Introducing Kids To Rock Climbing | My Family Travels

Learn about the differences between synthetic climbing walls and real rock faces, age-appropriate climbing lessons, and why most schools cater to teens and older.

Rock climbing is a sport that either grabs kids or leaves them cold. Let’s examine what kids can learn from synthetic rock “walls,” when they may be ready to advance to the great outdoors, and how families can participate in this sport together.

The Chelsea Piers Sports Complex at 23rd Street and Hudson River (212/336-6000) was one of the first in New York with an indoor climbing wall, and offers rock climbing classes to ages 4 and up. How do their students get started?

Says Field House Manager K.J. Frazier, “To integrate kids from our many different preschool programs, we like to bring them up on The Wall together.” Assisting kids to climb 30′ in the air, demonstrating harnesses and safety knots, and teaching techniques such as rappelling and belaying are all part of an ongoing program. Frazier says that halfway through the 17-week session, some children will even advance to the 50′ wall at the Piers’ Gymnastics Center.

Comments noted teacher Jon Ross, founder of High Angle Adventures, “Climbing walls are a double-edged sword. The indoor environment doesn’t have the sense of intimidation that the outdoors has, which is great. But some kids who’ve had experience indoors think they can grab a rope and go out climbing on their own. Lots of adults make that mistake, too.”

Frazier agrees, “You can learn the basics in 20 minutes, but families should never try it outdoors without a professional guide, unless the parents are skilled rock climbers.” 

Heading Out to the Great Outdoors

High Angle Adventures  (178 Hardenburg Road, New Paltz, New York; 800/777-2546) specializes in the great outdoors. They have trained climbers for nearly three decades in upstate New York’s Shawangunk Mountains. Ross continues, “When parents call me, I first find out, ‘Whose interest is this?’ I tell parents, ‘If it’s your interest and not the youngsters’, wait until they ask for it.”

Ross, a 25-year veteran of the sport, explains, “In my experience, most youngsters are fearful. The issue is height. Since it’s not rational, our safety measures mean nothing to these kids. However, kids will usually climb a little higher in increments, on each try. We always try to look for the joy in climbing. That kids have risen to the occasion and met a challenge is its own reward.”

Special equipment, high insurance costs, park fees and additional training needed to teach kids means there are no “youth fares” in the sport. Ross urges parents to remember that, although they’ve paid for a full-day session, many kids don’t last that long.

Are your kids old enough to scale the heights? Ross notes: “I’ve worked with a very gifted 4-year old, but 6-7 years is typically the youngest. And over 8 years, kids are more mature. Parents know their kids better than I do, and should judge beforehand their kids’ discomfort level, attention span, and ability to focus and concentrate.” 

Dave Kelly disagrees. “As in almost every sport, the earlier they start, the better.” Kelly is a Manager of the EMS Climbing School (800/310-4504) in North Conway, New Hampshire. There, the nearby White Mountains are used both to train beginners and refine techniques for more advanced students. EMS’ children’s rock climbing program accepts children of any age, though Kelly concedes most child students are 10 to17-years-old.

Experts stress that beginners of any age can gain self-esteem from the sport. Yet few schools even cater to pre-teens. At Outward Bound Wilderness (866/746-9777), 14 is the minimum age for courses that often combine climbing with backpacking and rafting.  Older teens can participate in more specialized climbing courses.

Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (888/89-CLIMB from May – September and from December – April) runs the famous climbing program at America’s tallest peak, in Washington State.  Teens 15 and older can participate in the summit climb program with parents’ consent; private programs at Rainier are available for any age.

Want to ensure that your children’s interest in the sport lasts into adulthood? The experts all agree: Don’t push them. John Ross sums it up best: “This is a self-selecting activity. A twisted arm is going to end up in a bruised psyche along the way.”

  For Parents who want kids to start climbing young

1: Make sure the enthusiasm comes from your child.
2: If it’s important for your kids that you climb with them, come prepared.
3: Let your kids discover a sense of accomplishment for themselves.

Getting Started

Once your kids have expressed an interest and excitement about the sport, you can research local facilities for age-appropriate lessons.  Indoor gyms like Chelsea Piers, smaller local workout facilities and even public parks are the most economical, charging  $15-$25 for hour-long group classes. Outdoor climbing schools typically assign one instructor to three students; full-day rates run $110-$180 per person, including shoes and equipment.

Parents will find pre-fab rock climbing venues have also arrived at ski resorts, shopping malls, beach resorts, even museums! “Climbing the Walls” is an exhibit at the Children’s Museum Boston, where kids can learn to tie knots, try on rock-climbing gear, and rest on a Port-A-Ledge. Once comfortable, kids and parents can grab a helmet and scale either of the two 20-foot-long faux rock walls. Best yet for little ones, the Museum has a special smaller wall with a slide for kids age 3-5 to “climb” down.

And whether you and your kids are new to the sport or ready to take on the moves seen in the IMAX film The Body, check out Gary Joyce’s excellent Climbing With Children (205/322-0439; Menasha Ridge Press, $12.95). His advice comes from years of experience, his easy-to-follow instructions about gear come from expertise, and his good humor comes from his mantra “Keep it fun!”

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