Climbing without falling


Small children, by preference, seem to want to climb before they can walk. I have often wondered, in our quest to prevent accidents, are we also preventing valuable learning and achievement?

I climbed up by myself!

Of course I am not advocating deliberately allowing your curious and headstrong toddler to injure himself. But as the nanny of a child who climbed up and fell off the kitchen table so many times by the time he was 16 months old that I was seriously considering a padded helmet, I realise that not all accidents can be prevented. I also realised that very young children – even babies, as soon as their legs are strong enough – have an inbuilt need to climb and explore, and that given the chance and a bit of practice, could be capable of much more than mere furniture climbing.

I decided early on never to squash this desire for exploration.

This same child, at nearly three, now fearlessly and joyfully scales much greater heights and never falls. Trees are much safer than tables, after all – more hand-holds!

I was the nursery teacher of another three year old who fearfully refused to climb a single step up anything, so worried was she of falling. I began to question excessive parental caution. Her mother always told her “Don’t climb up there….it’s dangerous….you’ll fall!” and as a consequence, she lost all faith in her own abilities.

When our very small child climbs, are we always wise to hold onto them? How will they gain any sense of their own capabilities, and learn to trust their bodies and sense of balance, if we are always supporting and directing them? They are born without fear, trusting themselves and the world. Are they more, or less, likely to fall and hurt themselves if we always hold them and tell them to be careful?

I developed a way of standing near, hovering for safety, saying encouraging words, but without actually touching a climbing child. I learned from the children that they start off believing they can do ANYTHING they desire. It’s only us who limit their potential with our anxieties. But if I think they can do it, they think they can do it. If I believe in them….so do they.

This little girl, aged two, surprised me with her strength and agility as she swung herself across the high bar and down the fireman’s pole…look at the muscles on those baby legs!

little climber

The same child, two years later and superbly fit, is now a rather more adventurous climber …..

Four years old. Hanging 6 feet off the ground and giving me nightmares about head injuries and paraplegia! How can those tiny hands hold on so tight? But nevertheless I have to admire her.

I know another two year old who takes the greatest pleasure in climbing high into the trees at every opportunity, and is as relaxed and at home up there as a little squirrel. I think she is amazing. She thinks this is totally natural, the trees are her friends and it’s the best fun in the world. But could every child be this amazing if we simply let go of our fears and let them explore? Rainforest children shin up trees like monkeys, after all. You can always stand underneath!

Note: climbing barefoot is much easier and safer.

I now tend to trust a child to follow his instincts, and try to encourage his own motivation. A child learns to trust his own judgement if you show trust in him. By surrounding a child with a richly sensory environment in which he is free to follow his own inclination to reach out and discover, he becomes a bold adventurer who desires to conquer the unknown. Moreover, he develops a strong sense of spatial awareness. Skilful mastery over his own body also develops strong self esteem, which comes naturally from achievement – not necessarily from praise.

I never, EVER say “Don’t climb, you’ll fall.” I find this makes a child anxious and more likely to fall! Instead I encourage him by saying, “If you feel safe climbing up there, then I’m sure you’ll be OK. What strong hands you have! You are a very good climber. You are holding on so tightly!” The child then trusts himself, relaxes and climbs safely and confidently.

Nobody needs to teach a child to climb. They have an inbuilt urge to climb. They LOVE a challenge. And I really think challenging their own limits does them a lot of good. They learn perseverance, gain confidence and become strong, agile and fit. It IS possible for a very young child to climb safely and easily and attempt daredevil feats that scare the **** out of us lesser mortals. Just look at children who live in the rainforest! I watch these English children every day doing a fraction of what forest dwelling children can do, and only wish I had their fearlessness and self-belief.

About Cathy Owen

I have enjoyed working and playing with children for over 20 years, starting with a holiday job as mother's helper to two different families and babysitting for neighbours from the age of 17. My experience since then includes working with children from 3 months to 12 years, in schools, nurseries, toddler groups and homes, as a teacher assistant, play leader, special needs facilitator, after school and holiday club supervisor/planner, childminder, and currently as a private nanny and creative play specialist. My Discovery Boxes developed out of my observation and interaction with young children and a desire to enter and enrich their world. Children are our greatest teachers; their imagination has a magical quality that makes the world a more exciting and wondrous place. I love nothing better than to join them in this adventure that is life and see where we can journey together! To learn more about my way of working, see my posts.

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