Kids will be monkeys and monkeys, as we all know, like to climb trees. Many adults have exhilarating childhood memories of scrambling high up into leafy cathedrals, creating huts, picking fruit or simply sitting and watching the world go by.
Climbing trees is all about facing fears. At some point, there comes the sudden realisation of just how high up one is, teetering on a balance edge. This is often followed by the scary moment when it doesn’t seem possible to get down, but somehow it happens that one’s feet connect with solid ground once more. Phew! Old or rotten branches may break, along with the odd poke in the eye as gravity tries to win, but most of us are fortunate to emerge from the perils of childhood tree climbing without serious injury.
In this day and age, climbing trees comes with a serious set of safety strings and alarm bells attached … for adults. What parent has not experienced a quickening of pulse when they see their small child perched up a tree? “Look at me, mummy!”
To that child, however, the tree represents a wonderful natural opportunity to test his or her skills, to be brave and courageous, scale to unknown heights and, intentionally or otherwise, freak adults out. Learning to climb trees is rather like learning to walk – the more you do it, the better you become, so it figures that we should encourage our children to climb safely to avoid unnecessary accidents.
Many of us have cause to blame it on genes. My 70-year-old mother was forbidden by my father to climb plum trees anymore due to a nasty fall that resulted in a haematoma for my mother’s leg and a fatal chop for the poor tree. As a teenager, she was shot at by an irate neighbour wielding a slug gun for daring to try and steal some of his prize peaches. Encouraged by my monkey mother, I never grew out of the tree-climbing phase either, and continue to clamber up into the canopy whenever I have the chance, especially when ripe juicy fruit tempts me.
If you keep your eyes open while travelling in New Zealand, you will see the evidence of generations of tree climbers. Old huts abound, relics of a more relaxed age of parenting. It seems that climbing trees has been relegated to an activity of ‘the old days’. Climbing trees used to be a common everyday activity, regarded among children themselves as a rite of passage. In bookstores, we see books for sale entitled, ‘Planting Trees To Attract Birds’ or ‘The Right Tree For Your Garden’. I’m waiting for the one to come out called, ‘Planting Trees For Kids To Climb’.
My parents both milked cows back when I was a child in the ‘70s and ‘80s and we amused ourselves for those three hours in the afternoon, mainly in trees. One of the tall pines in a grove out the back of the house had fallen down onto its neighbour. Being told not to climb it made no impact on us – for climb it we did. It made an excellent ‘ladder to the sky’ and my brother and I spent hours hauling things up there to make huts and nests.
Parental attitudes towards danger in the form of tree climbing have certainly changed. Children are warned of the consequences long before the fun begins: “You might fall” or “Don’t go too high” are commonly heard anti-tree climbing mantras. Guilt is an inherent marketing tool used by the media and by our peers should our child be injured while playing in a tree. “You shouldn’t have let him/her climb up there”, implying that we are at fault. For many parents, schools and councils, trees represent danger.
One young father I spoke to said that despite this, he still encourages his boys to climb and simply positions himself as a safety net should they fall. “I was up and down trees like a yoyo when I was a kid,” he told me, “I think tree climbing is a pretty natural thing for kids to want to do.”
tree climbing tips
- Be a safety net. Position yourself in such a way as to be able to catch the child or break the child’s fall if necessary. You can do this if you are on the ground or if you climb with your child.
- Resist panicking if you see that your child has climbed a tree unsupervised. Try to stay calm. Go over to investigate, rather than castigate.
- Keep instructions to a minimum unless the child asks you for help. Guide their feet and hands with your own when you can see the best place to gain stable placings for hands and feet.
- Help them choose trees that suit their level of ability.
- Build huts together using nets. Nets provide more points to hold onto should they slip. They can also lie in the net and look up into the canopy of the tree.
- Teach the child to look out for and identify rotten branches.
- Encourage care and stewardship of trees. Look after the tree and it will look after you.
Kristina Jensen is a poet, freelance writer, musician and home school parent living on a boat with her family in the Marlborough Sounds.