It’s surely every climber’s dream when facing parenthood – now I’ll be able to take my kids climbing (or sometimes – now I’m going to have to if I ever want to get on the rock again!) When and how can be fraught with options and the risk of putting them off for life! Every child is different, and how and at what stage you introduce your kids to climbing will depend on your own experience and confidence. Here are some thoughts and top tips from my own experience with my daughters and working with client families.
Children aren’t generally born averse to climbing. In fact, there is a theory that a baby’s grip is so strong they could hang off a washing line, an instinct carried from our primate tree swinging past. I’m not convinced this is a good theory to test, particularly in front of mum, but the point being, children have a built-in natural instinct to climb. Very often, particularly these days with ever present health and safety culture, we ‘detrain’ our kids’ natural climbing tendencies and tell them it’s dangerous and they shouldn’t do it. I’ve caught myself doing this with my two and it takes more resolve to watch your own dangling out of a tree, knowing inevitably they will fall out eventually, than it does to be on the sharp end of something gnarly yourself! Obviously, it would not be cool to be negligent, we don’t want anyone getting seriously hurt, but allowing them to make calculated risks and develop their own judgement are among the most valuable life lessons you can offer. How best to go about it then?
Local parks have long been a child’s testing ground for what they can climb up. If you’re still not convinced how naturally it comes to them, watch how many are climbing up playground equipment that isn’t even designed to be climbed up! Let them play. Try to offer encouragement for effort rather than just for getting to the top of something. Resilience is the life skill here but also stands them in good stead for their climbing careers as you don’t want them bummed out if they can’t achieve something straight away, but rather the determination to keep throwing themselves at it. Similarly, I personally think it’s a key skill to know how to fall. I should probably put in a ‘please don’t sue me’ clause here. I’m not suggesting doing anything silly! I’ve had mine practicing jumping down from a bench in a controlled way, spotting their landing, bending knees etc. Work within your comfort zone, but my take on this is adventurous kids will fall off stuff, best teach them how to do it properly!
Many parks will have some kind of mini climbing wall and this is a great link to proper indoor climbing centres. Having a controlled, non-weather dependent environment is perfect for building enthusiasm particularly if you have a wall where you can also entice them with the promise of cake! Pick your time carefully as going at the same time as the rock-jocks can be off putting and not everyone appreciates kids being around and children pick up on that energy. I reckon I lost a year of climbing with my eldest by accidently taking her to a big wall when they were route setting and the booming sound of impact drivers put her off.
It can also be tricky to find walls that have areas appropriate for small children. Ideally you are looking for slabby routes, initially with big juggy holds. Depending on the child, you may find they want to get stuck into the big routes on the first visit or they might need some more acclimatisation. With my two, the eldest took two sessions to get to the roped climb stage, my youngest wanted to get straight on to the biggest wall she could find. Both are great. The takeaway here is not to set your own expectations of success, the only benchmark is, did they have fun, and therefore do they want to do it again?
As their abilities develop (faster than you might expect) they may be capable of cranking out pretty hard routes but lack the arm reach to get to the holds set up for adults. Some walls cater for this with specialist route setters making lines small people appropriate so it’s worth asking around. Bear in mind that children’s bodies are in the process of growing. Try to avoid anything too crimpy and don’t work them too hard as injuries could cause a lifetime of problems. Ultimately be led by the child’s interests, ‘what do you fancy having a go at’ works better at this stage than ‘we’re going to do twenty circuits before you’re allowed to move on’. I have also been known to place sweets/chocolates on holds to incentivise ascents!
If you want to get outside the next step is to find some big boulders or little micro crags. Hopefully it goes without saying that you need to know what you’re doing here. If you’re not confident in placing anchors and setting up top ropes, invest in getting some instruction. If you can, have two adults available so that one can look after the kids, whilst the other does the rope set up. This also gives the option of one of you climbing alongside the child to give confidence.
Pick somewhere that has a safe base - a little back from the face so that they can get comfy - and bring a few toys, magazines or books so they can make themselves at home. This is as much about teaching them to be comfortable in the outdoor environment as anything. Always pack a picnic even if it’s not a mealtime! Your chosen line should be free from possible entrapments such as shoe/head sized cracks and ledges. Think problem avoidance. If a child can get stuck, they probably will, and going into full-on rescue mode even if it doesn’t put them off might extinguish your enthusiasm. Get your kids involved with things like knot tying and how gear is placed. Anything they can do will empower them and build the climbing psyche. They are learning sponges so keep them busy.
When it comes to the actual climbing your two main options are top-top rope or bottom-top rope. If you’re belaying from the top, make sure your other adult has checked the knots and harness if they’re competent or do it yourself before getting up there. Make sure you have clear line of sight to the climber so communication is easy. Being able to see you will give them lots more confidence. If you know how, consider using a direct belay and guide plate so you have options if they need help, but only if you are confident in this. With proper tiddlers, I find having a parent/sibling climbing alongside can be helpful. This has to be done right so that you don’t inadvertently crush the smaller climber or pull them off, so I’ll leave that as an either you know how to do it, or you should probably seek instruction before trying!
If I’m alongside a climber I’ll often slap the hold I’m talking about as an audio cue rather than trying to describe it, which might be blowing their mind, or with the really young ones might be beyond their comprehension. Working from the bottom is similar, but you are going to have to convince them to come back down. Make sure you’ve practiced this whilst they are still in reach. I’ve seen and heard folk either using a tracer line attached to the child’s harness to pull them back down or just waiting until they get tired and letting gravity do the work. Personally, I’m not a fan. The tracer line at worst is dangerous adding a potential entrapment and risk of neglecting the belay rope whilst pulling down. At best it potentially traumatizes your child (who presumably isn’t comfortable to start with otherwise they’d come down themselves) by finding they are being dragged from perceived safety by the person they should be able to trust most of all. You get my point.
In regards waiting for gravity, two thoughts firstly, how keen will your child be to go climbing again after falling from the route after exhaustion; and secondly, as anyone who has found themselves to be cragfast can tell you – humans can hang on for a really long time when they are desperate! Far better I would say to expand that comfort zone stage by stage. Get them to lower from just above the ground in a nice stable abseil position, then from head height, double over head etc. Being patient and empowering your little climber is an investment in your future adventures together!
Breakout Box – Gear Them Up
For smaller children there are a number of full body harnesses available. They need this extra support as their centre of gravity is often above their waist, so the shoulder straps keep them the right way up. Make sure it has the appropriate UIAA certifications and practise fitting it at home. Helmets can be trickier as although a few do fit smaller heads they are often heavy to the point that the child’s head dips. If I feel confident that there is little risk of anything falling, I may use a cycle helmet but it’s important to stress this is not within the manufacturers guidelines as they are designed for impact into things rather than a rock falling. In any case you need to be 99.9% sure nothing is going to fall as children’s heads and necks haven’t developed enough to take any blows so find somewhere super safe!
Other top tips:
Coloured karabiners so children can clearly see which one they are attached to on a stance for example
Carrying a fat knotted sling to use as an artificial handhold can be useful
Young people can get cold more quickly than adults so pack accordingly
Don’t under-cook the route difficultly but find something with options so they can choose their own level of challenge
Words and Images by | Chris Lucas
Featuring Josephine and Eliza Lucas
Chris is a mountaineering & climbing instructor based in Cornwall. He can often be found teaching outdoor learning, rock climbing on sea cliffs, leading groups in the mountains, and guiding photography tours and courses. Chris is a member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors and is part of our AMI Test Team, helping to put new product designs through rigorous testing in the mountains.