The adventurous spirit is alive and well in most toddlers and young children. As they find their feet, the whole environment opens up to them and they are keen to explore it – all of it – the safe and the risky.
To support this natural curiosity, as responsible adults, it is important that we ensure that the environment is safe for exploration. This means removing poisonous and toxic materials and any obvious hazards – whilst still providing an environment that is challenging and allows the child to test their limits.
Getting the level of challenge just right
Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, describes a period in a child’s development where they have consolidated one phase of learning and are ready to try something a little bit more difficult as the “zone of proximal development” We want to allow children to try, test, plan, revise and challenge them with tasks that might be just beyond their current comfort level. This type of environment allows children to develop perseverance and realise that with persistence and effort we gradually improve and then master a skill. If everything we tried was simple then we would quickly get bored. It is the challenge, the effort and the mastery that provides intrinsic motivation.
Children’s innate desire to climb should be encouraged as this is a wonderful activity that provides so many opportunities for development.
8 Benefits of Climbing
1. Improves Dexterity
As children climb, they are using their hands to grip, hold and often support all of their body weight. This improves strength in the fingers, hands, arms and shoulders. These are the muscle groups which are absolutely vital to provide a stable support base for fine motor tasks such as handwriting and cutting skills.
2. Improves Physical Strength
Climbing is a whole-body activity. We push with our legs and pull with our arms to gain height. The core is engaged to provide support and stability.
If children need to be physically supported as they climb, it is best to offer that support at the hips or at the shoulders rather than by holding a hand. We use our arms and hands for counterbalance and generally feel more relaxed in our vestibular system if we know we can use our hands in an emergency..
3. Builds Confidence
If the task is developmentally appropriate for the child’s current ability – with just a small increase in difficulty – then the challenge presented will be just right. The child may be a little apprehensive about the challenge, but with some verbal encouragement they will have a go. Successfully completing the challenge will give them a real sense of achievement, pride and confidence in themselves. Small successes which build on each other are the key.
4. Develops Problem Solving Skills
When faced with a climbing challenge our brain is working hard:
1) Assessing risk: Is it safe?, is it too high for me?, will I fall?, I bet the view up there is great, I think I can do it!….
We may also need to overcome fear or apprehension – weighing up this challenge with previous challenges that may or may not have been successful.
2) Motor planning: Which way will I go? Where will I put my feet/hands? How will I get back down?
Some children who lack impulse control may not think through all of these possible outcomes BEFORE embarking on the climb. Having an adult nearby who can verbalise these considerations for the child is a good way to role model these problem solving skills.
5. Improves Proprioception and Vestibular Sensory Systems
Proprioception is knowing where our body is in space – what our arms and legs are doing without having to look at them, how much force we need to use in any given context. For example the force needed to throw a ball is greater than the force needed to hold a pencil. We develop our proprioception skills by doing strong body work, being aware of what are limbs are doing and by being in contact with the ground. Climbing provides that proprioception feedback.
The vestibular system takes information from our inner ear and eyes and sends this to the brain. It detects motion and where our heads are in relation to the ground. If we are in danger of falling – it is the vestibular system that kicks in and tells our brain to try and regain balance. Perhaps by correcting our body positioning, putting our hands out in front or to grab hold of something nearby to prevent the fall.
6. Develops Focus and Concentration
Care is needed when climbing. Children need to think about the next move and take care with the placement of hands and feet in order to prevent falls. Adult support with verbal cues can help.
7. Improves Balance
Having good balance is an important pre-requisite for almost every gross and fine motor skill. Climbing helps children to develop balance by engaging their core and large muscle groups. Climbing in the natural environment provides additional challenges .Stepping-stones are rarely flat, tree branches come in all different widths and heights, rocks can be slippery. The natural environment can also be more conducive to imaginative play as we pretend to be intrepid explorers – crossing over crocodile infested waters, or castaways living in tree houses.
