Top tips on cragging with kids

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 14/06/2019
MIA Matt Woodfield and daughter, Hannah
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Climbing with children requires an entirely different approach. In celebration of Father's Day, a range of dads offer their advice on encouraging kids into the sport without putting them off: Mountain Guide Jon Bracey, BMC Ambassador Steve McClure, BMC CEO Dave Turnbull, Outdoor Event Consultant Matt Heason and Mountain Instructor Matt Woodfield.

Rule number 1

It may feel counter-intuitive to a keen climber, but the number one rule advocated by all the dads I interrogated was: let your kids back off whenever they want. In fact, it might help if you pretend to be a little less psyched for their climbing than you actually are.

"Shall we go on a bug hunt or climb this rock?"
"Go on a bug hunt!"
"After ... climbing this rock?"

Over-enthusiasm for climbing may actually put your kids off, advises Mountain Guide Jon Bracey, who lives in Chamonix with wife Karoline, daughter Cara (8) and son Joshua (6). He gives his kids lots of opportunities to try out all varieties of climbing - even some basic ice climbing - but tries not to show disappointment if they change their minds and want to do something else instead.

Variety is key says Jon Bracey. With his children Cara and Josuha

Sheffield-based BMC Ambassador Steve McClure agrees, and has the benefit of even more hindsight: his daughter Amelie is now 12 while Harry is 7: “If you are taking the kids climbing then devote yourself to ensuring they have fun. Definitely don’t assume you will get a good session in at the same time as the kids. This is important! They won’t want to come again if you get frustrated.” 

BMC CEO Dave Turnbull adds: don’t expect your children to like climbing just because you do. His two, Harry and Emily, are now 19 and 16. “I decided early on not to push them into climbing, having witnessed quite a few ‘pushy parents’ in the past, and considering the fact that we’re dealing with a relatively dangerous activity.”

Dave's son Harry on Dream of White Horses aged 14

“That said, they hung around climbers much of their early years and were dragged up many a route and on plenty of ‘big walks’ in the Peak and North Wales. Today they’re both firmly anti-walking and have only a passing interest in climbing but who knows, they may come back to it.”

The essential ingredient to having fun

The other thing all the dads agreed on was the mood-enhancing role of snacks. When there's a wobble, try shaking a packet of Skittles. “When heading outdoors take plenty of their favourite munches,” advises Dave. Steve agrees: “Take way more food than you imagine!” “Yes,” says Swansea-based Mountain Instructor Matt Woodfield, whose little one, Hannah, is now 3: “A snack can distract, motivate or calm.” (No-one said ‘bribe’…).

Make sure you bring plenty of their favourite munches, advises Dave

The best ways to get started

Matt Heason, organiser of outdoor-themed events like ShAFF, advises: don’t be precious with your furniture. A sofa is a mountain to a toddler; children enjoy doing things in short bursts and it encourages them to learn climbing techniques through play: “We never told our boys not to climb on stuff,” says Matt. “The sofas were always fair game (though they had to ask permission when not at home).” Matt lives in the Peak District with his wife, Sophie, and two sons, Bryn and Dylan who are now 13 and 10.

Steve agrees, and adds that playing at the crag is a great way for little kids to develop the technical, mental and physical skills required for climbing: “Nearly every kid loves being outside and running around. And if they are having fun they may end up getting into climbing more seriously later.

“Running over boulders, scrambling up easy slabs and jumping between rocks teaches kids about friction and balance and forces. It also teaches them about loose rock, wet rock and mossy rock.” Apparently that doesn’t mean you can just go climbing while they run about, though: “This kind of day out is quite intensive for the parent, with a fair bit of looking after to be done, but you’ll come home happy because they are, and because they will want to go again.”

A young Harry McClure learning through play at the crag

“Indoor bouldering is another great place to start as it’s just a big play den for most kids,” adds Jon. “Roped climbing is a much bigger step as children need to learn to trust the equipment and gain the confidence to let go at the top of a climb.”

“Yes,” agrees Steve: “There’s nothing to be gained from tying them onto a rope and scaring them stupid just so you can be chuffed that little Johnny did his first 6a.”

Kids are often social climbers

Dave found that letting his kids bring their mates along when going climbing or walking really helped motivate them. Matt Woodfield agrees: “Bring some friends and family along and they’ll be asking for ‘their go’ in no time.”

