These parents reported that tree climbing improved their child’s problem-solving skills and a sense of self-efficacy and risk negotiation. And they cited many physical benefits such as increased strength, flexibility, dexterity, and better spatial awareness.
One survey respondent wrote that tree climbing teaches her son “to trust and believe in his whole body’s abilities.” Parents also allow tree climbing for emotional benefits, such as building confidence, helping each other, perseverance, freedom, sharing, peace, meditative, empowering, social activity, self-awareness, etc.
A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in the UK summed it up best:
Climbing trees and falling out of them is all part of growing up and having small injuries helps children learn about risks. We take the view that it’s a good thing to try to equip children and young people and help them make informed decisions about the risks that they take.
Convinced? Great! But before you point your kids to the nearest oak tree, make sure you and your child are prepared for a safe tree climbing experience with the following climbing tips:
CHECK THE WEATHER
Especially when your child is first learning how to climb, always choose the ideal conditions to head out. Never climb during a thunderstorm, or in strong wind. Wet conditions can make the tree slippery and very dangerous to climb. You can climb trees in any season though cold temperatures make wood brittle. If you do climb in the cold, just take the climbing slowly and test every branch before you use it as support.
DRESS FOR FOR THE OCCASION
Your child should wear well-fitting clothing loose enough to allow full range of motion, but not baggy enough to snag on branches. Of course no loose jewelry and accessories. If they have a pair, they should wear flexible shoes with good traction. Though many experts recommend climbing barefoot.
Hardwood trees like oak, sycamore, mature maples, buckeyes, or pines are usually stronger and make good climbing trees. Fast-growing trees like willows, poplars, and tulip trees are often brittle so the branches may break easily. Avoid trees with wildlife. Watch out for bugs and beehives or wasp nests. And do not choose a tree near power or phone lines.
You and your child should do a walk-around and assess the tree. Take a look at the tree’s branches. Are they dead or rotten? Dead branches can be hazardous and unsafe and should be avoided as they cannot bear much weight. Are there hanging or broken higher branches that could fall on your child as your he or she shifts the tree. Can your child reach the branch easily and grasp it firmly? Are the branches thick enough to bear weight? Teach your child to always make sure to test branches before trusting that they will hold him or her up.
Take a look at the ground around the bottom of the tree. Are there and objects that could cause harm in the event of a fall (like jagged rocks, for example).
Avoid trees with any of the following signs of danger:
- Strange shapes or turns in the trunk. Leaning trees are risky but sometimes safe.
- Deep cracks.
- Large areas of sunken or missing bark.
- A forked top is a sign of decay in conifers. Other types of tree might still be safe, but do not try to reach the fork.
- Mushrooms or other fungus growing on the tree or around the base.
- Many dead branches on the ground. (A few dead branches attached to the lower trunk is common, but if they're falling from higher up, there's a more serious problem.)
- A large hole or several small ones in the base.
- Severed roots, or a raised or cracked area of soil next to the trunk (a sign of uprooting).
A consistent rule in tree climbing guidelines is: If you can’t get into the tree by yourself, it’s not a tree that you can climb. Never 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. Children should not use blocks, tires, milk crates, or other items to help them mount into a tree. These materials also should not be under a tree when a child is climbing.
GET UP THERE!
Generally speaking, if a branch is as thick as your arm, it can bear 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 over time they will be able to quickly and accurately judge with just a glance. Your child should climb close to the trunk and remember the rule of three as they ascend – at least three points of contact with the tree at all times. Two hands and one foot, two feet and a hand – but always three!
A child should always only go up if they are confident they can get back down. And they should remember to look up, not down! This will help their nerves as well as avoid branches that could hit them in the head.
Most of all— model good climbing techniques and confidence yourself by getting up there youself! Nobody is too old to climb a tree.