It is has been said that those who dwell in the beauty of the trees, will never grow weary to the mysteries of life.
In the book Little Bear's Friend by Else Homelund Minarek, the story begins with Little Bear climbing a tree. During Little Bear's journey to the top of that tree, he encounters a few challenges, a little bit of fear, unsurpassable views, perspective, confidence, and eventually, as the title suggests, a new friend.
Many adults hold onto a memory about climbing trees, either with childhood friends or on solo retreats into the sky to look down on the world. As Richard Louv points out in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, many children today are not getting this valuable motor skill and confidence-building opportunity. A recent study conducted in Sweden showed that children who not only played outside, but played in natural settings (not just outdoors on play equipment) played more creatively.
Climbing trees offers many opportunities for children to not just develop physically, but also mentally. With every step, children who climb are playing a game of vertical chess, if you will, that has them strategizing, developing mental agility as they make spilt second decisions, and learning psychological balance.
As you begin your tree climbing adventures, keep the following in mind:
Find the Right Tree
The right climbing tree is certainly a treasure when you find it. The perfect climbing tree for a young child is one they can get up into all by themselves, without a parental boost. It would likely have many wide natural Y's that branch out from a short base. It will also be free of tree damaging pests or other signs of decay. For people under four feet, this can be a real challenge, and may mean that you are only playing around the base of a large tree or on fallen trees for a while to get a feel for the experience of playing in natural settings. Once you do find the right tree, keep coming back to it. Every time you climb it, know that you will be developing the independence and confidence to climb to the top of any challenge. Then, as you grow and when you are ready, move on, and find a new favorite tree.
Step by Step
Trees, like people and all that we encounter in life, are living, growing, organic experiences that provide many opportunities for trial and error. Can this branch hold my weight? Can I take that step without slipping? Are those branches close enough for me to step from one to the next?
The perfect climbing tree might have its own knobbly pieces spaced naturally apart, but if yours does not, consider using a strong rope to assist your climb or nailing in pieces of wood to make a modified stepladder. A nail into the bark of a mature tree is not thought to be fatally damaging. A larger structure such as a hammock, treehouse or garden art, however, can put too much stress on the tree that can leave it vulnerable.
Professional tree climbers say that excessive climbing could damage a tree, but they also admit that climbing provides an opportunity to develop appreciation for nature, and that far outweighs any potential damage.
Whether or not you have reached the top of the tree you are climbing, take some time to look out on the world from a new perspective. With a view from the treetops, take a deep breath of all that freshness that being up off the ground can give you. Take in the view as a whole, or bring along a collapsible telescope or binoculars to see the views beyond.
Being up in a tree can provide children a respite from daily hustle and bustle, so if it works for you, consider allowing your child to just hang out in the tree. As they grow, that might be the place they go to enjoy a friend, read a book, or just plain rejuvenate themselves.
"I'll fly down," says Little Bear as he plans his exit from the tree. Well, anyone who has every shimmied up to the top of what seems like the perfect climbing tree, and then turned around to come down, realizes the going up can be the easy part. As a parent, the hardest part can be the witnessing. Support children verbally as they begin their descent. Coach them in facing the tree and stepping down as if coming down a ladder, using some of the same foot and handholds they found along the way up. Provide encouragement that communicates your confidence in them as they learn to solve a new kind of problem.
At some point, they are ready to make that final leap onto the ground, and you may just see the wings sprout.
So go on, climb a tree. Experience the joy of reaching new heights and hold onto the mysteries that a life among the trees can offer.
Originally published in 2009.
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