Thursday, 14 September 2017

Climbing Trees... to do or not to do

Before we start I will say that I am very pro climbing trees... I climbed them as a child, and I encourage the children I work with (and my own children) to climb trees... so this post will be mostly about the benefits of tree climbing as I find it hard to not see the benefit of tree climbing...

But there have been times when I felt tree climbing feels like too much of a risk... I will check the terrain... if the child is to fall is the ground safe enough to fall on... for example some trees have rocks and stones underneath... if I can move them I will, but otherwise this is not a safe tree to climb in the sense that a fall has the potential to be dangerous...

As children, my sister and I jumped off swings A LOT... and fell a lot - but once my sister broke her arm - and that was when the ground presented a danger rather than a risk (of course there were no parents around to get us to reflect on that) - I was seven and my sister was five... I still remember the feel of my sisters broken arm in my hands as I held it as we walked back to our parents a 5-10 minute walk away at my grandparents house.
The arm healed, and we learned that lesson that we check the ground before we jumped... I was lucky I learned that without breaking my arm - but it took the break for us to learn.

I am all for the small scrapes and bruises as part of the learning process, maybe the odd fracture - as part of the process of learning and keeping our bodies safe... children that have been exposed to risk as young children (evaluated risk - not danger) are less likely to expose themselves to potentially more harmful risk as they get older... as they have learned the impact of falls, and learned how to control their bodies when the falls have been small, and bones heal faster (bones heal slower and slower the older we get).

As a mother of twins I had to deal with the fact that my two had a method of divide and conquer... they would explore the playground at age 18 months by going in different directions and climbing and testing everything... they fell and hit their heads and threw up and I felt like my heart "failed" so many times... but they taught me a thing or two about resilience... the "heart failure" was my own panic and anxiety and desire to keep my children safe... it had nothing to do with them... they demanded a hug to reassure all was well and then got back to playing ... but with a greater awareness. By 20 months both my girls negotiated play-spaces better than the other 20 month olds around them.... because I could not lift both of them, I could not prevent all the hurts... they had the chance to explore and to play and discover their own limits and also develop their body strength to manage climbing. This impacted me as an educator.

Tree climbing has been part of their childhood, including their younger brother...
I know that it strengthens the entire body... arms, hands and fingers that need strength to be able to hold a pencil and write when they start school, also strengthening the core muscles... because if children have to sit down to learn in school then they will need the muscles to enable them to do this... sitting down practice is not going to give them the tone they need to be able to sit and concentrate...
It is also problem solving... working out how to get up... and importantly how to get down... learning about branch strength, risk taking, learning about their own limits...
I have experienced plenty of children that are great at climbing up but not so much the coming down bit... and I will only guide them down verbally, placing my body underneath so that they feel security. We will then talk about only climbing as high as they dare to come down... so to be aware of their limits... and also to push those limits bit by bit in an appropriate manner. I have encountered children that have become paralysed by fear and then I have physically helped them down... either by moving/guiding their feet and helping them find a route down and as a last resort carrying them down - luckily I am both tall and strong and this has not happened often... most can be guided down, and feel that sense of achievement. BUT it does require that you the adult/educator needs to keep calm so that you do not spread fear.

There are many times when I  feel anxious... mostly when I am taking care of other people's children... partly because I have a responsibility to keep them safe... not just for the children's sake, but for their parent's sake and also for the sake of the reputation of the setting I work at... sometimes I think that added responsibility feels limiting - so I have talked a lot with parents over the years about tree climbing and risk taking... explaining the benefits, that this is training pre-writing skills (always a winner with the parents) etc and also about the risk for falls, bruises and scrapes and to find out what their opinions are... usually after the chat they are fine with the risk that the odd bruise and scrape will be a part of the learning... almost like taking home a picture... instead its art on the body in form of a bruise!!

I will NOT help children up trees... they have to work together to get up the trees... if I need to help then I feel they are not ready to climb that particular tree... we are always on the look-out for good climbing trees...  the children are made aware of the ground under the tree... I tell them the story about my sister breaking her arm... and that if we had checked the ground then her arm might not have broke... I feel that this is a knowledge they do not have to find out themselves...
I also talk with the children that scrapes and bruises are a part of learning, a part of gaining control over their bodies and not always a bad thing, and that often they only hurt for a short while... the children need to dare to make mistakes too! Mistakes in all areas of life... and as I mentioned before when you are young the mistakes tend to be smaller than the ones made when you get older...

Again, it is MY responsibility to ensure I am not exposing the children to danger... that there is only risk.. or phrased another way - chance taking - a chance to get it right, the chance to get it wrong etc...

Trees often require turn taking - taking turns to go up and down, helping each other... maybe building a den in the tree where several can hang out at the same time. There is a great deal of social interaction around tree climbing.

There is also that amazing sense of achievement of climbing a tree (and the frustration leading up to it) - and that marvelous feeling of being up high and seeing life from a  new perspective.


Then there are the benefits of climbing TREES rather than climbing frames... it is getting children out into nature... they often discover things as they are climbing that we can then go on to learn more about. There is the chance to learn to love and value a good climbing tree... developing a positive relationship with nature. From a sensory point of view the texture and smells of the forest are going to be much more stimulating than a man made play-space. There is also the perspective that they learn respect... to take care of this living tree... not to destroy branches.
Trees and nature in general have a more calming effect on children (all people) and can contribute to a more positive atmosphere in the classroom.
Trees also provide great shade on sunny days... and this shade is complex and there is research that shows that shadows of this complex nature is good for cognitive development... I have written about this before... you can check it out here

So as you can see there are many reason for climbing trees.
Yes there are reasons for not climbing trees... maybe the risk is too much for YOU to cope with, or there is danger rather than risk... but remember to really evaluate this.... how much hurt is OK that it is a valuable lesson rather than an incident that results in a serious injury or puts the child off trying again (this is something you really need to explore as an individual and also as a team of educators). ALSO your own approach/attitude to play and risk taking is essential... children will pick up if you are a nervous wreck (yes some anxiety will be there... I have it - but I know that the benefits far outweigh the small risks of a bruise or at worst a fracture). So you have to be comfortable with this tree climbing too... maybe not start too ambitious, just small climbs and small trees until you, too, feel confident and can offer encouragement.
I also do not run the risk of being sued if a child gets hurt... so maybe this is a reason for not tree climbing... but I think it would almost be better to write tree climbing into some kind of policy/waiver so that parents are on board for the whole tree climbing experience, see its benefits and will not sue... of course I am not talking about a free pass for accidents... but an opportunity for the educator to relax enough from one of the many responsibilities that can sometimes weigh down and prevent the children from accessing the freedom they crave and need...

Below are some tree climbing images

this is in a playground... and still children decide to climb the trees

not just climbing trees... but trees provide all sort of other wonderful resources to play with, to learn from, and to collaborate around.

daring to climb REALLY high--- and swinging from branches, daring to be upside down... inspiring each other, sharing techniques etc etc (4-5 yr olds)
fingers and hands being strengthened



agility... the whole body is involved... and then there is also the chance to find treats in a tree... apples, pears... or even olives!
then there is the chance to make your own calculations... is it too high to jump... do I dare, what will happen if I jump...

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