Custom Class: post-landing-hero

Beginning School Emphasis on Tree Climbing Builds Important Skills in Young Learners

For beginning schoolers, a tree is never just a tree. It’s a mountain to be scaled. A secret hideaway. A new perspective on the world.

Beyond a childhood pastime, though, tree climbing is a uniquely valuable tool to support child development, and research shows that this one activity provides numerous benefits.

“There are important learning outcomes that come with climbing trees that kids need to learn and practice,” said Brittney Hansen, Beginning School and Lower School assistant principal. In fact, these benefits are so wide-reaching that all Beginning School teachers are asked to encourage the activity.

Below, we dive into just some of these benefits to learn why tree climbing is not only an early childhood best practice, but an enduring and beloved part of the Beginning School experience.

Tree climbing helps early learners develop risk tolerance and risk management.

We live in a culture that’s overwhelmingly risk-averse, but you don’t have to search far to learn that all this caution isn’t good for children, who need risky play in their development.

The thing about risky play is it gives children chances to tune into their own bodies and find what they're comfortable with, to make a plan and follow up with it—all skills they need in real dangerous situations.—Bethany Stephensen, kindergarten lead teacher

“Risky play is anything that lets kids test their own limits and ability,” explained kindergarten lead teacher Bethany Stephensen, whether that’s running fast down a hill or climbing a tree. This type of play is necessary because it allows children to feel ownership over their play. Think of risky play like a muscle flex: each opportunity to practice assessing the safety of a situation (and tackling a right-size challenge) strengthens a child’s risk-tolerance and risk-management skills. The more of these opportunities a child gets, the stronger their ability to approach and manage risky situations. But teachers are clear that risky play has to be in students’ hands. Though tree climbing is encouraged at Rowland Hall, children need to be able to get themselves into the trees—it’s a sign they’re ready for the challenge.

“The key is that kids have to do it entirely by themselves,” said 3PreK lead teacher Liz Ellison, whose students use everything from nearby logs to their upper body strength to hoist themselves onto branches. “If you lift them in, they might not be developmentally ready. They have to experience that feeling in their body to climb, to know their body can handle it.”

Students also build their risk-assessment capabilities by only climbing to a point where they still feel confident in their ability to get back down on their own.

“The thing about risky play is it gives children chances to tune into their own bodies and find what they're comfortable with, to make a plan and follow up with it—all skills they need in real dangerous situations,” said Bethany.

Tree climbing builds young learners’ confidence.

I find that the biggest development piece they are getting is confidence—trying something hard and problem solving and knowing, “I might not be able to do this yet, but I will do it.”—Ella Slaker, 4PreK lead teacher

Because tree climbing isn’t easy for many students, taking part in, then mastering, the activity can be a great way to build self-confidence.

“I find that the biggest development piece they are getting is confidence—trying something hard and problem solving and knowing, ‘I might not be able to do this yet, but I will do it,’” said 4PreK lead teacher Ella Slaker. And this confidence is built at every step, from figuring out a way to climb onto a limb to problem solving within a tree’s branches to observing their physical and mental progress.

“It’s all about knowing your own limit and trusting your own body. You feel the limit, push past it, and conquer it,” said Bethany.  “It builds so much self-trust.”

Additionally, tree climbing can also be a great way for students to learn to self-regulate, further building their self-esteem. “For kids who need more regulation, climbing trees is putting energy to good use,” said Ella. “They can sit up in a tree, regulate, and come down when they’re ready.”

Tree climbing develops gross motor skills, strength, and spatial awareness.

It’s probably no surprise to learn that tree climbing has a variety of benefits related to young children’s endurance and strength. Climbing a tree sharpens gross motor skills (those full-body movements that involve the large muscles in the legs, arms, and torso), while honing eye-hand coordination and balance, and even building flexibility.

Tree climbing builds social skills in early learners.