8. Enhances Social Skills
Competent climbers can offer encouragement to those who are a little fearful or reluctant – having another child in your corner to cheer you on can be very empowering. Climbing often involves cooperation – as we lend a hand to another, take turns going down the slide or pole. It can also stimulate language and imagination between peers.
Climbing Activities For Toddlers and Young Children At Home
Use scatter cushions or lounge cushions piled up to create little hills to climb up and over.
Tunnel through kitchen chairs lined up in a row – throw a dark rug over the structure to add to the mystery and use torches to find your way.
If you have child sized chairs and tables make an obstacle course, add in some towels or cushions on the ground as stepping-stones – climb through, up, over but don’t fall into the “river”(make the distance between objects just far enough away to challenge balance skills).
Use child steps to help children climb up and over larger items such as tables/large plastic storage boxes – don’t forget to encourage them to turn around when on top of the structure and climb back down backwards – feeling with their toes until they find the step.
Climbing Activities For Toddlers and Young Children In The Playground
Monkey Bars are a fantastic piece of equipment for children of all ages.
If the child cannot reach the bars an adult might be able to lift them up – allow them to hang and support their body weight until fatigue sets in, then drop to the ground. If the drop is causing the child to become fearful you can lift them down until they build up confidence.
All money bars should be installed over appropriate soft fall surfaces. Be aware of bars that have a metal platform that children stand on rather than a ladder type structure. I have witnessed a few accidents and many near misses from children who stand on the platform but could only reach the first rung of the bar. This is too close to the metal platform if they need to drop. The danger is hitting their head or scraping their back on the platform as they land.
A safer option is to invest in a hanging ladder which can be attached to the side on the monkey bar frame. This allows children to climb the ladder and be able to reach out to the 2nd or 3rd rung, clear of any hazards if they need to drop down. Alternatively, a small box that is high enough to allow all children to reach forward to the 2nd or 3rd rung can be placed at the side of the structure.
Allow children to support their body weight by hanging to begin with, then to hang and swing their legs, then to swing for some momentum before reaching for the next bar. It is OK to drop when fatigued. Strength and sustained effort will improve gradually over time.
Alternatives to monkey bars
If you can’t access monkey bars – then perhaps you could install a bar from a lower piece of playground equipment to a higher piece of equipment. This way children of various heights can all practice hanging and swinging from the bar. You can pretend that this is a river crossing and we move along the bar to get from one piece of equipment to another without touching the ground.
Climbing walls are also popular and encourage motor planning, finger/hand strength and can really lend themselves to that imaginary play. If you are planning on installing one of these at your school/centre it would be a good idea to get some advice on safety requirements. You could also use colour coding of the climbing rocks to plan for an easy route, a medium difficulty route and a ninja route. A visit to an indoor rock climbing venue could be a great excursion or family activity to try if funds permit.
Netted Web Climbing Mazes: Encourages balance and develops core strength needed to maintain control over the climb as the support base is always moving. Motor Planning and sequencing skills are also involved to make sure you don’t end up in a real tangle!
Climbing in Nature
Find a tree of the right height and structure to allow an easy climb as a starting point. The senses will be stimulated by the scent of the wood and the leaves, the texture of the bark and of course the view!
Rocks and rock pools are fun to explore – just be very careful of slippery surfaces! What precautions could you advise a child to take? Instead of jumping from rock to rock – maybe sit down, slide down a rock surface and climb up the next one with hands AND feet Go in slow motion – what can you notice about the colour, feel, shape, smell of the rock? Can you see any unusual plants or insects on the way. Slowing down in nature is so good for all of us on many different levels.
Sandhills at the beach will really get the heart rate up! Be aware of dunes that may be under repair and of course for snakes in the season – but if the way is clear and you have a lovely sandy dune – why not bring along a piece of cardboard – climb up then slide down – woo hoo!
If you have other ideas or stories to share about the benefits of climbing activities please leave a comment.