What If We All Got Comfortable With Climbing Trees?

I still remember the first time this year that I saw a student climb a tree. My heart was in my throat … quite literally. I cannot tell you the number of times that I uttered, “Be careful,” and I barely moved from my spot under the tree for fear that she would fall.

One of the many things that I love about our Kindergarten Team though is that we all see the value in risky play, and have helped to support our students so that they can engage in this play safely. And while I can tell people that I’m excited about the fact that our children climb trees, cross fallen trees, and use tools in meaningful ways (like using a screwdriver to take apart a fan), I wasn’t sure that I would ever get past the reminders to “be careful.”

Then today happened. At the end of the day today, we took our students to the forest that connects to our school. As part of our regular forest outings, many children climb on the fallen tree that’s in our junior playground area. A couple of weeks ago, when I first saw the students at the top of the fallen tree, I panicked. How were they going to get down? Would they fall? I tried to tell them that they could “do it,” but those reminders to “stay safe” were hard to resist. 

Earlier this evening, I listened to the video recordings from today’s forest visit. I still stood near the fallen tree as the students climbed, but when I heard words like, “I’m going to fall,” I didn’t panic. I asked the children, “What can you do?” I highlighted the ways that students were climbing safely, and I got students to speak about their safe choices. I reminded our children that I believed in them … and I really did!

While I captured many moments from today, I managed to miss one of my favourites. A JK student was getting down off the fallen tree, and she slipped and landed on her bum. Another JK student was standing near her, and when she started to cry, he went over to her, put his hand on her back, rubbed gently, and said in a quiet, soothing tone, “It’s okay! You’re going to be just fine.” Less than a minute later, she jumped up, did a little “ouch, my bum is sore” dance, and then said, “You’re right! I am okay.” Up she went on the tree again.

I can think of fewer things more wonderful than watching our youngest learners support their peers, recover from falls, and see the value in trying again. Students are truly capable of amazing things, and when we support safe risk-taking and don’t let our fears impact on children taking these risks, we are sure to watch many of these incredible moments in action. I can’t help but think of the risks that students need to take to read unknown words, write their very first sentence, and solve a difficult math problem. Do taking risks in nature transfer to the willingness to take risks in academic areas? How do we support children in taking risks and recovering from the “falls” that may happen as they do? Maybe we all need a few opportunities to climb trees.


6 thoughts on “What If We All Got Comfortable With Climbing Trees?

  1. Interesting comparison, Aviva. Is it necessary to distinguish between climbing in nature and climbing academically? I would suggest that anytime we take a risk and succeed, it makes us more likely to take more risks. As long as we recognize our limits, the sky’s the limit. Well, maybe reaching up towards the sky! I know my limits.

    • Thanks for the comment, Doug! Your comment makes me realize that I forgot another sentence in my post. While I agree that any successful risk taking is likely to lead to more risk taking, what about when we’re, as adults, so fearful of these risk taking opportunities in nature that we stop (or discourage) this risk taking from happening? Does our fear breed more fear in children? Does a reluctance to take risks in nature transfer to a reluctance to take risks academically? A couple of years ago, I would have never even considered letting students climb trees at school. Now I wonder what message I was sending to them. Thank you for helping me clarify my thinking.


  2. We are currenrly having similar debates at my school about “rough” play ourside at recess. All of the latest research says that it is necessary for social and academic development, especially for children who lack access to other opportunities like the ones we serve each day. It is hard to decide what is best when looking at student risk of injury and how litigious our society has become.

    I agree with you and Doug – at some point we have to let our students make their own decisions, mistakes and just be there as the supportive adult who can guide them in their learning . If they can’t take risks with “play” they will never do it with their “learning” either.

    I say let them climb – and you joining in is probably not a bad idea either! Have some fun – I think we often take life too seriously.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah! I bet that we’re not alone with having these discussions at school. I think that the value that comes from this kind of risk-taking in nature can transfer to the value that comes from risk-taking in academic areas. It’s all learning. Showing students that we’re willing to take some risks inside and outside of the classroom — whatever we feel comfortable with and whatever they may be — is important. We continue to be models for students (just like students continue to be models for us) in many different ways.


  3. I’d pay real money to see Aviva climb a tree!

    In terms of passing along fears, that is a legitimate concern. How about turning it around with the statement “I could never do that, could you show me how?”

    I can understand your legitimate concern about student safety and it would be improper to not have it.

    • The first sentence in your comment made me laugh out loud, Doug! I think you may be waiting forever to see me climb a tree (but if it ever happens, you know it will be shared on social media 🙂 ). That said, I think that this sentence and your final one bring up a very important point. We all need to take risks that we feel comfortable with, and then consider safety to ensure that we don’t get seriously hurt. I love how my teaching partner starts every forest trip with a discussion about risk-taking. Children share ideas about how to stay safe and how to evaluate what’s too high and what to do if a problem arises. I’m terrified of heights. Just walking up and down the hill to the forest frightens me. This is a safe risk for me. Walking under and around the tree, and negotiating my footing on uneven land (that again is up high) is enough of a risk for me. I talk to students about being scared, but also what I do to stay safe. We are role models. We don’t want fear to stop us, but we also don’t want to take too extreme a risk, that ends up badly for everyone involved. This is as true in academic areas. Think about reading. If decoding is a challenge, we’re probably not going to try a chapter book right away, but could try a slightly harder picture book … to challenge us enough without challenging us too much. Differentiated instruction matters inside and outside of the classroom!

      Thanks for continuing to engage in a great discussion, Doug, and making me further clarify my own thinking!

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