Jon also recommends stepping right out of the way sometimes. He and his wife found that kid’s club worked wonders for their children’s confidence, because climbing instructors have tons of tools, games, and tricks to slowly progress and learn in a fun way.

"It's my go!" Jon's two at Gaillands in Chamonix 

Matt Heason’s sons enjoyed going to the climbing wall regularly, too - the Mini Works - which led to them having a go at BMC competitions from an early age. He and his wife encouraged them without pushing them, so they didn’t feel pressured to do well: “I hate seeing kids crying if they fail on something,” says Matt.

The skills that his boys learnt through enjoying competitions made them more capable at climbing outdoors, which in turn has increased their interest and enjoyment.

Matt Heason's wife Sophie and their two boys

Making the move outdoors

When stepping up to route climbing, Jon recommends going to crags where you can walk off the top to start with, because letting go at the top of a route can feel understandably scary, leading to panic and tears.

Making sure they are comfortable is also key, advises Dave, so bring plenty of layers and don’t overdo it: “Plan routes that are within their ability and realistic. Avoid boggy walk-ins, rain and gritstone, precarious footpaths near cliff edges and scary traverses. Remember, even easy-looking routes can be scary for youngsters and put them off for life. A positive experience is key.”

“Think about things kids like,” adds Dave. “Consider getting a dog, as it motivates them to get into the hills. Combining an outdoor activity with camping can be a good way to make it exciting and maintain their interest.”

Dave Turnbull (far right) and friends on the way to Orkney

Sometimes surprising things trigger the interest of little ones: Steve bought his son a new harness and now 7-year-old Harry is “Mad keen to climb stuff and clip colourful bits of kit to his harness!”

Be prepared not to climb

“Chances are, a few routes or boulder problems will be enough for them. Don’t push it - more is not always better,”  advises Steve. “Kids don’t just want to climb all the time.” He advises letting them play with other things at the crag: perhaps placing gear at ground level or reading a book. “A book is particularly useful if you have two or more kids, in case one loses interest and the other doesn’t.”

Matt Woodfield agrees that keeping an open mind and adventuring little and often is key. Sometimes Hannah wants to climb, other times she might change her mind and want to play a game in the woods. “A beach crag works well for this,” says Matt, “Because you can switch from sandcastles to climbing to playing in the sea. The key is that if they have fun they will want to do it again.”

Matt Woodfield and Hannah. Photo: Mikaela Toczec

Learning their own limits

“We encouraged our boys to jump off stuff from an early age, so that they could learn their limits,” says Matt Heason. “They’ve always been allowed to assess their own risk-taking. As a result, I feel they know better than anybody whether they can do something or not.”

“My oldest has started showing a bit of desire to solo easy routes on the grit,”  he adds, “Which is challenging as a parent. I’ve drummed into him that it’s 100% a personal thing and shouldn’t be seen as a way of showing off. I do worry how this will manifest itself when he starts to use social media, but we will cross that bridge we come to it.”

These days I often throw them on something hard, says Matt Heason

And when they get better than you…

“These days I quite often throw them on something hard, and by and large they surprise me by actually doing it!” says Matt. “Being burned off by them is an extremely proud moment. I love it every time, though I don't let on - not at the time anyway, as we have a good bit of banter!”

Give kids time and space to develop an interest in climbing - or not, says Steve. “I’ve taken my two out from the moment they were born, but my daughter suddenly became really interested at age 12. All those playful trips to Burbage were then completely worth it: as soon as she got ‘psyched’ she instantly was bouldering V2 and V3 and climbing 6b+ on sport routes!”

Steve's daughter Amelie looking pretty psyched

“At the moment she drives the day,” he says: “First ahead with the boulder mat on her back, guide in hand and a brush on the holds. I didn’t really see it coming, but now a session with her, though not ‘hard’ for me (yet!) is as good as any day out for myself, and a reminder that 12 years ago, maybe I shouldn’t have worried about the impact kids would have on my own climbing after all!”

“I have to admit, I predicted my climbing going straight down the pan when I had kids! But things have turned out just fine, and to be perfectly honest, as I watch as my kids get into climbing in their own time and progress, and I share this sport with them, I’ve learned to love climbing even more than I’d have expected.”


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For parents:

WATCH: Just for Fun on BMC TV

WATCH: First Steps: Katy Whittaker on BMC TV

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