Climbing trees – risk and adventure

This is a Guest Post from Nick Jackson, Play Development Manager at the Learning Trust who knows a thing or two about outdoor play and works closely with the many staff, volunteers and young people that love Hackney’s adventure playgrounds. If this inspires you to get involved with your local adventure playground do let us know, and we can put you in touch with them.

Climbing a tree seems like the quintessential childhood experience. Most people I talk to over the age of 30 have climbing trees as one of their most preciously held childhood memories. I did it myself – a lot!

Yet for children growing up today in an urban environment such as Hackney it is becoming quite a rare experience.

‘Well, it is dangerous’, I hear you say.

Yes, there is a risk. The risk is that you might fall out of the tree and hurt yourself. You might even break a bone – your arm perhaps. But I would argue that the enjoyment and satisfaction of doing it far outweighs the risk. And even a broken arm will heal up in a few weeks.

It is like learning to ride a bike. At some point the stabilisers have to come off and the learner rider will fall off. They may get bruises and cuts, or even break a wrist. But we all know that the joy of bike riding is worth it.

The risk in tree climbing is very apparent, and if you are careful it can be avoided.

The problem is that if you never try, you’ll never be able to experience and manage that risk for yourself. You will be relying on (usually) an adult telling you that ‘climbing trees is dangerous’. But we don’t learn much from what people tell us. We need to experience for ourselves in order to fully appreciate the circumstances of a situation.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of watching my Mum doing the ironing. ‘Don’t touch the iron, it’s hot’ she told me. So as soon as her back was turned I put my hand flat against the iron. Wow did it hurt! But it was a big lesson that I never forgot.

Climbing a tree teaches you a lot about yourself, physically, mentally and emotionally.

How far can you stretch; can you lift your own weight; do you dare reach for that next branch; why does climbing up seem easier than climbing down; look at the view from up here – I can see my house! Some bark is scratchy; what is the sticky stuff coming out of the tree? Isn’t it amazing the way the tree sways in the breeze? I’m a pirate at the top of the mast!

At Hackney’s adventure playgrounds, I’m glad to say that tree climbing is alive and well. Of course the activity is supervised by experienced Playworkers. Children can practice on smaller trees and then progress to bigger ones when they feel confident. And the sense of accomplishment and achievement on the faces of the children is a beautiful thing to behold.

We need to encourage our children to try things out for themselves. That is part of the basic philosophy of our adventure playgrounds. The step into the unknown – the adventure – is what childhood is all about. And we do our children a disservice if we don’t give them the opportunity to experience as much as possible for themselves.

This post first appeared on the Learning Trust’s blog site.

This seems a particularly suitable topic just now when the trees are so invitingly bare and just right for practising on, so you will be able to climb right up them later when they are clothed in leaves. And to remind us of  the joys of tree climbing, I offer thanks to @HodderGeography for sending me this great cartoon by Grant Snider from

Don’t you just love outdoor play? We’d love to hear about trees you or yours have climbed, or see pictures if you can post to Facebook

8 Responses to “Climbing trees – risk and adventure”
  1. Anna says:

    When I was a little girl, my brother and I had a homemade den in a tree in our garden and when my friends came to play they often looked on in horror as I leapt up the branches. I suppose little girls aren’t always encouraged to do those kinds of activities but my parents were very open-minded. I hope I can be just the same with my kids when they’re old enough to climb trees!

    • Cath Prisk says:

      Thanks for posting, I’m sure you will be. Risk and challenge are important for everyone, boys and girls. I loved climbing trees as much as the next kid – and doing handstands and cartwheels! Keep playing, and do let us know what your kids like getting up to too.

  2. buffyproject says:

    So, so true. Climbing trees was one of my favorite activities as a kid and one of the things I’m looking forward to trying again this summer. Oh yeah.

  3. Great post!

    I wanted to provide credit and link to the cartoonist too (we just came across it on one of our Internet browsing) – comic drawn by Grant Snider @Grantdraws

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] guidance advocates, in short, a ‘risk-benefit’ approach. So yes, children climbing trees could conceivably fall out and hurt themselves. But think of the benefits: children who develop a […]

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