A young boy hangs from the monkey bars at a playground.

Why some kids struggle on the monkey bars

We received a question from a reader about the challenges her daughter faced when attempting the monkey bars at school. Below is the question, along with some of our best advice when it comes to monkey bars for kids and why some children struggle with them.

Q: My daughter is in Grade 1 and she likes to play on the school playset with her friends, but she made a comment at dinner recently that worried me a little. She said that the other kids were “a lot better” than her on the monkey bars, and I could tell that she was feeling bad about herself. She’s a bit big for her age – not overweight but just large – and I’m wondering if that could be part of it.  Is there any way we could help her improve on the monkey bars?

If your daughter is bigger than most of her classmates, it sounds like she is probably just struggling with her ratio of muscle mass to overall body mass. This is pretty common at young ages. Swinging on the monkey bars requires a lot of arm strength in relation to total body mass, as well as much stronger hand grip. As a consequence, it is generally much easier for a small child to swing from rung to rung on the monkey bars than a big child the same age.

Everyone has different body types and grows at different speeds

You don’t have anything to worry about with your daughter. You might simply want to explain to her that everyone has different body types and grows at different speeds, and that she will likely catch up with her peers on the monkey bars as everyone grows over the next year or two.

I would hazard to guess that your daughter, due to her size, probably performs better than her classmates in some other physical activities. If this is true, you might want to point this out to her.

In general, children who are big at an early age will often dominate in some physical activities, such as sprinting, throwing a baseball, or kicking a soccer ball for distance. However, as your daughter is seeing, they will often struggle with activities related to “gymnastics” type movements, such as swinging on monkey bars, or doing forward rolls and somersaults.

Movement skills change over time

This doesn’t mean that you should discourage your daughter from playing on the monkey bars. To the contrary – you can explain to her that everyone’s movement skills will change over time according to our rates of growth and the degree to which we practice different skills. You can also point out that we often have different talents and abilities, and we don’t always have to be the best in everything we do.

Hopefully, she will continue playing on the monkey bars and developing her motor skills. This assumes that she actually likes the monkey bars and she is having fun. It shouldn’t become a “job” for her or something that she is “graded” on.

A further thought: You could consider registering your daughter in a high quality, introductory gymnastics program. She might struggle with learning certain movements, but it will greatly enhance her balance, coordination and strength in the long term.

As well, in the process, it will likely help her abilities in other physical activities and increase her overall confidence in different activity environments.

The importance of risky play and outdoor play

It’s important to note that swinging on monkey bars can be considered a form of risky play, and the Canadian Paediatric Society released a new recommendation this year regarding the importance of risky play in a child’s development. The recommendation says that unstructured play, particularly outdoor risky play, has a crucial role in the physical, mental, and social development of children. This can mean climbing trees or playground equipment, playing on monkey bars and other types of outdoor play. While doing so, children should be kept “as safe as necessary” but not as safe as possible. So exploring the monkey bars, while maybe difficult, can end up being an important part of your child’s growth and development.

Overall, there is a lesson here that all kids benefit from learning: we don’t have to be the best in everything we do. We might be more adept than our peers in some activities, and less adept in others. The important thing is to have fun during playtime and develop the abilities we have.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on May 1, 2014.

Read more about physical literacy:

17 responses to “Why some kids struggle on the monkey bars

  1. Thank you for this helpful article. I have six-year-old twins. They have almost always done the same sports, lots of outdoor play, learned to ride bike at the same time, etc. My child who is more muscular and heavier set struggles more with gymnastic activities, things like monkey bars, and also swimming (doesn’t float as easily). My child who has a lighter, leaner build does things like gymnastics, climbing, swimming and monkey bars more easily, but is slower at biking and throwing skills. I really appreciate how you pointed out the different strengths of different body types and that we don’t have to be the best in every area. The most important thing is to enjoy physical activity, be healthy, and if you really want to do something determination, effort, and practice (as well as a focus on technique) will probably get you there, even if it takes a little longer than for some others who might be more ‘naturally gifted’ at it from their genetics.

  2. Me, a 11 yr old girl, is much stronger, denser, and taller than all my friends. All of them can do the monkey bars, but me. My little sister made fun of me today when I tried again and again. She said I would never succeed. It’s not my fault, I’m part Native American and my sister is mostly European and she can eat anything she wants and not gain a pound. My sister has trouble lifting a one gallon milk jug when I lift it with a finger. Meanwhile, I’m not allowed dessert a lot because of my genetics when she can eat as much as she wants.

    This article and comments made me feel better.

    1. I am also 11, i struggled a lot on the monkey bars but my dutch friend mastered it on like her first go! I have another friend who also struggles but i kept on going and also mastered it. My friend decided to not work hard so she is still weak and cqnt do it her excuse is she is too tall but,i am taller than her and i can do it.Hard work pays off so keep trying!

      1. I’m 10 and I tried to do the monkey bars today. In general my ratio of height and weight is 95 and 60. My friend are a bit taller but weigh a little less that me. But I am overall much stronger than them. I have a lot of trouble with holding up my own weight. They have absolutely no trouble though. So I believe that it is just because you can’t hold up your own weight and that it is not a big deal that you may not be able to do it. :)

  3. You know, I am an older adult in my fifties, and I just recently, in the last few years, understood why I was so poor at the monkey bars a son a child. The name ‘monkey bars’ should have given me a clue. You are supposed to swing from one to the other. I just used to hang there, with all of my weight on my hands, like dead weight, and grasp one bar after the other before letting go, my hands burning. Time to give it another shot now that I understand the concept! In fact, I just fully understood walking tin the last couple of years – that you use your leg muscles to push off the ground. I’m not kidding. These basics concepts of human movement had never occurred to me, and I am a person who has been a runner and cyclist on and off all of my life. It’s like I needed someone to tell me the basics.

