Jumping Out of Trees: How Climbing Can Benefit Athleticism

The title isn’t clickbait. This whole article is about climbing trees, and the benefits that it can have on athleticism for many young athletes. I’ve had conversations with several parents and gotten some fun takes on letting their kids climb trees. Some are for it, some are against it. Opinions matter, and safety matters, but I want to present a case for why you should let your kids climb trees.

I wanted to find a photo of a child, but none was available

Before we dive in:
We need to understand that being a good athlete requires a high level of coordination, balance, and strength, all combined with a sense of reaction and decision making.

Behind every Sportscenter Top 10 play is some display of these qualities in varying form. These are also skills that can be developed through climbing trees, rocks, and the occasional brick building (maybe I’m kidding about the building?).

First, we have to look at what climbing a tree is at its core: moving a weight vertically with constantly varying speed and force output. Your body is the weight, and when climbing you move it a distance, therefore creating force. The way we get better at producing force is by consistently creating force, so the constant force production of maneuvering up a tree helps develop baseline strength levels that can benefit in a large variety of instances.

The next benefits we see with climbing a tree (or rock if you want more challenge), is balance and coordination. Trees provide a constantly shifting environment and surface. Branches bend, are jutting out from the trunk at weird angles, and the whole tree sways in the wind. The constant bending and swaying of a tree trains bodyweight control and how to shift one’s center of mass. This is a great skill to have in the toolbox when playing on the field during directional changes. This, coupled with the random placement of footholds, creates a greater sense of coordination. You have to know where your body is in relation to the trunk of the tree and the branches in order to prevent yourself from falling.

Then we get to decision making skills. Every branch you grab always has the possibility of breaking (generally a noticeable quality), so making the right decision as to which branches to hold onto and step on is crucial. Doing this under the pressure of having to maintain balance as the branches move and the tree sways is a great way to increase the cognitive function of decision making. This isn’t just a benefit to sport, but to life in general.
How many times do people make bad decisions when they are tired or stressed?
Making these decisions with perceived danger is great way to learn how to calm yourself and assess the situation with a clear view in a fast paced manner.

On top of all of these things, climbing trees (and jumping out of them when you’re done) is fun. That’s what kids need to have. Having fun while exploring the capabilities of their body is crucial not only to athletic development, but also to their long term health. Everyone is well aware of the obesity epidemic, and likely aware that diagnosis of ADD/ADHD is super high (especially in boys), so getting them active is a great way to start them on a healthy lifestyle trajectory. We are an under-active and over-stimulated culture, with kids spending a lot less time outside exploring and spending more of it sitting still in front of a screen.

Now, some of you are likely to jump in with the concerns of injury risks and child safety. That is absolutely a concern, because everyone wants their child to be safe (as they should be), and their is some risk to climbing trees: falling, cuts, bruises, and factures are possible. But allow me to ask this: is falling a few feet from a tree more dangerous than putting pads on a child and having them run full steam into each other? There are ways to control tree climbing, but sports have multiple bodies moving in scattered arrays at higher velocities. Neither is technically safe.

If safety is your primary concern, I have a quick fix that can keep climbing safe, even though it takes some minor effort as a parent. First, create boundaries with your child as to which trees they can climb and how high. My mother always made sure she could see the “approved trees” from common vantages points (kitchen/living room window, back porch, front/back door, etc). Any time we climbed a new tree, she would make us come back down after we had gone up higher, just to make sure we could climb down. Controlling the trees your child climbs puts a limit on the risk while still promoting freedom to learn and explore their own capabilities.

In all, climbing trees (or rocks) is beneficial to your child’s health and athletic development. The combined opportunities to build strength, balance, coordination, and decision making skills play a large benefit into their athletic ability and overall health. There are ways that it can become risky, but there are ways to mitigate those risks.

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