Toddlers and Climbing Gyms

Photo by Nicolette Attree on

I’ll admit: Sometimes I spend my very few hours of free time trying to get away from my three year old.

He’s rad. He’s awesome. I sincerely enjoy hanging out with him. And like all small humans, he can be a massive handful. Per every parenting coach, blog or fellow parent I know, my wife and I try to support each other taking breaks when we can.

Over the past year, that break had been occasionally going to the climbing gym to — and I say this loosely – practice bouldering or learn to top-rope climb from my sister-in-law, an expert climber. Mostly to sweat and practice the same very-low-to-the-ground problem repeatedly while enjoying loud reggae music. It’s nice to feel things on your hands that aren’t screens or a keyboard. The gym we go to is nice and crunchy – a serious escape.

One day I thought: let’s fuck it all up and take the kid!

Joking. My all-time favorite thing as a parent, besides being loved by them, is watching them experience something for the very first time. At the time of this decision, climbing furniture, book cases and anything deadly in the house enamored our oldest. A trip to the climbing gym seemed like a healthy way to harness that energy and hunger for him.

The Climbing Guy offers a ton of tips for preparing to climb with your little. I called our gym to make sure he was at the right age — every gym uses a different criteria so make sure to check with yours before bringing your little. Away we went.

Outside of logistics, here are the five things I learned when taking my toddler to the climbing gym:

1. Set zero expectations.

If you even make it to, or in, the building, consider it a win.

The first time we pulled into the climbing gym parking lot, my three year old was more enamored with the portable rock wall stored on a truck bed. We did not make it to the door. He was hungry. And honestly, so was I. I had promised hot dogs. So, our first “trip” to the climbing gym involved  zero climbing attempts and two hot dogs. I’m not a numbers person but that seemed like a statistically significant situation.

The second time, we got in the building!  Once you’re in, sign the waiver. You may feel weird signing a long document you haven’t read but essentially says If You Break This Human It’s Your Fault. But isn’t that the entire deal once you have the kid?

You will spend approximately 20 minutes gearing up, ungearing, gearing back up, explaining how the harness works, taking it off to change a pull-up, then gearing back up. A lot of zipping. The Velcro shoes are fun. If you can get them on them.

Trip two yielded a valuable lesson: just because my kid likes to climb on things at home does not mean that he will like or want to do those things in an actual climbing setting, like a rock gym.

For us, there is next to no climbing, at least not on a wall made for such things. This remains true on all subsequent trips we’ve made since our first foray into this world.

There will be bouncing on the floor. Jumping on the crash pads. Lots of clapping chalky hands together. Running. Screaming. Crying. Either by you, or your toddler, or both

2. Get them a chalk bag. No matter what.

Can we be real for a minute? Is there anything cooler than the chalk bag? No. It brings out the kid in all of us. So obviously, kids dig this part THE MOST. Don’t limit this part. It is by far where the true real-deal kid joy comes in. Pick up a chalk bag for your kid. There will be no sharing of this item.

The first time we went to the climbing gym, my three-year-old spent the entire hour sticking his hand in the bag, getting his hands chalky then clapping them together. “I’m really into how much you appreciate good friction man,” said a good-natured climber nearby.

The second trip, my little guy slid the carabiner into his kids harness to connect the bag. Again, hardly used for climbing and he used a quantity that would probably cover most climbers for a year. (Tips for actually using chalk can be found here!) For days, all he talked about was the chalk bag.

 When we came home to my wife and daughter, he proudly held his white calloused little paws up and said MOMMY I HAD CHALK. Pure freaking joy.

3. Take a buddy

If you have your heart on teaching your little to do actual climbing, or to attempt it, it helps to have a buddy.

Our climbing gym is full of supportive and kid-friendly staff who helped encourage him or offered to climb beside him. My kiddo occasionally needs extra coaxing, and usually a known-support-grownup to hold his hand while he’s scaling upwards, downwards or hopping around. My sister-in-law took care of belaying him so I could hold his hand or encourage him to explore the train-shaped holds at our gym.

I made sure to have my schpeel on why it’s ok to be afraid ready in my mind. I also made sure to have my skills in order to safely belay him or show him how to move around the gym safely so he wouldn’t get hurt.

4. Ask questions. Of your kid. Of the staff.

In my first newsroom, my editor Eric made a mantra of telling us “show, don’t tell.” I used to abide by that mantra religiously until I had kid. Then it became a lot of telling. Which is kind of dumb.

For some reason, being in the rock gym compelled me to ask my kid more questions. “What do you think of that?” “How does that feel on your hands?” “Do you like the choo choo hold or the bike hold more?”

I learn a lot about him each time we go, and I hope it makes me a parent better that gives him more autonomy.

It’s the same thing with the staff. Don’t be embarassed to ask them questions, like if you can’t remember how to properly clip the harness after a diaper change or even tips for getting them acclimated to the space.

5. Remember why you’re there.

The endeavor of taking my three-year-old to the rock gym had absolutely nothing to do with climbing. It had everything to do with trying something new together, exploring new textures and ways to work with our hands and spend time in one of the last places where screens do not exist.

The climbing cubby of a three year old

I took my belay certification class using my kid as my partner. Does that qualify me to belay an adult? Absolutely not. At the suggestion of one of the staff at the gym, it was more to show my three year old how to approach something new together. It was a new skill for me, and he had to trust I wouldn’t drop his 27-pound, dinosaur-pajama-sweatsuit clad body. He had to climb away from me alongside our instructor and the brilliant part was – he did! We both pushed our comfort zones together.

Our climbing gym has super nice people in it. There’s also a resident pup – Daisy – who strolls around and lets any kid love up on her. On weekends, plenty of other kids scale the walls and the ropes course along the ceiling. There’s loud music, chalk dust, sweat. It’s you, yourself, a wall, and other people who are into such things. A refreshing way to spend a few hours no matter your capabilities. It’s all about learning safely..

Each time we go, he explores a new part of the gym, showing me something extraordinary about an ordinary space I’ve looked at dozens of times but never really deeply experienced. I didn’t realize the crash pads had a fun moon-like bounce to them. I didn’t notice the bicycle-shaped or train-shaped holds on a smaller wall. I didn’t notice the brightly color holds under an even cooler wooden staircase on the upstairs boulder spot. I never organized my stuff in the cubby and left everything a mess.

Until I took my kid.

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