How to Teach a Kid to Safely Climb a Tree

According to a trio (a tree-oh!) of climbing experts.

by Alexis Barad-Cutler
Originally Published: 
Girl learning how to climb a tree safely.

Climbing a tree is a rite of passage for any kid. And why shouldn’t it be? There’s something so damn thrilling about monkeying up a good looking oak and seeing the world from a different vantage point. But as trees are tall and branches can break — not to mention home to a variety of creatures — there are some best practice tips you and your kids need to know before anyone starts scurrying up. That’s why we spoke to a trio (a tree-oh!) of experts to lay down some knowledge about everything from spotting climbable trees to the safest way to climb up (and down). Here’s what they said.

Confirm that the tree is safe to climb.

One of the first things Steve Hanaburgh, a certified arborist with the National Parks Service, advises a parent to do before choosing a tree for their kid to climb, is to check out its roots. If they’re rotting, or levering out of the ground, move on to another tree. Mushrooms or fungus that are growing on or near the tree’s trunk are other indicators you should stay away. Other things to look for: Cracks and splits in the trunk, deep cavities, and missing chunks of bark on the trunk. And, as Dr. Mark Holton, Director of Cornell Tree Climbing, notes, a good tree, is one that is not leaning.

Check for other signs of danger.

This may seem obvious, but sometimes parents assume that their own yards are the safest place to learn to climb a tree – only to forget to check for power lines in the vicinity first. You’ll also want to look for poison ivy, beehives, ant colonies (to your best ability), and warn kids that they may encounter some bugs or even animals while they’re up there (it is a tree after all). Seeing a raccoon up close and personal, can be pretty surprising, especially when you’re not on solid ground. Trees have a lot of buggy companions, and if you’ve got a little arachnophobe on your hands, maybe tree-climbing isn’t the best idea.

Consider the species of tree.

Some trees are better than others when it comes to climbing. Trees that are great for climbing, include hardwoods and maples that you would find in a field or park (with branches low to the ground). Some good climbing trees include elms, mulberries, and most oaks. White pines are less ideal, as they tend to be sappy and have brittle branches. “We generally avoid conifers unless the branches are big and you don’t really mind getting sap all over yourself,” advises Holton.

Go for the lowest branch.

Once you’ve identified The Tree, it is now time to start your little one climbing. The low-hanging fruit is what you want to go for with your beginner climber. More expert tree climbers may try the “run and jump” approach (where they take a running start towards the tree and push off the trunk to grab the nearest branch), but with a kid, the easiest and lowest branch is the one they’ll want to grab.

Use those playground muscles.

Once your child has gotten hold of the branch, they’ll need to pull themselves up on top of it. For kids with great upper body strength, their arms may be enough to pull them up. Other kids might need to swing their feet up to help get their body on top of the branch. Kids tend to be naturally good climbers – just observe any schoolyard playground or jungle gym. Still, it is important to spot children until they feel comfortable climbing.

As Holton points out, “Kids don’t fall out of trees nearly as often as you think. But a little bit of caution is a good idea.” He advises keeping your arms up and thumbs in, ready to catch your child in case they slip, or wants to be quickly lowered back to the ground. And make sure that when you’re spotting, you’re not also yammering on about which branch your kid should grab next. You don’t want to be distracted when spotting – you want to keep your eyes on their center of gravity. “The classic fail is to be pointing at the next branch as your child falls past you!” says Holton.

Look for a sturdy branch to grab next.

Once your child has hoisted themselves onto that first branch, they are ready to look for the next one to climb. Tell them to look for a sturdy looking branch to grab, and to grip branches as close to the trunk as possible. As Patty Jenkins, who, alongside her husband Peter, founded Tree Climbers International, the world’s first school for recreational tree climbing, says “You don’t want to be too far out where there’s nothing to grab except the branch,” in case of a fall. Encourage kids to take it slowly, and to look for secure places to put their feet or hands (such as small branches, knots, and holes in the bark). A good way to test that a branch is sturdy is to press down on an area of it first to see if it can bear weight.

Don’t forget the ‘Rule of Three’

This is also a good time to introduce some basic climbing rules to your kid. The three-point rule (also known as The Rule of Three) is a big one to hammer home to the kids. “There should always be three points of contact when climbing a tree, at all times,” advises Peter Jenkins. So, that could be two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand – but no matter what, it always has to be three. Says Holton, “This will help reduce the likelihood of a fall in case one point [of contact] slips or fails.” Other climbing rules: Stay as close to the trunk as possible when climbing, and maintain an upright position for more stability. Jenkins suggests that when possible (i.e. when the branch is small enough in circumference), wrap your arms and legs around it, for the most stability.

Don’t climb too high!

All the experts we spoke to agreed that, if climbing without gear (i.e. ropes, saddles, and helmets), you’ll want to advise your kid to not go too high (some sources cap it off at 12 feet). And consider this: When you’re a small person, even five feet can feel high. For most kids, sensible climbing is a natural impulse, and with that comes a tendency to limit their height in the tree.

But, as Holton reminds us, there will be that one kid who is determined to get to the top of the tree, with no fear and poor impulse control. It’s important to know what kind of kid you’re dealing with when it comes to climbing. And if you find that your kid is really gung-ho about getting to the top of that tree, they would probably do best in one of the many recreational climbing schools out there, where they can explore the tops of under the instruction of a skilled climber and, with the right equipment).

Get down the same way you went up.

Professionals all advise that when coming back down, kids should stick to the same path they took going up. Usually, the branches that were used to get up are also sturdy enough to bear a descent safely. Another key thing to note: Make sure your kids aren’t in a rush to come down. Descending a tree should be done with care and intention (even if all they want to do is get back to watching those weird slime videos on YouTube).

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