Why should children climb?
The Short Version
- Climbing results in confidence
- Climbing is included in the 2020 Olympics [official website]
- Climbing cultivates problem solving skills - essential for every aspect of life
- Climbing can increase alertness
- Climbing builds strength, stamina, agility, coordination, balance.
- Climbing cultivates the ability to convert failures into learning experiences.
- Climbing improves body awareness and faculties necessary for overall learning
- Climbing can be helpful for children with ADHD
The Long Version
Climbing is having a moment. Now, take one. Close your eyes and try touching the tip of your nose with the tip of your index finger.
Chances are, you could do that with surprising precision. This links to a function called proprioception. In simplified terms, it is your sense of body awareness. The body's understanding of self-movement and position. Often referred to as a ‘sixth sense’.
Climbing offers endless chances to deal with setbacks and convert failures into learning experiences. Something that ultimately results in confidence.
When you see a toddler climbing over small objects, what you're witnessing is the development of this awareness. It builds over time to define everyday actions - walking, running, climbing stairs, holding and placing objects. There's an intricate mechanism within your body linking mechanically sensitive neurons in muscles, tendons and joints called proprioceptors to the central nervous system which enables this. The 'sport' of climbing only taps into this and enhances it, adding massive benefits towards a child's development. Basically, advanced proprioception allows you to learn better and do more.
Proprioception and working memory:
Climbing at your hardest and purest (arguably) often comes down to moving in a proprioceptive manner. Flow. Where you're exerting effort, but the moves are 'just' happening by themselves. The body simply knows what to do. It's an elusive feeling climbers spend years seeking. Behind this, rests a connection to working memory.
Working memory is our ability to hold on to new information, so we can use it in some way, without losing track of what we're doing. Think of it as a temporary note for the brain, which it can then work with briefly or connect with other information. It is absolutely crucial for learning. Here's an example: Add 27 and 30, then subtract 10 from the sum. Working memory allows you to hold on to the numbers 27 and 30, then remember the sum as a visual note so you can subtract 10.
Climbing is like math of the body
If there's trouble with this function, then a child might remember 27 and 30, but not what to do with them. Or, forget 10, which needs to be subtracted and so on. This pattern extends to cognitive function in general, which requires active processing of information. Physically dynamic activities like climbing can hugely improve this function, according to new research from the Department of Psychology at the University of New Florida, led by Dr. Ross G. Alloway and Tracy Packiam Alloway [link].
Climbing is a story of variables. Friction, foot placement, breathing, deadpointing, grip subtleties, so many aspects go into every single climb. With children, even adults, there is the aspect of morphology. Movements can hugely vary depending on body types. Why it might help working memory is because it demands multi-faceted brain engagement. A child is assessing all of these factors, aside from their own psychological demands, with each climb.
This, in turn, opens the door to other interesting aspects. The most obvious being problem solving.
Climbing is like math of the body. Which is the most positive grip position? Which is the best point of balance? Which is the point at which gravity is the least? In bouldering, there is a reason the routes are called 'problems'. They require solving - stepping back and reading the route, coming up with a sequence, visualizing, trying, processing information from an attempt, tweaking, trying again, observing others, and repeating this until a route is finished.
It's a blueprint of a dynamic learning process applicable to nearly every area of life. Whether it is questioning your hypotheses in advanced research, people skills in a professional setting, decision making in a fluctuating market or simply, parenting itself. Climbing mirrors the application of higher order thinking to a situation. Engaging cognitive faculties and improvising as you go along.
Children begin navigating life in this way. Perceiving the world around them, thinking and gaining an understanding through problems. Being able to solve these on their own offers a sense of independence, confidence and happiness. A lack of these skills builds a consistent dependency on guidance, which can then evolve into an unwillingness to try new things, rash actions when presented with a problem or simply ignoring certain situations.
In climbing, the learning process revolves around building a knowledge bank of moves, and drawing from it to apply on various routes. Very akin to a language vocabulary. Once you know the meaning of a word, you can use it in varying context. What mediates this is judgement, an extremely useful ability cultivated by the sport.
The ability to work with short term goals which offer the small wins that powers the process towards a bigger goal is regular in climbing.
Judgement is often a function of knowledge and experience. However, not a guaranteed function. Decision making is what separates progress from avoidable plateaus. Let's take a typical situation. A child is tired, frustrated at falling off the same move and has ten minutes left before her session ends. There's a variety of approaches possible here:
- Keep throwing herself at the move, until hopefully it cracks; a method involving pure force of will over all else.
- Step back and isolate the requirements of the movement - How does her body need to be positioned to grab the hold? What do her hips and feet need to be doing? What is happening as of now? Then, rest well and give it one good try
- Aim to try with different methods, until she is sure that the original was the most efficient.
- Choose to walk away from the session and come back fresh the next day.
Of course, there can be a combination of these approaches. But, the variable nature of climbing makes it very prone to decision making. As you diversify through disciplines, the process involves more variables - risk assessment and safety, training approach and so on. What tends to define our choices are the goals.
