|PATC-MS climber John Podraza coaching his daughter at Carderock, MD|
Often I am asked by parents how to encourage their little ones to climb and what kind of gear is needed.
Children are natural climbers. They begin their lives crawling and exploring. I’m sure many parents can relate to stories of babies trying to climb out of their cribs. Put a curious child outside and their natural instinct directs them to the nearest boulder or tree to climb. Sadly, these natural tendencies are squelched by television, video games, and other various forms of indoor entertainment.
Parents should encourage these natural tendencies to explore the outdoor world. Just let them roam and don't restrict them when exploring! Of course, spot the child to prevent serious injury but don't be overbearing. Over-protection reduces confidence in their own body. Let them naturally figure out how to use their body. A few scraped knees and elbows never hurt anyone in the long run. Explore every tree and every boulder and every ladybug and beetle to be found on those trees and boulders while playing outside! Just have fun!! That's what it's all about and sadly, some parents forget that.
For a very young child “climbing” outside, you don't really need specific gear to scramble and explore. Children have been doing this for thousands of years.
When you decide to go the route of sport specific gear and structured climbing, be sure to check the rules and regulations of the local gym. Typically, outdoor climbing programs will not start accepting applicants until they are a older (around 14 yrs), but I have seen very little ones (as young as 3 or 4) scrambling up and down indoor walls. Obviously, the parents and gym staff belay and tie all of their knots. Gyms have varying regulations on who is allowed to belay for the children and how old a child must before he or she is allowed to belay.
Gear you will need for a young child in the gym- full body harness, not the waist-only harness (older children can use waist-only harness)
How do you know when it’s time to graduate from the full body harness to the waist harness? Here is one dad’s perspective: “When she demanded that she didn't want to wear the baby harness any more :-(
I felt it was safe at the point were the hips where big enough to keep from sliding out if she went upside down.” - Mike Dannhardt
- helmet. Although climbing helmets are sport specific, I have seen young children wear bicycle helmets for economically-minded parents. Be sure the helmet is big enough to cover the forehead and extends over the back of the neck. Avoid the “Mushroom-top” look, which exposes the face and neck to injury.
- shoes. Young children probably do not need climbing specific shoes. However, if they become dedicated and want to climb pre-set routes, shoes are helpful. Fit them loose since young feet grow fast. They will eventually fit tight (like climbing shoes are supposed to fit) before they become too tight and it’s time to buy the next size up.
Gyms typically have children’s gear for rent or buy. Reputable brands include Black Diamond, Petzl, Mammut, Marmot, and Misty Mountain. Most importantly, check that the gear you buy is rated by the UIAA. http://www.theuiaa.org/safety_labels_products.php
I do not recommend buying used climbing gear unless you are 100% sure of its history and you know its safety rating has not be compromised (i.e. getting gear from a trusted friend). Shoes are exempt from this rule.
Two father’s perspective on coaching your young child:
“One thing that I found that helps motivate and encourage is to plan trips to climb with their friends. Sometimes they'll try to out do each other which is great. Other times they distract each other to the point where none of them are climbing very much (on rope) but they are still outdoors and scrambling around even if they don't realize it!”
-Mike Dannhardt, climber and father
“Hazel started climbing just before she turned 3, with a lot of
coaching. Around age 4 she was starting to get it, and climb with
less coaching, so 3.5 to 4.5 is a reasonable age to start. They
forget to place their feet so it helps if you coach them on that.
Any shoe with a thin sole is great, ie: water shoes, ballet shoes work
great. Sneakers soles are often too wide and thick.
She uses the Petzl Simba Climbing Harness, which worked fine when she
started climbing. I did tape the excess straps out of the way.”
- Mike Baur, climber and father
Enjoy the vertical journey with your child and have fun!