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What can we learn from climbing trees?

Boy climbing tree with ropes


By Claire Heald
BBC News

Tree climbing is out of favour, with children more likely to hurt themselves falling out of bed than off their arboreal perch. So if they fail to branch out, are they missing out?

Professional tree-climber Paul McCathie can dangle happily at 60 feet up, in the canopy of a mature oak. He has ascended to his lookout spot with help from some non-traditional ropes and a harness.

Above the ground and among the leaves, there's a view, a feeling of light, calm detachment from everyday worries and the physical buzz from the conquering effort to get there.

You learn to take risk, assess risk and manage failure
Ruth Coppard
Child psychologist

"Trees are generally in the background and we take them for granted," he says.

"But when people climb them, all of a sudden they are aware of all the particles that make up the tree.

"Rather than it just being 'that green thing over there', they see the texture of the bark, branches going out and all the things that go into making it."

Blyton-style childhood

His extreme sport is a take on a pastime that is fast dropping out of favour with children, however.

Figures from accident and emergency departments in England show that injuries from tree falls are down amongst the under-15s. In 1999-2000, 1,823 cases went to casualty. By 2006-7, that number was down to 1,067, according to hospital statistics.

Tree climbing in its heyday

Children are more likely to injure themselves in a tumble out of bed - 2,531, up from 2,226 in the same period.

This trend is not thought to be because their climbing skill is increasing, rather because they are climbing trees less often.

Adults who take part in climbing workshops such as Paul's reminisce about the hours spent in tree branches during a Blyton-like childhood of dawn-to-dusk free play or cheeky scrumping antics.

For young people, it can often be a first-time experience, and they tend to be more reticent, more risk-averse.

Climbing trees is often discouraged or ruled out at nurseries and schools. Instead, children are directed to soft-surface, official play areas in parks or at home, where injury figures are slightly up.

Monkey moniker

Broken wrists, fractured femurs or any injury to a child is nothing to celebrate, but does it matter if they choose not to climb trees?

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the charity charged with promoting safety, says it has "nothing against" it. Like "getting muddy, wet and stung by nettles" it is part of childhood and can stand you in good stead.

Girl climbing in 1999
Fresh air, risk and scratches, anyone?

Psychologists say youngsters more partial to computer games than being in the open air may bypass the physical and mental well-being boost from playing outside, immersed in nature.

Climbing trees teaches life skills and how to deal with the unexpected, they believe, which are lessons best learnt within the family or amongst friends.

Child psychologist Ruth Coppard says: "You learn to take risk, assess risk and manage failure.

"That it's much harder to come down than go up, or what to do if your mate falls on the floor."

Those abilities translate to later life, at work, or out and about.

"Learning to think long distance is good. Through steps one, two, three and four, aware of the benefits and pitfalls of any decisions."

"In life you are constantly taking risks. We all learn about "stranger danger", but at 18, who hasn't met somebody in a bar? You may not be climbing trees but you're are still assessing risks."

Mother and daughter playing
Some lessons are best learned at home, psychologists say

So why can't a purpose-built frame or set of monkey bars provide all of this?

Because the great outdoors is unreliable. It challenges judgement with unpredictability and consequences in a way that man-made structures cannot, she says.

Mr McCathie agrees. "A climbing frame is made to be accessible, whereas trees grow willy-nilly and you've got to work out ways of getting up to the next branch. It's just you, and the trees."

For many adults, tree-climbing provides fond childhood memories.

"Fresh air, a bit of danger, scratches and a 'look at the state of you' rollicking from my mum," says one Londoner who works in the City, James Stay. He climbed because his brothers did.

"But there was also the competition involved - 'Can you get higher than you did last time?'"

Falling out is just a "vague" memory, rather than a dramatic or traumatic one.

But not all youngsters are online addicts, avoiding the challenges of the outdoors.

"My 10-year-old nephew is particularly good at it [climbing trees] and I think that he does have the nickname of Monkey," says Mr Stay.