The activity also builds students’ spatial awareness, or proprioception. “Proprioception is awareness of where the body is in space and in relation to what's around it, like things and people,” said Liz. “Climbing trees requires proprioception and also further enhances its development, and developing proprioception is important for young children because they can understand where their body is in space, what's around their body, and how they can move through their environment. They know how much force they need to execute a movement.”

Tree climbing provides social benefits.

“They cheer each other on and celebrate each other,” said Liz. And this kind of prosocial behavior helps to build empathy, a sense of community and belonging, and positive relationships among the students. It also allows students to see themselves as problem solvers.

In the Beginning School, tree climbing isn’t a solo endeavor, and navigating the branches of a tree provides early learners with new opportunities to practice taking turns, sharing space, and playing side by side. And even when students aren’t ready to climb a tree themselves, many are naturally drawn to classmates who are up in branches. These peers provide great support once a student is ready for their first ascent.

“Some students climb right away, then become a coach to others asking, ‘How did you get up there?’” said Ella. It’s not uncommon to hear a preschooler calling out to a classmate, “Put your leg on this branch,” or to hear a group encouraging a more timid climber.

“They cheer each other on and celebrate each other,” said Liz. And this kind of prosocial behavior—behavior that’s intended to benefit others—helps to build empathy, a sense of community and belonging, and positive relationships among the students. It also allows students to see themselves as problem solvers, an identity the teachers readily encourage.

“If someone panics or is frustrated, instead of a teacher running over, we call on a fellow climber to give advice,” said Bethany.

Tree climbing develops early environmental stewards.

An unexpected, but no less important, benefit of tree climbing is its ability to inspire young environmental stewards. At Rowland Hall, an emphasis on outdoor education and direct access to nature is woven into all levels of the Beginning School, and a yearlong tree study is even a hallmark of the kindergarten experience.

“Outdoor learning is a huge part of kindergarten,” said Bethany, and a chance for students to learn from nature, not just about nature. The tree study encompasses a variety of activities, including reading to the trees, measuring distance between them, and gathering their leaves, pine needles, and cones to use in science studies. So it feels natural to these students when they’re asked to not only consider their own safety when climbing, but to keep in mind the safety and the well-being of the trees.

“Learning all about trees makes them care about them, and builds familiarity,” said Bethany. “The hope is that they fall in love with nature and these trees, building their instinctual empathy.”

Rowland Hall students climb a favorite tree in Salt Lake City's Sunnyside Park.

The beginning schooler-named Gumdrop Tree at Sunnyside Park is a student favorite.


Tips for Families

Want to encourage tree climbing outside of school? Consider the following teacher tips for supporting your young climber.

  • Let them climb. While Rowland Hall’s Beginning School teachers completely understand adult worries around tree climbing, they’re clear that the benefits of the activity far outweigh the risks.
  • Set limits. Even though tree climbing is a type of risky play, you can set limits to make it safer. For example, teachers tell students to only climb over soft surfaces, stay aware of their surroundings, make a climbing plan, climb only as high as they’re comfortable, climb only if they can see an adult (and the adult can see them), and give space to other climbers.
  • Let your child get themselves into the tree. It’s tempting to give a child a boost, but remember: a child’s ability to climb into a tree, whether that’s by using a natural prop or their own body, is an indication that they’re developmentally ready to climb. Never lift a child into a tree. Instead, follow their lead—they’ll climb when they're ready.
  • Keep yourself in check. Many adults find themselves calling out, “Be careful!” during risky play without thinking about it, but that sends the message that you don’t trust your child. If you’ve assessed the climbing area and given permission to your child, allow yourself to trust in the process. If it helps, try describing what you see your child doing to calm yourself (“Wow! You are very high up on that branch”). And if your child expresses worry about climbing down, be sure to convey your confidence in their ability, assuring them that because their body climbed up, it can climb down too.
  • Learn more about risky play. There are lots of great resources about risky play activities. The teachers recommend Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (as well as the article “Let them climb trees,” which features the author), and Angela Hanscom’s Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children.