  4. When I was her age, I saw the others doing the monkey bars without a problem but when I tried it out, I couldn’t get past the first bar because I didn’t really know how to do it other than what I’ve observed but then I get stung by a bee, RIGHT ON MY FINGER! It caused me to fall off the bar. Ouch! Then I ran to the nurse and explained the incident. I never went anywhere near the bars again, even as an adult, I’m still scared of them and never learned how to climb the monkey bars! Even now, I haven’t let go of this odd phobia.

  5. Hello All,
    I think beside ecnouraging words for our kids who can’t do much such as monkey bars etc, we should also look for what sort of vitamin or minerals they are missing for muscle strength etc, my 1 year old boy has same issues, he is good in some sports such as cricket but can’t climb much or for longer than many other kids, so i just searched what shall I do for him and i landed here on this page. cheers

  6. Completely agree. My 6 year old daughter has been in tears about monkey bars this summer. She is already 4 foot seven and weighs 68 lb. So much bigger than her peers but not overweight. We are a very outdoorsy family and she been in forests and parks almost daily in her life so nothing to do with lack of exposure. She also cannot do a somersault but can drive a golf ball like an adult. Genetic changes are real!

  7. My 10 daughter can’t do monkey bars, her twin sister can. But they are not identical and very different. Both are much taller than all their friends but one is naturally quite a bit heavier built. Not fat, not stocky or bulky looking, but just solid. They both get all the exercise they want and need and a balanced diet. One has just put on quite a bit more muscle mass but not developed the strength to deal with that muscle mass. We are working on it but it is a slow process and makes her very unhappy to see all that her sister can do. The article was spot on for us and makes sense. Some of the disparaging comments following it are neither valid or helpful though. Children are individuals and not to be written off with sweeping statements or judgement of parenting.

  8. Let’s remember that “bigger” and “large” doesn’t mean “overweight”.

    Children grow at different rates, which is why you see some Grade 1 kids who are as tall as children in Grade 4.

    Kids with greater muscle mass are also going to need much greater arm strength to swing on monkey bars when compared to lithe, lean kids.

  9. This post was a little different as expected. I’m a parent to two kids that are very good at monkey bars so much as kids and parents are pointing this out. Why can’t my kids do that. Nope it is not because of gymnastics. It is because they have been allowed to climb trees and play outside every day from an early age.

  10. Sorry but I disagree..
    Children are good at what they are exposed to. For example I take my children to the park three times a week and have taught them to use the monkey bars quite adeptly. By age 3 my daughter was using hand over hand on the monkey bars and by age 4 she was doing it forward and backward. In addition to this I also had a high engagement in physical movement with my children from the time they were born. There agility and coordination are a result of engaged planning and purpose. It is pretty simple, we are what we repeatedly do, so if children are exposed to and are highly active their adaptation to various physical activities will be with ease regardless of size.

    As a comparison, if my children came home upset about not being able to play the piano, I would look at her and say, “well sweetie you have to practice at something to be good, do you want to do this, lets find someone who can teach you piano”. The same advice should be given to this child/parent, if you want to be good at something it takes exposure and practice.
    If a child is on the large side this is more often than not the result of environment and their engagement in activity. Yes genetically some children are big, but if they are exposed to lots of physical activity their strength will develop accordingly.
    In my opinion your article is a cough out and the reason we are facing a generation of children whose life span will not be greater than their parents, obesity epidemic…..

    1. Deon, are you saying that if one six-year-old child is 4 feet tall, and her classmate is 3 foot 6 inches, that this difference is the result of their relative amounts of engagement in activity? On their own, physical activity and practice do not account for all variations in size and physical coordination. There are very real principles of growth and maturation involved, and growth and maturation can vary dramatically between different children. This is genetically determined and well-researched. You might have read the story above and imagined that it was comparing children with different levels of “fitness” and movement experience. Just to clarify, that is not what is being discussed here. You can actually have children with equal physical fitness and movement experience (e.g. total hours of practice) and still have significantly different outcomes in coordination and performance. Differences in limb length ratios, torso length, maturation of the central nervous system, etc. — all of these things have an impact on performance, and they are mostly contingent on genetics and/or rates of maturation.

    2. ???????????????????? Some kids like me are at an increased risk to get FSHd muscular dystrophy and I absolutely hate how ignorant people can be! I was in very good shape at 5 to 7 but I could never do the monkey bars, but all my friends could. And they thought I was just fat, lazy, didn’t try. I worked hard to be able to do the monkey bars but still can’t today, 9 years later. Please just think of these things because knowing that I may have FSHd and being bullied and pressured about my strength is not exactly the greatest place to be. It’s great that you get your kids to be active, I encourage that, but don’t put down others especially if you don’t know what situation they are in. I do as many push-ups and I try to lift weights but there is a limit I am confined to, and I’m really worried I have FSHd because if I already show symptoms, that’s really bad. Be glad you have perfectly healthy children, because you are very lucky.

    3. Your take on perfection is wrong and very one dimensional. All humans are different, and even if your children came home upset not being able to play the piano, it would not mean they hadn’t tried! Same goes for sport and certain movement, some things come easy to some and not to others!! We are all different and there are a whole host of variables to consider, not just your very small minded hierarchy in thinking of blanket perfectionism! Perhaps you should learn to spell properly using the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’…..?

  11. Great blog here Jim. Every child is different and oftentimes parents compare children to other children which can lead to misconceptions. When we see children comparing it is up to us as positive role models to reinforce their individualism!

    Love it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *