Why We Make Our Kids Rock Climb, Part 1

Winter Park Adventure Quest is right in the middle of a week-long rock climbing camp for kids—and we've got thoughts. 

This year, both camp sessions sold out, and as parents ourselves, we get it; if you have an itchy, busy, spider-y little one, it makes sense to steer them toward a sport they love (and that will wear them out). Our kids both climb, and sometimes there are tears and sometimes yelling and often euphoria, and we get really dirty and sweaty but leave feeling just a smidge more accomplished each time. 

We know rock climbing is great for kids in a bunch of ways: building strength and flexibility, teaching coordination, resilience, etiquette/courtesy, for starters. 

But one of the coolest benefits of rock climbing for kids is how it spikes their problem-solving abilities. 

As much as our culture blames helicopter parents, it's also not all that encouraging of scrapes and falls and failure and free-range kids. Our kids' free time is spent more and more not just on tech and screens, but even their play is directed or overseen by well-meaning adults, parents and coaches. That may make for orderly games, but it stinks for helping kids work through the messy stuff in life. 

Rock climbing encourages kids to consider all the possible ways of conquering the mountain. There's no right or wrong route; they need to figure out how to tackle a climb using their own unique strengths and abilities. Some kids are super physical climbers, and need to learn to conserve strength, rest, and choose tactics and holds that will play up that strength. Other kids may not have the muscle, but are strategic and careful, and seem to flow up the rock face. Some have great grip, others amazing flexibility. All of that will influence their choices and impact success. They soon learn there's no wrong way—just ways that work better for their abilities and bodies.

Mentally, young climbers need to pull themselves together before attempting a route. Rock climbing isn't the kind of sport you can pursue while bouncing off the walls or ignoring your partners and instructors. Kids need to follow procedures and safety protocol (hello planning skills!), lay out and test equipment, check and double-check before they proceed. This kind of process helps kids who struggle with executive function and demands they attend to the structure of the activity.

Lastly, they need to test routes and holds out and actually fail before they find the combinations that help them reach the top. Everybody's hot on failure these days, and we know it's critical for kids' development, but it's one thing to say it and another to stand back and watch a kid literally reach and fall (safely, of course). But the fastest way to mastery in climbing is making mistakes, and they can do this within the safety of a harness and belay system. We always tell our kids to fail and then, fail HARDER. It's not intuitive, but it pays off. When they fail, they learn. When they fail and then finally succeed, I swear they leave that rock wall 2 inches taller and beaming.

What starts as a step-by-step process that can be a little slow (even painfully slow) at first soon becomes more fluid and intuitive as kids learn to read the rock, consider their abilities, and put the two together. Visualizing a climb is an amazing exercise in planning and problem solving. And you can't beat the  feeling of self-determination and accomplishment they feel once they've gazed up a rock face at an unbeatable, scary problem—and solved it. 

Cara McDonald