In the last 50 years, rock climbing has transformed from a niche sport dominated by young climbers to an international sport with elite athletes. It even made its big debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics! This sport’s surge in popularity is largely due to the increased accessibility of indoor climbing gyms, its friendly, down-to-earth vibe, and diverse community (children included!).
In fact, children and youth make up one of the fastest-growing segments in the sport of rock climbing. Kids love it! After all, what’s not to love? Children finally get permission to “climb up the walls!” and in a way that’s fun and safe. If your child has never tried rock climbing, I’m here to help. In this article I’ll explain where rock climbing came from, what it is, how it can benefit your child, and the best way to introduce your child to this sport. Let’s climb on!
A very brief history of rock climbing
Rock climbing has been around for a long time so it’s difficult to pinpoint its exact origins. Throughout the 19th century, mountaineers would do it to ascend challenging mountain peaks, but rock climbing looked very different back then. To scale steep rock faces, mountaineers would use special tools that assisted them to the top. This type of climbing was called “aid climbing” but by the mid-20th century, a new type of rock climbing emerged called “free climbing.” With “free climbing” the rules and ethics of rock climbing changed. Rock climbers could only use their hands and feet to climb up the rock (no aids allowed!) and ropes and devices were used to prevent injuries from falls. This big change was what gave birth to the sport of rock climbing we have today.
What exactly is rock climbing?
Rock climbing is a sport in which athletes climb up a specific path (route) on a natural or artificial rock wall using only their hands and feet. Rock climbers wear specially designed shoes to help them grip the wall more easily. For rock walls higher than 12-15 feet, climbers wear protective gear like harnesses, ropes, and helmets to prevent injuries from falls.
Is rock climbing dangerous?
When people think of rock climbing, most imagine Alex Honnold free solo climbing (climbing without ropes) El Capitan in Yosemite, as seen in the documentary Free Solo. This type of climbing has big risks. Thankfully, this is not the type of rock climbing most athletes do and it’s definitely not the type kids should try. The best and safest type of rock climbing kids should try (as I’ll suggest below) is indoor rock climbing. This type of rock climbing doesn’t require prior experience and is quite safe to do when the rules are followed. Of course, like in all sports, injuries can happen but with indoor rock climbing, they tend to be minor, like a twisted ankle, scrapes, or hand injuries.
Should kids climb?
Absolutely! From the moment babies start to move they have this insatiable urge to climb everything. At first they learn to clamber over pillows or toys, which is cute. Then they learn to climb up and down stools, chairs, stairs, and more. This is the stage that puts many parents and caregivers on constant alert. I’m currently at this stage with my youngest. The moment my back is turned she makes her speedy ascent onto our dining table. Thankfully, by the age of three and four, young children move their focus to climbing play sets, and by five or six most kids have a well-developed ability to climb a variety of challenging objects. Here’s the thing: while climbing has its risks, it’s a foundational movement skill for kids to learn and master because it plays an important role in developing strength, coordination, and balance.
What are the benefits of rock climbing for kids?
Rock climbing is a great sport to keep kids active and healthy. Indoor rock climbing involves moving up a steep wall using a series climbing holds. While this might seem straightforward, kids develop a variety of important movement and thinking skills in this sport.
From a physical point of view, rock climbing builds muscular, tendon, and bone strength. It also improves cardiovascular endurance, hand-foot-eye coordination, balance, and flexibility. Does it sound like I’m describing dance or gymnastics? There’s definitely some crossover. In dance, kids learn to connect a series of movements to music while in rock climbing, kids learn to connect a series of movements to get to the top of the wall (music is nice but optional).
Of course, rock climbing develops much more than impressive monkey climbing skills. Each climbing route is a puzzle waiting to be unlocked. Kids have to use their problem-solving skills to figure out how to move their bodies from one climbing hold to the next to reach the top. This figuring-out process can develop kids’ analytic skills as well as their planning and decision-making skills.
Social and emotional benefits
From a social and emotional point of view, rock climbing is a very welcoming, friendly, and diverse sport. Indoor rock climbing gyms are great places to make new friends and community. They’re also good places to develop communication and listening skills, both of which are important for climbing safely.
Rock climbing, like many other sports, can be a great outlet for reducing anxiety and stress in children. I have a child that struggles with anxiety and he recently told me that rock climbing helps him relax and forget his anxieties. It really does help!
Also, for kids that might not be considered “athletic,” this sport is a great place to help build their self-confidence and self-esteem. As a child, I was quite short and petite, which meant that I was often the last pick for team sports in school. Eventually I started to see myself as “not athletic” and dreaded PE class. However, this view of myself slowly changed when I started rock climbing at age 11. On the rock wall, I discovered that you can be “athletic” regardless of your body build. It empowered me to try new physical activities in my teens and adult life.
At what age can kids start rock climbing?
