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Teach Your Kids to Climb

By Nancy Prichard - August 2nd, 2000

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Children have a natural inclination to climb, and teaching them how to do it safely is a good idea, especially if you enjoy the sport as well. The way I see it, if you live by the water, you make sure your children know how to swim. If you live by rocks and mountains, you teach your children to climb. Rather than the inevitable trial-and-error experimentation most of us remember from our early climbing trips, there's no question that it is preferable to have them learn about the forces of gravity while protected by a rope, harness and helmet.

Because of the development of indoor climbing walls, climbing lessons for kids are now as convenient and safe as swimming or soccer lessons. The sport promotes coordination, balance and muscle development, as well as judgment and leadership. It is also a great way for children to learn about teamwork and responsibility. And finally, climbing is fun whether you are five or 50.

Depending on body size, coordination, strength and interest, children can be introduced to roped climbing by the age of four or five. Whether or not they're ready for climbing will be obvious once you get to the rock or artificial wall. If they like it, they'll do it cheerfully. If they aren't interested, or are scared, don't push them. If your child is timid about heights, let him or her bounce around on the end of the rope. Eventually, he or she will begin to watch other people climb and want to do it himself/herself.

Don't expect a child of four or five to remember details, but always emphasize proper safety practices. If possible, make the first few climbing experiences one-on-one. Stress the essentials (like "always have someone check your buckle and knot before your climb"), but avoid a school-like atmosphere. Remember, you and your child are a climbing team, not a teacher and student.

Regardless of a child's age, always talk through the correct steps in preparation for a climb, and repeat them frequently. While they may not remember details from session to session, they will at least understand the importance of correct safety procedures. Climbing partners always double-check each other's knots and buckles as a matter of course, so get your kid in the habit from day one.

Make sure the first climbing experience is short and easy. Don't pick a route that involves two hours of difficult hiking. Select a short, extremely easy climb close to the road. Pick something that is low-angled with lots of big, obvious holds. It is best to top-rope a child, with you on the ground, so you can watch or coach. Or have two experienced climbers involved, with one belaying and the other coaching. Make sure the anchor is directly above the climb. You don't want your pupil to take a wild pendulum or to swing into the rocks when he falls.

Above all, be positive. There's nothing worse than a parent yelling at a child for not performing up to expectations. If the child can't complete a climb, congratulate him/her on the moves he/she did make, and encourage him/her to try again. Remember that climbing is a terrific life-long sport, so there's no reason to rush things. Also, since being a famous climber and 50 cents won't buy a cup of coffee, there's no reason to become a Hollywood mom in hopes of cultivating a future sports star! If the kid's had enough, go out for ice cream and a debriefing of the day's bravery and glory. Part of what makes climbing special is the time spent around the campfire (or at the local watering hole), recounting the day's events. Give your child a taste of that camaraderie by spending some time after climbing talking about routes and moves. Not only is it a great team-building exercise, it's good for parent-child relations as well.

Many parents find that it is easier to climb with their children after a couple of formal lessons. You can sign your children up for a course by themselves, or take a course together. The indoor-wall environment is less intimidating for children, but don't discount outdoor programs.


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