On Climbing Trees

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One thing you cannot help but notice when visiting Villa di Maria’s campus is the abundance of trees of all shapes, sizes, ages, and stages. If you happen to arrive during recess time, you will likely spot at least one or two Lower or Upper Elementary children hanging from a branch, peeking up through the tree canopy, or even reading way up high in the cool shade. Why do we let our children climb trees? The answer, below.

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The most obvious benefit of tree-climbing is a physical one; children get a great amount of exercise pulling themselves up into branches. They learn about balance and spatial awareness. Also: bravery! Children who climb trees learn to take calculated risks. They inadvertently learn about gravity and calculating jumps (where they feel safe enough to jump versus what is too high and will result in that uncomfortable tingling when their feet hit the ground too hard).

Studies show that taking small risks in childhood can result in a boost in confidence, self-assuredness, and resilience. Climbing trees is the perfect risk – especially when there are plenty of adults around campus to supervise! Though it is infrequent that an adult needs to tell a child to come down because he or she is not being safe.

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There is a noticeable calmness that comes over a child who has climbed to a desirable spot in a tree. The view is lovely from above. It is peaceful to be hidden amidst the leaves and branches – to feel the breeze, hear the rustling of leaves. A child’s mind can open, his imagination run free. A child who climbs into a tree may seek solace there; in a tree, there is a quiet space, a little distance from others, and comfort in being close to nature. It’s the perfect place to recharge.

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One of the main reasons we allow the children to climb trees: it’s a source of play: “According to the emotion regulation theory, play is, among other things, the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact in close quarters with others, without succumbing to negative emotions,” states Peter Gray, in Risky Play: Why Children Love it and Need it. Children are naturally drawn to trees and the climbing and conquering of them because trees are nature’s original jungle gyms and climbing structures!

Dr. Gray goes on to say, “Over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways. Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders.”

And from Maria Montessori herself, who clearly valued nature and the inevitability of and importance of play and work for all living things: “… Does Nature make a difference between work and play or occupation and rest?  Watch the unending activity of the flowing stream or the growing tree.  See the breakers of the ocean, the unceasing movements of the earth, the planets, the sun and the stars.  All creation is life, movement, work.  What about our hearts, our lungs, our bloodstream which work continuously from birth till death?  Have they asked for some rest?  Not even during sleep are they inactive.  What about our mind which works without intermission while we are awake or asleep?” (Dr. Maria Montessori, What You Should Know About Your Child)

It is the least we can do to provide our children with some of the best parts of childhood, here, at school.

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Trees, and green spaces in general, provide a sense of wonder within a child, and a connection with the natural world that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

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Above: A Lower Elementary student builds up her strength and climbing abilities; in the background is the enormous branch that fell the night before school…

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… which has provided ample learning opportunities for curious minds!

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This child was fascinated by the woven patterns within the fragments of wood that had broken free of the large branch when it fell.

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Though the Primary children do not have many opportunities to climb trees yet, they certainly will when they reach Lower Elementary. The Primary student above took advantage of Family Swim Night to climb one of his favorite trees, usually just out of reach beyond the playground fence, and was delighted to explore and challenge himself with his parents close-by!

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Some general rules about allowing your children to climb trees:

  1. Teach your child from an early age to choose nice thick branches on which to stand. Show him that if a branch is as thick as his arm, it’s most likely strong enough to stand on. If it’s thinner, he should not put his weight on it.
  2. Refrain from lifting your child into trees; if he cannot get up alone, he most likely cannot get down alone, and it may be too high for his strength and/or ability. Also, a child who is in charge of his climbing generally will not go beyond his limits.
  3. Teach your child to always have three points of contact on the tree (two hands, one foot; two feet, one hand, etc) to lesson the likelihood of falls.
  4. Shove a book into a back pocket and enjoy the peace and quiet!

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Happy climbing!