Should I let my kid climb trees? We asked five experts

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

We often remember childhood as a time when life seemed infinite and adventures in our backyard felt expansive, as if we were exploring other worlds.

Climbing a tree was its own adventure. You could discover what you were capable of, while also getting the chance to see the world from a different vantage point.

Of course, sometimes you'd fall. But that's to be expected – there's a risk in every journey of discovery.

Parents want their children to enjoy the same joys of childhood they look back on fondly, but many struggle with getting the balance right – how much freedom can you give while also making sure your child is safe?

We asked five experts – including a paediatric surgeon who operates on children who've fallen out of a tree – if it's OK to let kids climb trees.

Five out of five experts said yes

Brendon Hyndman - Physical education lecturer - YES

Climbing trees strengthens children's muscles and can help them meet national physical activity recommendations. We also know climbing requires balance, coordination, is highly enjoyable and can help children work out their physical abilities.

Children are drawn to climbing trees often because it's a way to calculate and overcome moderate levels of physical risk. Overcoming movement challenges is an important step in helping children develop confidence and value movement.

Connecting with nature also improves well-being and helps detach kids from the digital world. For younger children, large tree trunks can instil a sense of adventure. Similar to teachers assessing conditions for physical education, parents can gently monitor the suitability of trees for children's "climbing freedom" (looking at elements such as tree width, branch heights, access and weight support).

Lisa Sharwood - Injury epidemiologist - YES

Play is a vital part of childhood. It encourages and challenges children's physical, emotional and social development. It's crucial children don't just play in formally-equipped areas but also have contact with the natural environment.

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Risk-taking is an essential feature of play, providing kids with challenges and stimulating them to learn. But there needs to be balance between offering risk and keeping children safe.

Although standards for playground safety may not include trees, they provide valuable information about risks of heights, safe footing and judgement. Falls are the most common reason for injury in children. Playground safety standards permit fall heights of 3m for climbing equipment but no greater than 1.8m for children under five.

Young adults may face the risk of serious injury as they enter the workforce in some sectors. Teaching children to carefully negotiate risks in a play environment is a significant developmental lesson for their future.

Rebecca English - Teacher educator - YES

Absolutely. Climbing trees is important for children's development, particularly of their self and spatial awareness, and of their own strengths and capabilities. It promotes freedom and it's thrilling.

Psychologist Peter Gray notes that, in the 1950s, all kids climbed trees. He argues risky play, like tree climbing, makes kids happier, more resilient and self-reliant while improving academic outcomes. Studies from Norway suggest climbing trees has an "anti-phobic effect" on children, meaning it gives them the chance to take risks, explore their fears and tenacity.

SV Soundappan - Paediatric surgeon - YES

On average, 30 per cent of children that come to our hospital who require trauma-team activation (children likely to have serious injuries) sustain injuries from a fall. About 10 per cent of these falls are from a tree.

Their injuries range from minor cuts and bruises to more serious injuries like fractures, head injuries and bleeding from internal organs. Most fractures and internal organ injuries will heal within a few weeks to months and children can return to normal.

Head injuries may need long-term rehabilitation, but these are a rarity and fatal injuries even more so. With the current epidemic of obesity, outdoor activities should be encouraged, but with supervision.

Not every child will want to climb a tree but if they do, let them know what trees they can and cannot climb, make sure the environment around is safe, set some rules, be around to supervise and let them enjoy a healthy childhood.

Shelby Laird - Environmental educator - YES

Children should climb trees but parents should know there will always be risks involved (as with almost every other aspect of growing up). In fact, the risk involved in tree climbing and other outdoor play activities is part of the benefit for children.

Children develop the ability to assess risk by taking age- or ability- appropriate risks. Some researchers have even theorised we are doing a disservice by not allowing children risk-taking experiences. Connecting children with the natural world also has plenty of benefits – from reducing ADHD symptoms to lowering the risk of developing myopia (nearsightedness).

So, when your kids are ready, find a good steady tree with lots of limbs, give them some pointers from your childhood and encourage them to climb and explore. Just be ready to help them navigate the consequences when they overestimate their climbing ability and discuss strategies to help them be more successful with their next climb.

Sasha Petrova​ is the Section Editor: Education.

Brendon Hyndman is a Senior Lecturer in Personal Development, Health & Physical Education / Course Director of Postgraduate Studies in Education at Charles Sturt University.

Lisa Nicole Sharwood is an Injury epidemiologist at the University of Sydney.

Rebecca English is a Lecturer in Education at the Queensland University of Technology.

SV Soundappan is a Senior Lecturer, Paediatric Surgery at the University of Sydney.

Shelby Gull Laird  is an Adjunct Graduate Faculty at Stephen F. Austin State University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.