Way beyond just providing physical activity, rock climbing for kids can also work mental and emotional wonders.
Unleashing a kid on a climbing wall enables great physical rewards. The low-impact sport of climbing helps them strengthen their whole bodies—from their fingertips to their toes, including those ever-important core muscles. Moving from hold to hold also helps them build stamina, coordination, agility, flexibility, and balance. Plus, what parent doesn’t want to see their kid being active and having fun instead of staring at a screen?
Rock climbing for kids proves beneficial in other aspects of life as well. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle found that rock climbing may improve self-esteem, self-efficacy, and confidence in youth. And a 2015 study conducted at the University of Elrangen-Nuremberg looked at the therapeutic qualities of climbing, and its “positive effects on anxiety, ADHS, depression, cognition, self-esteem, as well as in the social domain.”
Mike O’Connor, head coach of the youth climbing team at the Santa Barbara Rock Gym, has seen proof in the gym. “We have a kid who came to us with some health problems, and because of that, was really shy,” says O’Connor. “Now he’s this confident young man whom adult climbers ask for beta on problems. I think the sport has really built his confidence.”
“There’s just an emotional side to climbing that really benefits kids,” continues O’Connor, explaining that with every climb, there’s a strong mental component, from visualizing the moves before you leave the ground, to getting your body to move in a certain way and figuring out sequences that aren’t obvious, to overcoming a fear of heights, if you have one.
Every little success on the wall becomes a personal win, which, in turn, can do wonders in helping kids feel good about themselves. “Especially through middle and high school,” says O’Connor, “where kids are going through puberty and all sorts of crazy stuff and figuring out who they are, climbing is really great in helping them build confidence that they can apply outside the gym.”
The benefits of climbing, however, aren’t just limited to older kids. Even toddlers who climb have to make decisions about how to sequence the climbs and move up the wall, which in turn teaches body control that can carry over into other sports. And climbing provides even the littlest toddlers with mental challenges that are both fun and good for their developing brains. “A route is similar to a puzzle, but there’s more than one way to solve it,” says Laurie Normandeau, Kids’ Program Supervisor at the Boulder Rock Club. “There’s no right or wrong. It’s really about learning what works.”
Normandeau says that toddlers tend to want to climb from side-to-side, traversing, and don’t always want to climb to the top. “Whether they get to the top or not,” she says, “climbing gives them a great opportunity to build coordination, strength, and balance.”
Normandeau says that while younger kids do best with play-based climbing, and older kids tend to want to work on technique, climbers of all ages differ in their strengths, weaknesses, and preferred types of climbs. “On the same climb, say an overhanging route,” she explains, “some kids rely on their strength to muscle through a steep section, while other kids will focus on their footwork.” With climbing—whether indoors or out—there is always something for a kid of any age to work on, she adds, which creates a constant stream of mental and physical challenges.
Another great thing about getting kids involved in climbing, say both O’Connor and Normandeau, is the social aspect, especially among youth climbing teams. “A lot of kids aren’t super psyched to do traditional team sports,” says O’Connor. “Being on a youth climbing team allows kids to encourage each other and experience camaraderie and community-building without the pressure of traditional team sports.”
“Though there is partnership, leadership, and trust-building among kids climbing together,” adds Normandeau, “once you’re on the wall it’s just you and the wall. From the bottom to the top, there’s more than one way to do it. There’s no right and wrong; everybody’s a winner.” And especially among teenage groups, she says, the trust between climber and belayer helps build strong relationships and teaches the importance of communication.
Even for kids who aren’t on a team, but who enjoy climbing with other kids or with friends or family, learning the etiquette of sharing the gym or wall alongside others is beneficial, too. There’s a mutual respect of space and a need for polite interaction. Kids learn, for instance, not to walk underneath fellow climbers. And they learn how to take turns on the bouldering wall and not just rush in when they feel like climbing.
There are a whole host of reasons kids love being unleashed on the giant indoor playground of a rock gym or home gym—or, of course, the local cliffs. As it turns out, there are even more reasons parents can feel good about encouraging kids to climb, too. So when your offspring easily scampers up a route or solves a boulder problem you’ve been struggling with, just smile knowing all the physical, emotional, mental and social benefits they’re gaining as a young climber—and knowing also that you are cultivating not only a potential new climbing partner, but a passionate climber—and person—for life.
What are the 5 pieces of gear all climbers will need?
When kids are just starting out, it’s possible to rent gear at climbing gyms or outdoor stores. But owning their own gear can both make kids more comfortable and more confident on the wall, while also heightening their stoke level (new gear is fun!). Here are five items to shop for:
- Climbing shoes. Kids’ (and adults’) climbing shoes utilize sticky-rubber soles and a unique shape that helps them maximize control on and sensitivity to footholds. The fit should be snug.
- Harness that fits properly provides comfort and safety. Full-body harnesses work well for kids under 7 or 8 years old.
- Chalk bag and chalk. Gear manufacturers make kid-sized chalk bags in all sorts of fun colors and prints; there are even stuffed-animal chalkbags out there. Chalk reduces moisture on their hands and improves grip.
- Locking carabiner. They’ll need a locking carabiner or two for belaying and other rope management.
- Belay device. Older, more experienced kids who will be belaying their partners will need a belay device as well.
Looking to add climbing to your family adventures?