"But he is a country boy and is more likely to electrocute himself trying to work out how to plug in a Wii."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I grew up in the 70's, when every piece of playground equipment was surrounded by a sturdy concrete apron, so you had to be really careful when you rode your bicycle down the slide.

The sad fact is that all the park trees have their lower branches trimmed to prevent climbing. This is due to two factors, the myth of the compensations culture, which doesn't exist, and the widespread fear of all risk.
Pete Nightingale, Reading, UK

Just recently I have been taking walking excursions around London (Essex, Cambridgeshire, Sussex, etc) a couple of times a month, and I have gained a reputation for scampering up any available tree as soon as we stop. It really is a great way to assess your physical and psychological boundaries, develop problem-solving and path-finding skills, and generally have a lot of fun!
Gareth Welch, London

Another reason for the demise in tree-climbing could be that fewer children live close to climbable trees or are allowed to explore far enough away from home to reach one.
Lydia, London, Uk

I can see my children don't have the same freedom that I enjoyed as a child. So when they want to climb trees, I will be encouraging them rather than wrapping them in cotton wool as society would have us do. At, 36 I still like to climb the odd tree myself.
A Mclean, Caithness

I used to love climbing trees with my siblings as a child. Until I got to the top and couldn't work out how to get down that was! My sister fell out of a tree when she was about 11 and cut her underarm badly, on the way down on a rusty nail, requiring stitches and then some plastic surgery, she still has the scar to prove it. Great fun though, even with the bruises and scratches!
Naomi, London

I spent couple of years in my childhood in rural Bangladesh. Most of my free time was spent on trees - picking mangoes etc. We caught fishes from trees by chasing the hawks that caught big fish from the lakes and took to high branches of trees for eating. We threw stones until the hawk flew away, then we climbed the tree to get the fish.
Hasan, Surrey, UK

My son broke his wrist jumping from a tree in May 2006. In October 2007 he broke both bones in his ankle getting down from another tree. Is this really something we want to encourage?
Theresa Robinson, Cambridge

I seem to remember spending most of my childhood up one tree or another, with my knees usually covered in plasters... especially during school holidays. Climbing trees, falling in brooks, damming streams, having tea from billy cans with tramps in hedges and being chased by red-faced farmers waving shotguns just seemed part of every day life. Ah well. must get back now to my battery egg, fish-farmed salmon and washed bag of salad before I become too boring and perhaps get a paper cut and need to go to casualty.
Mike, Aylesbury

Even now (at 28) I mentally assess trees for their climbing potential. Trees are so much better than climbing frames as they're taller, more complex and far more rewarding. It takes skill and judgement to climb trees as you have to plan your route up and assess the trustworthiness of branches, handholds, footholds etc.

It may be a family thing. Mine has a favourite tree in the Surrey woods which we have regularly climbed when going for walks. Sometimes we have got three generations up the one tree all at once.
Ed M, Andover

I saw three schoolboys climbing a tree in a park on Saturday and actually pointed them out to my partner as an unusual sight. Bring back tree climbing I say, I'll definitely be encouraging my grandson Callum to climb trees in the future.
Gill, Cumbria UK

When I was a kid, I used to climb every tree I could find, often with a book in hand, to find a quiet corner where I could read undisturbed. If I was feeling particularly reckless, I'd climb to the top and then jump out. I never broke a single bone, and I loved the thrill of managing to climb a particularly challenging tree, getting to the top, and seeing a completely different view of the neighbourhood.
Nona, London

In Victoria Park in Portsmouth with my son who was five at the time, I encouraged him to try and climb one of the trees. In no time at all a park ranger came over and told me off. The trees were for looking at, not climbing.
J Street, Fareham, Hants

I used to like climbing trees when young. It proved a useful skill to have when we had to heavily prune our Eucalyptus tree the other year and our longest ladder only reached the lower branches.
Ed, Clacton, UK

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