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The Lost Art of Climbing Trees

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Admittedly, the slightly sensationalist title suggests that children don't climb trees anymore.  This is not actually the case.  There is a brilliant tree in my local park and children form an orderly queue to get their turn on it.  It's the perfect 'beginner's' tree.  Lots of low branches, multiple routes up, and when you get to the top, your head emerges from a cloud of leaves where you can shout to your parent - sat on the conveniently placed bench below -  "look how high I am!".

Here’s the tree in question with my 4-year-old making his way up:




So, what’s the point of this piece if tree climbing is still happening?  The fact is, it’s not happening nearly as much as it used to.  In my opinion there are two obvious reasons for this.  The first is that now there are other things children can be doing with their spare time.  You only have to go back a decade or so to find a difference in the kind of on-tap visual entertainment available for children, and certainly a whole generation will take you to a time when children had far fewer options for entertainment, and so they had to be more creative in their play (cliché time: ‘when I were a lad’/’it’s not like it used to be’ etc etc).


The second reason is risk.  Whether it be at home or at nursery/school, children aren’t exposed to the same risks that they were a few decades ago.  Thankfully there have been really positive changes over recent years to introduce more ‘risky’ play into our settings and schools. I particularly love the emphasis woodwork is now getting in the EYFS (Pete Moorhouse’s excellent work has a lot to do with this).  Progress hasn’t necessarily been fast enough though – my colleague, Jules, wrote this article way back in 2010 about the value of risk and challenge in the Early Years, and finding a balanced and proportionate approach.


The benefits of letting our children have opportunities to climb trees are significant, as ‘Nature Kids’ point out:


·         Our child is building their own awareness, ability to assess risk and prevent injury


·         They are building their focus, spatial awareness and coordination skills


·         We are offering them a huge opportunity to build their self-confidence and not just through the physical act of climbing but also their ability to make the decisions that got them there


·         It goes without saying that their strength, flexibility and physical abilities improve each and every climb


·         Tree climbing is a challenge for the mind; enhancing problem solving and analytical skills


·         Children develop their own sense of achievement, particularly for those that maybe couldn’t get there last week, month or year but did it today!


·         A child learns that injuries are a part of growing up, and a grazed knee or splinter in the finger is a lesson in itself.


I’ve visited two nurseries recently that have actually designed their playground around ‘climbing trees’ which I think is such a great idea.  There was a time, when the trees would have been removed and the whole space covered in rubber!  Wouldn’t it be amazing if every Early Years setting had a climbing tree?


Dr Lala Manners has written a helpful article that advises on how to support parents to understand the benefits of ‘risky’ play.


This Coffee Break was written by SEND Advisor, Stephen Kilgour. 

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