Generally, it’s recommended for kids to be five or six years old before starting to rock climb. This ensures that a child is both physically and cognitively ready for the sport. Rock climbing requires a certain amount of physical strength and coordination, as well as the ability to problem-solve and communicate clearly. However, that’s not to say that climbing is off-limits until then. On the contrary, toddlers and young children should be encouraged to climb. Learning climbing skills is a key motor skill and important part of becoming physically literate. Here is a step-by-be-step breakdown of how to introduce rock climbing from toddler to teens:
Ages 1 to 5: Develop your child’s climbing skills at home, a play park, or in nature
From about the age of eight to 12 months old, babies begin to work on the skills needed for climbing, but don’t rush out and buy rock climbing shoes just yet! Climbing skills take a long time to fully develop. However, during this time you can help your child develop his or her climbing skills by providing age-appropriate and engaging opportunities at home, at your local play park or in nearby nature. Here are a few ideas:
- Encourage your baby or toddler to clamber over a pile of soft objects (like pillows or cushions) on the floor.
- Supervise your toddler as they learn to crawl up and down stairs.
- Walk along a trail with uneven terrain in nature and allow your young child to navigate over roots and small inclines or declines.
- Visit a play park and explore age-appropriate climbing features.
- Go to an indoor tumble play space for young children.
During this age period, it’s still possible to introduce young children to rock climbing but it’s important to have realistic expectations. My children started rock climbing around the age of two and three but they’d climb for a few minutes and then were done. The reality is that young children won’t be able to climb for long periods of time. As long as you’re prepared for this reality, skip to the next section to find out the best way to introduce your young child to the sport of rock climbing.
Ages 6 to 8: Introduce your child to indoor rock climbing
This is a great age to introduce your child to the sport of rock climbing and the best way to do it is at an indoor climbing gym. If your area has a roped climbing gym and a bouldering gym, opt for the bouldering gym to start. Bouldering gyms have lower walls and no ropes, so you won’t have to rent a harness (just climbing shoes) or learn how to belay your child.
Generally, children will get much more mileage in a bouldering gym because they won’t get distracted by wanting to play with the ropes (been there!). They’ll also develop important climbing skills like climbing down as well as up and learning how to fall safely. The most important thing to remember is that between the ages of six to eight, rock climbing should be all about fun and trying new things while learning the basics of proper technique and safe climbing.
Helpful tip #1: If it’s your child’s first visit to a climbing gym and you have no prior knowledge or experience with rock climbing, let the desk person know. Rock climbers are a friendly bunch and always happy to help new climbers learn the ropes.
Helpful tip #2: Most indoor climbing gyms offer group classes and summer camps for children ages six and up that will teach them the basics of this fun sport. If it’s possible I suggest taking advantage of these classes.
When your child isn’t rock climbing, you can still help develop their climbing skills at home or outdoors. Here are some idea:
- Set up a mini climbing wall on a wall at home.
- Visit play parks with climbing features and challenge your child to try them out (monkey bars, freestanding climbing features, playground climbing rocks).
- Encourage your child to scramble over low boulders along nature trails.
- Find a sturdy tree with low branches for your child to hang from or climb.
- Visit an adventure play park.
Ages 9 to 12: Introduce your child to an indoor rock climbing team
If your child is between the ages of nine and 12 and has never tried rock climbing, then you’re in for a happy surprise! At this age, kids have the strength, coordination, and problem-solving skills to pick up rock climbing very quickly. Most climbing gyms will take your child into their youth climbing team regardless of your child’s level of experience, but before signing up it’s always a great idea to try a few drop-in sessions first.
At this age, teams can be recreational or competitive, depending on the interest and commitment of your child. The most important thing at this age is to keep rock climbing fun and avoid overtraining. Rock climbing is a great sport that can carry on well into adulthood. I started climbing when I was 11 and I’m still climbing today—well into my 30s. At heart, it’s more important to cultivate a lifelong enjoyment in being active than push a child towards burnout and dropout.
Age 13+: Introduce your teen to recreational or competitive indoor rock climbing
Let’s be honest, rock climbing is a cool sport. Indoor climbing gyms are a great place for teens to hang out. They’re safe, friendly, and diverse places where everyone is accepted regardless of “athletic” abilities, gender, or body type. If your teen balks at the idea of PE class and refuses to join any sort of sport, try rock climbing. Youth rock climbing is a fast-growing sport and most indoor climbing gyms have recreational and competitive teams for teens.
Transitioning to outdoor rock climbing
Does your child want to try outdoor rock climbing? Making the transition from indoor rock climbing to outdoor rock climbing is a big jump. While there’s some overlap between the two types, outdoor rock climbing has more inherent risks and requires a specific set of skills, equipment, and knowledge to do it safely. If this is something you’d like to try with your child and you have no previous outdoor climbing experience, it’s very important to take a rock-climbing course from a reputable instructor. Another option is to hire a rock-climbing guide to take you to see if it’s something you and your child will enjoy. Outdoor climbing is one of my favourite ways of exploring nature with my kid!
Do you want more info?
I hope you found this guide to introducing your child to rock climbing helpful. If you’re looking for more tips and advice feel free to reach out to your local indoor climbing gyms or post your questions in the comments section below.