Outdoor Learning

Beginning School Emphasis on Tree Climbing Builds Important Skills in Young Learners

For beginning schoolers, a tree is never just a tree. It’s a mountain to be scaled. A secret hideaway. A new perspective on the world.

Beyond a childhood pastime, though, tree climbing is a uniquely valuable tool to support child development, and research shows that this one activity provides numerous benefits.

“There are important learning outcomes that come with climbing trees that kids need to learn and practice,” said Brittney Hansen, Beginning School and Lower School assistant principal. In fact, these benefits are so wide-reaching that all Beginning School teachers are asked to encourage the activity.

Below, we dive into just some of these benefits to learn why tree climbing is not only an early childhood best practice, but an enduring and beloved part of the Beginning School experience.

Tree climbing helps early learners develop risk tolerance and risk management.

We live in a culture that’s overwhelmingly risk-averse, but you don’t have to search far to learn that all this caution isn’t good for children, who need risky play in their development.

The thing about risky play is it gives children chances to tune into their own bodies and find what they're comfortable with, to make a plan and follow up with it—all skills they need in real dangerous situations.—Bethany Stephensen, kindergarten lead teacher

“Risky play is anything that lets kids test their own limits and ability,” explained kindergarten lead teacher Bethany Stephensen, whether that’s running fast down a hill or climbing a tree. This type of play is necessary because it allows children to feel ownership over their play. Think of risky play like a muscle flex: each opportunity to practice assessing the safety of a situation (and tackling a right-size challenge) strengthens a child’s risk-tolerance and risk-management skills. The more of these opportunities a child gets, the stronger their ability to approach and manage risky situations. But teachers are clear that risky play has to be in students’ hands. Though tree climbing is encouraged at Rowland Hall, children need to be able to get themselves into the trees—it’s a sign they’re ready for the challenge.

“The key is that kids have to do it entirely by themselves,” said 3PreK lead teacher Liz Ellison, whose students use everything from nearby logs to their upper body strength to hoist themselves onto branches. “If you lift them in, they might not be developmentally ready. They have to experience that feeling in their body to climb, to know their body can handle it.”

Students also build their risk-assessment capabilities by only climbing to a point where they still feel confident in their ability to get back down on their own.

“The thing about risky play is it gives children chances to tune into their own bodies and find what they're comfortable with, to make a plan and follow up with it—all skills they need in real dangerous situations,” said Bethany.

Tree climbing builds young learners’ confidence.

I find that the biggest development piece they are getting is confidence—trying something hard and problem solving and knowing, “I might not be able to do this yet, but I will do it.”—Ella Slaker, 4PreK lead teacher

Because tree climbing isn’t easy for many students, taking part in, then mastering, the activity can be a great way to build self-confidence.

“I find that the biggest development piece they are getting is confidence—trying something hard and problem solving and knowing, ‘I might not be able to do this yet, but I will do it,’” said 4PreK lead teacher Ella Slaker. And this confidence is built at every step, from figuring out a way to climb onto a limb to problem solving within a tree’s branches to observing their physical and mental progress.

“It’s all about knowing your own limit and trusting your own body. You feel the limit, push past it, and conquer it,” said Bethany.  “It builds so much self-trust.”

Additionally, tree climbing can also be a great way for students to learn to self-regulate, further building their self-esteem. “For kids who need more regulation, climbing trees is putting energy to good use,” said Ella. “They can sit up in a tree, regulate, and come down when they’re ready.”

Tree climbing develops gross motor skills, strength, and spatial awareness.

It’s probably no surprise to learn that tree climbing has a variety of benefits related to young children’s endurance and strength. Climbing a tree sharpens gross motor skills (those full-body movements that involve the large muscles in the legs, arms, and torso), while honing eye-hand coordination and balance, and even building flexibility.

Tree climbing builds social skills in early learners.