For a child, goal setting begins a process of perspective. It offers an incremental way that makes learning directional and rewarding. The ability to work with short term goals which offer the small wins that powers the process towards a bigger goal is regular in climbing. For example, when someone can't do a dyno (big dynamic move to grab a hold that's far apart), success comes from goal setting. First, the goal is to just find the right body position and timing for the jump. Next, the aim is to simply slap as high as possible with the hand without a focus on grabbing the hold. This is often the key in getting a climber to believe that the jump is within their ability. A chalk mark on the hold makes them think "If I can touch it, I can grab it"
Confidence is perhaps life's ultimate enabler.
The concentration and focus required to work on these goals - short or long term - is highly transferable. As complexity increases, so must the tiers of goal setting, and the perspective about them. Sometimes, failing on a problem, but with better form indicates progress. Not making finals in a competition despite good shape is a revelation on mindset. Unlocking a focus area for the next training cycle. Climbing offers endless chances to deal with setbacks and convert failures into learning experiences. Something that ultimately results in confidence.
Confidence is perhaps life's ultimate enabler. In children, it can be a huge source of mental, emotional and physical well being. Climbing creates a conducive environment to build that in many ways. In the simplest manner, finding a way to top a route offers a sort of foundational belief via the sense of accomplishment.
Beyond that, climbing is an exploration of a child's creative faculties and its sync with the body. There is no 'way' to climb a route; this is its artistic shine. Even at the elite level, climbers can exhibit different approaches to the same climb, depending on their strengths, personal styles and thought processes. It's a sport of nearly infinite possibilities, also one of trust.
Trusting oneself or placing your trust in another - both aspects, hugely at the core of social existence, are integral to climbing. On an exposed, slightly precarious climb, trusting your feet, breathing, sense of balance and shutting out doubt, but not without reason. Alternately, spotting a climber in that situation means their safety is in your hands. Both are linked to the same instinct that immediately lifts your hands if a fly is buzzing in front of you. Alertness.
There's a small area at the base of the brain, called the Reticular Activating System (RAS), which plays a huge role in regulating levels of alertness. It has wide connections throughout our brain. All senses, except smell, follow pathways connected to the RAS. Just as your hand lifted the first time, you will subsequently be able to filter the noise into a distant buzz and focus on whatever you're doing. That's the RAS working.
Climbing mirrors the optimum state for learning - calm alertness, where maximum understanding happens. On a challenging climb, you need to increase focus if you're 'out of it'. Equally, being over-amped, can blow your chances of success by making you falter with delicate footwork. Most elite climbers will tell you that their greatest successes have come when they've been zoned in, yet detached.
So, if a child is over excited and unable to focus, climbing can help them feel more grounded. Alternately, if she is finding it hard to concentrate due to feeling drowsy or lethargic, climbing can increase alertness. In the case of proprioceptive disorders like sensory seeking (writes too hard, pushes), poor motor planning and control (bumping into things constantly) or postural control (slumps, unable to stand on one foot), climbing has remedial value. But, is it safe?
That question has a deserving place in anyone's mind. Climbing does come with risks. Accidents have happened, sometimes due to the inherent nature of the sport. Equally, these possibilities have inspired some of the most remarkable safety-oriented R&D in the entire sporting world.
All climbing gyms have strict safety protocols and instructors educated in the same. Climbing gear like belay devices, ropes, helmets, harnesses and crash pads are put through rigorous testing. Still, physical injuries can occur, as in any sport. Sprained ankles, strained ligaments, muscle tears and so on.
“climbing offers an incredible mix of strength, stamina, agility, coordination and balance”
Climbing training for youth puts a huge emphasis on injury prevention and scientifically handling stress loads on growth plates. It doesn't exist in a place of reckless calculation. With the sport's inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and an increasing influx of youth athletes, there's a massively increased focus on these aspects. But, this is the performance end.
For a first timer though, are the physical benefits worth it?
As a full-body activity, climbing offers an incredible mix of strength, stamina, agility, coordination and balance.
Climbing movement largely involves hand-eye coordination. Consider a simple scenario: you look for a foothold while maintaining awareness of your current body position and calculating the next one. Then, you move to the next hand hold, once again prepping your body for a change. Eventually, this is what becomes a sense of 'flow'. The base is constant coordination. More so, if you venture into modern competition style bouldering.
Moving efficiently involves understanding your centre of gravity, movement arcs and manipulating points of balance. In children, this awareness can build confidence during the often-awkward process of growing up - old movements suddenly feel awkward, but new strength is come upon. Climbing becomes a way to positively explore adolescence, as it happens.
Climbing builds cardio vascular endurance, which helps maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This is old hat, but sport can make a child eat and sleep better. Tangentially linked are the rising levels of depression in children, which tend to affect these habits. Although, research on the subject is still nascent, bouldering is shown to be therapeutic for depression.
Strength? Fingers, upper body, core, and lower body. Practically every type of gross and fine motor skill is employed in climbing. Climbers, simply put, are among the fittest athletes in the world. Many of them are barely 16 years old.
Ultimately, climbing is one of nature's own movements. There's a deep evolutionary connection to what we consider a modern day sport. It takes a few minutes of moving on rock or plastic to understand that. Given our increasing dependence on technology and the plethora of distractions making it easier to unlearn these instincts, climbing has a valuable place.
Or, as children would prefer, it's just a lot of fun. Since when do we need to justify that?