How do you feel about young children climbing?
Opportunities for children to test and challenge themselves are crucial parts of healthy development. But that’s not to say it’s always easy to watch a small child totter on a narrow surface or climb higher than you can comfortably reach. Those ‘heart in your throat’ moments are the natural response of a caring and responsible adult.
It can help to understand why these experiences are so important when you are trying hard to feel as courageous as the child you are keeping watch over. And of course, it is important to help children learn to keep themselves safe. But sometimes it’s those risky experiments that are a key aspect of helping a child learn to risk assess for themselves and to become aware of their own strengths and limits.
So why is it important that children climb?
Children need to move to feel well and to develop healthily. They need to run, jump, dance, roll, swing and climb. This movement helps them make vital body-brain connections that will form the foundation of all academic learning, social interactions, self-awareness and self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and self-regulation….phew, to name but a few!
But what development does climbing support specifically? The most obvious is physical development. When climbing children need to balance, stretch, pull themselves up, lower themselves down, judge distance, perfect hand to eye and foot to eye coordination as well as help them make physical connections between left and right hemispheres of the brain. As children climb using alternate feet and hands, they are not only gaining an enormous amount of pleasure and thrill, they are forging the connections in their brain and body that will support them in reading, writing and maths. Did you know that not only muscles, but also tendons, nerves and even bones are developed through activity like climbing?
Then there’s sensory integration. Balance and movement or vestibular and proprioception sensory systems, together with touch, form the foundation for all other sensory experiences. To have a healthily integrated sensory system, children really need to have practiced and tested their vestibular and proprioceptive systems. Sally Goddard Blythe brilliantly describes balance as the ‘art of not moving’. Do you remember being a young child and having that super scary yet thrilling feeling of maintaining balance on a wall or a branch? Proprioception gives you that deeply satisfying feeling in your body when you’re climbing when you stretch or pull. Do you remember pulling yourself up onto the next branch of a tree and that fantastic sensation of deeply stretching your muscles.
Endless studies have demonstrated that physical play contributes to physical, mental, emotional and social health and wellbeing. Children climbing together learn to collaborate and problem solve together. They also learn to empathise with each other, give each other encouragement, and celebrate achievement together.
In Nature Nurture we conduct risk benefit analysis. That means that as well as doing a general risk assessment of activities such as climbing, we also highlight for ourselves the benefits of such activities and ensure that the benefits balance or outweigh the risks. Because of that, the children in Nature Nurture have the opportunity and time to experience a wide range of movement and active play. When climbing trees, we tell them, ‘yes you can climb that tree, let’s learn how to do it safely’.
Next time I’m watching my 20-month granddaughter climb up on to a fence or branch, I will hold myself in check and do my very best not to let her experience my anxiety. She is fearless and I must learn to trust her to set her own challenges. I need to be ready if she needs me and asks for my help, but I need to give her the message, loud and clear, ‘I think what you are doing is fantastic and I know you can manage this’.
So, try and take a deep breath and enjoy children’s joy as they take care of some pretty vital learning in their outdoor play!