The activity also builds students’ spatial awareness, or proprioception. “Proprioception is awareness of where the body is in space and in relation to what's around it, like things and people,” said Liz. “Climbing trees requires proprioception and also further enhances its development, and developing proprioception is important for young children because they can understand where their body is in space, what's around their body, and how they can move through their environment. They know how much force they need to execute a movement.”

Tree climbing provides social benefits.

“They cheer each other on and celebrate each other,” said Liz. And this kind of prosocial behavior helps to build empathy, a sense of community and belonging, and positive relationships among the students. It also allows students to see themselves as problem solvers.

In the Beginning School, tree climbing isn’t a solo endeavor, and navigating the branches of a tree provides early learners with new opportunities to practice taking turns, sharing space, and playing side by side. And even when students aren’t ready to climb a tree themselves, many are naturally drawn to classmates who are up in branches. These peers provide great support once a student is ready for their first ascent.

“Some students climb right away, then become a coach to others asking, ‘How did you get up there?’” said Ella. It’s not uncommon to hear a preschooler calling out to a classmate, “Put your leg on this branch,” or to hear a group encouraging a more timid climber.

“They cheer each other on and celebrate each other,” said Liz. And this kind of prosocial behavior—behavior that’s intended to benefit others—helps to build empathy, a sense of community and belonging, and positive relationships among the students. It also allows students to see themselves as problem solvers, an identity the teachers readily encourage.

“If someone panics or is frustrated, instead of a teacher running over, we call on a fellow climber to give advice,” said Bethany.

Tree climbing develops early environmental stewards.

An unexpected, but no less important, benefit of tree climbing is its ability to inspire young environmental stewards. At Rowland Hall, an emphasis on outdoor education and direct access to nature is woven into all levels of the Beginning School, and a yearlong tree study is even a hallmark of the kindergarten experience.

“Outdoor learning is a huge part of kindergarten,” said Bethany, and a chance for students to learn from nature, not just about nature. The tree study encompasses a variety of activities, including reading to the trees, measuring distance between them, and gathering their leaves, pine needles, and cones to use in science studies. So it feels natural to these students when they’re asked to not only consider their own safety when climbing, but to keep in mind the safety and the well-being of the trees.

“Learning all about trees makes them care about them, and builds familiarity,” said Bethany. “The hope is that they fall in love with nature and these trees, building their instinctual empathy.”

Rowland Hall students climb a favorite tree in Salt Lake City's Sunnyside Park.

The beginning schooler-named Gumdrop Tree at Sunnyside Park is a student favorite.


Tips for Families

Want to encourage tree climbing outside of school? Consider the following teacher tips for supporting your young climber.

  • Let them climb. While Rowland Hall’s Beginning School teachers completely understand adult worries around tree climbing, they’re clear that the benefits of the activity far outweigh the risks.
  • Set limits. Even though tree climbing is a type of risky play, you can set limits to make it safer. For example, teachers tell students to only climb over soft surfaces, stay aware of their surroundings, make a climbing plan, climb only as high as they’re comfortable, climb only if they can see an adult (and the adult can see them), and give space to other climbers.
  • Let your child get themselves into the tree. It’s tempting to give a child a boost, but remember: a child’s ability to climb into a tree, whether that’s by using a natural prop or their own body, is an indication that they’re developmentally ready to climb. Never lift a child into a tree. Instead, follow their lead—they’ll climb when they're ready.
  • Keep yourself in check. Many adults find themselves calling out, “Be careful!” during risky play without thinking about it, but that sends the message that you don’t trust your child. If you’ve assessed the climbing area and given permission to your child, allow yourself to trust in the process. If it helps, try describing what you see your child doing to calm yourself (“Wow! You are very high up on that branch”). And if your child expresses worry about climbing down, be sure to convey your confidence in their ability, assuring them that because their body climbed up, it can climb down too.
  • Learn more about risky play. There are lots of great resources about risky play activities. The teachers recommend Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (as well as the article “Let them climb trees,” which features the author), and Angela Hanscom’s Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children.

Outdoor Learning

Explore Our Most Recent Stories

You Belong at Rowland Hall