Climbing trees is safer than organized sports

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So why are parents so scared of it?

There’s a big pine tree in our side yard. It’s around 50 feet tall and holds a magnetic attraction for my children and their friends. It’s not uncommon for me to step outside and hear a small voice from up in the sky, shouting, “I’m up here!” Sure enough, a small body waves enthusiastically from a high branch. Eventually they come down, covered in sap and scratched by branches, but delighted by their conquest. (Then I show them how to rub butter into the sap, and then wash it off with soap and water.)

I never stop them from climbing that pine tree (or the magnolia or the pear) because I believe it’s so important for them. On a physical level, climbing trees builds muscular strength and flexibility, develops motor skills and depth perception, teaches them to assess a branch’s size and ability to hold them, and forces them to concentrate.

On an emotional level, it’s a pure thrill to attain such heights, to be out of reach of parents and safety, to be in control of pushing their own boundaries. It gives them a space for imagination to run wild and to feel connected to nature. It instills confidence and, in a way, makes them safer overall because they become more capable humans.

But what about injury? This is the niggling doubt at the back of every parent’s mind.

Falling out of a tree is always a possibility (I did it as a kid and broke my arm, which I later perceived as a badge of honor in the kid world), but compared to other injuries, tree-climbing is a non-issue. Rain or Shine Mamma cites a 2016 study from the University of Phoenix:

“Researchers surveyed 1,600 parents who let their children climb trees and found that the most common injury by far was scraped skin. Only 2 percent of the parents responded that their child had broken a bone and even fewer had suffered from a concussion. Meanwhile, more than 3.5 million American children under the age of 14 receive medical treatment for injuries from organized sports every year.”

This shows that if a parent were truly serious about injury prevention, they’d never sign their kid up for organized sports. But that’s a ludicrous thought. Most parents wouldn’t for a second doubt that the benefits of sport outweigh the risks. So why don’t we do that with tree-climbing and other free play activities in nature?

It’s time to let go and “let grow” (as Lenore Skenazy’s free-range play organization is called). Don’t get hung up on statistically negligible injuries and let your kids climb trees to their hearts’ content. Maybe even join them once in a while. I have yet to scale the pine, but you never know…



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