August 08, 2013

A Parent’s Primer on Playground Climbing

Climbing is a fundamental element of childhood development. Children climb to explore their environment, to expand their personal boundaries, to take risks and to have fun. Play researchers tell us that typically-developing children are instinctual climbers, just as birds fly and fish swim.

Playgrounds provide a wealth of climbing opportunities. There are ladders and stairs, nets and bars, and all manner of play activities that allow and promote climbing. For the most part, children are a self-governing being. They assess risk and attempt a climbing activity based upon their perception of that risk. A tall ladder may present too much of a challenge for a young child that is unaccustomed to climbing, while an older child with more experience will grasp the rungs and quickly ascend without giving it a second thought. The former will not progress until he or she has attempted, failed, and accomplished lesser climbing challenges. However, as they do progress, the perception of risk diminishes and children seek out more challenging activities. These climbing challenges represent a wide range of physical and developmental benefits, including improved cognition and problem-solving; body, spatial and directional awareness; and improved speed, agility, balance and coordination. How much of those benefits a child realizes depends, in part, on parent involvement.

Parents should encourage children to attempt age-appropriate climbing activities. By age three, most children can traverse overhead ladders. If your child has never tried this activity or needs help, support their body while they use their hands to climb from one end to the other. Repeat until they feel confident to try on their own. At some point, children decide they want to do it without help. Allowing a child to succeed on their own is critical to developing basic climbing skills that support nerve and muscle formation and the development of greater speed, agility and strength. Don't be afraid to try these activities yourself. Children need to see parents as role models and even if you struggle to cross an overhead ladder or ascend a climbing wall, seeing you attempt a climbing activity will boost their confidence and encourage them to try as well. You might just have some fun, too.

Make some time to visit a playground in your neighborhood. Allow your child to explore the space and engage in free, unstructured play alone or with siblings and friends. When they encounter a climbing activity, watch closely and observe whether they seem interested in climbing. If they start to climb and then back away, they may perceive the risk is too great. Encourage them, with your assistance, to try again, but don't force them to do something they aren't ready for. Children are born to climb and when they're ready, they will climb anything that is put in front of them. Take the climb with them and help them realize the physical and cognitive benefits that will support them for life.

Kent Callison