A boy climbs a tree

The simple joy of climbing trees

My childhood suburban backyard didn’t have a double-decker play structure or a swimming pool, but my brother and I (and the gaggle of neighbourhood kids who inevitably wandered over) were never lost for things to do.

With a smile on his face, the author's brother swings on an empty fridge box hanging from a tree in their childhood yard.
The author’s brother on the fridge-box swing

Red Light-Green Light was a popular game on hazy summer afternoons, lawn chairs and broom handles made for challenging “horse jumps,” and my dad hoisting an empty fridge box into our huge maple as a makeshift swing was a legendary day that’s still talked about.

But it was the two gnarled apple trees along the fence that garnered the most action. Standing tall year-round, their skewed branches invited quiet conversations between friends tucked amongst the fragrant spring buds, and races to see who could be the first to hang upside down from the highest limb. Those twin trees flourished with us until eventually, their branches didn’t seem so high anymore, and a new generation of kids came along. 

While my fondness for trees and their soul-soothing presence has continued over the decades with walks and hikes through nearby woods and far-off forests, my nine-year-old’s appreciation for trees takes a much more pragmatic approach. “Trees,” he says, “are for climbing.” A self-proclaimed “playground expert,” he sometimes tires of the plastic and metal monkey bars and structures and will wander off to conquer the treed zone around parks.

“Do you think I can do this one?” he’ll ask, waving his hand in the general direction of a linden or oak.

“I’m not sure. Do you think you can?” And with that he’ll be off, studying the height and sturdiness of branches and mentally mapping out a route before hoisting himself up.

A simple joy—with benefits

The time-honoured (and sometimes pushed aside) childhood pursuit of tree-climbing is one of the simplest forms of pleasure for many kids. Although some parents may be wary of what is often perceived as risky, research has shown that tree-climbing is in fact a healthy activity for children with a slew of developmental benefits. 

  • Tree-climbing requires whole-body movement, making it an excellent way to increase physical strength and gross motor skills.
  • Climbing develops the vestibular system, the system that provides the sense of balance and information about body position.
  • Children exercise their fine-motor skills and develop grip, strength, and dexterity.
  • It improves hand-eye coordination. 
  • All that stretching and reaching can help children become more flexible.
  • Figuring out which steps and where to take them helps children negotiate real-time problem-solving.
  • It can improve cognitive skills and awareness of body orientation and positioning (proprioception).
  • It helps improve cognitive skills and working memory, the active processing of information.
  • Climbing trees can help develop confidence and love of movement—essential to physical literacy.
  • Smooth branches, rough bark, and aromatic leaves provide a rich sensory experience.
  • Climbing trees helps connect children with nature—a mental well-being boost and stress reliever.
  • Tree climbing encourages child-directed play.

“The results indicated that even though tree climbing can result in minor injuries, it is a relatively safe outdoor activity. Children afforded the opportunity to be involved in risky play such as tree climbing grow socially, emotionally, physically, cognitively, and creatively, and have increased resiliency.”

-Study on the benefits and risks of tree-climbing

Tree climbing also develops skills that transfer to other activities and sports. On a recent visit to a bouldering gym, my son looked up at the wall in front of him, fully confident in his climbing abilities. “I can climb to the top of that big tree in the yard—I got this.”

Climbing trees also goes beyond physical and can become an exercise in imagination. For my son, trees have been spaceships complete with a separate science lab, sleeping quarters, and kitchen on each “floor” of the tree. They’ve been places to hang out with stuffies for a tea party, and they’re secret spots where you can steal away out of the range of pesky siblings, or hang out with a popsicle and a good book. Tree-climbing and the search to find that “perfect” tree also encourages exploration and connection.

“Mommy, watch this!” he calls before reaching for a branch formerly out of his grasp.

“Hold on,” I call up. “I’m coming up to meet you!”

Photos courtesy of Christine Latreille.

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2 responses to “The simple joy of climbing trees

  1. Fantastic! recapturing the natural skill of out door game common with the less privilege and suburb dwellers. If it is possible to integrate this in our school curriculum, the strengths will out way the weaknesses.

  2. My nephew is bringing his two little boys for me to babysit for a couple of hours tomorrow. I was
    wondering how to keep them occupied. After reading this article I think I will introduce them to the linden tree in my back yard and the red maple in my front yard. Thanks for this article.

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