How to get your kids into climbing

Keen to help your nippers embark on a great summer mountain activity? Read on...

a pre-teen on a rock face, the sun shining over a peak in the far distance

Start with ‘why’?

Who didn’t love climbing trees as a kid? Add swinging around on ropes, fancy technical gizmos and some cerebral (as well as physical) challenges, and we have an intoxicating and rewarding activity. It’s a perfect ‘summer in the mountains’ sport once the snow melts – you’ll find climbing walls and scrambles all across the Alps, and almost every alpine resort now has a via ferrata (ask the local guides office for info – it’s usually in the same place as the winter ski school).

Areas like the Dolomites are a veritable Mecca for via ferrata and rock climbing. Meanwhile, Innsbruck has a world class climbing wall.

If you want to get your kids into climbing to share your own personal passion for the sport then that’s great. But be careful to ensure you do it in a way that works for their agenda, not yours…

young child smiling and holding onto rock wall mid-climb

Play their way

The key is to give children as much control as you can possibly delegate regarding where to go, how long to do it for, and when to stop. And always keep it FUN.

In the same way that early family ski trips should be about the sledging and snowmen, make a family climbing holiday as much about sandpits and hanging out in the swimming pool at the campsite.

While we may be big kids, children are NOT just small adults: they frequently just want to play. We lived by a simple mantra when our kids were small – make it fun; make it achievable; and stop before they’ve had enough!

Look into local clubs, too. Other than skiing, I have yet to find an activity that kids would like to do all day every day, especially with their parents, rather than their mates. To that end, finding our tribe (e.g. I feel like I belong in a climbing wall – I don’t belong in a swimming gala) in our formative years is so important, and our clubs and activities really help with that.

Know where to start

Bouldering (climbing freely on short/small boulders and artificial structures) is probably the simplest and purest form of the sport. All you need is a pair of rock shoes at most. The great news for us parents is that the kids can usually jump and land way better than we can – and we can catch them when they are small. If you’d like to start indoors, it is easier than ever to find a local climbing wall. There you will find a weather proof activity, anytime of day, and help to get you started. You can do just as well outdoors, with some great natural boulders to combine with a picnic in the Peak District.

In the Alps, Austria is littered with resorts that offer an equally good family holiday in summer – wonderful bouldering, child-friendly (well-bolted) sport crags, plus great biking and lakes to swim in.

A personal favourite at any time of year is Andermatt in Switzerland. After the skiing is finished, the area offers superb climbing on immaculate golden granite, with a variety of family-accessible huts to base yourself and explore.

Variety is the spice of life

One of the great things about climbing is the sheer variety. It can be anything from a short gymnastic test-piece in a climbing wall to a long and lofty steep picnic in the mountains. The most important things we can do for our kids is give them opportunities and open their eyes to everything that’s on offer – along the way equipping them with the technical and mental skills to safely handle the situations they find themselves in.

Introducing ropes in the great outdoors will inevitably slow things down, so make sure they are good and ready for this level of technical challenge.

Take safety seriously

Kids simply don’t have the mental capacity to fully anticipate the consequences of their actions until later in life. Some of us never quite learn… Anyone who has taught their kids to drive will recognise that they don’t necessarily take the best advice from their parents. If you are part of a club or group, be ready to delegate to other responsible and competent adults, whom you trust.

Kids have the right to take part in any new sport or activity, without coming to any mental, as well as physical, harm. So go easy on them and make sure whatever you plan is age and stage appropriate to their development. Remember, nobody likes being out of control and feeling incompetent. But gravity never takes a day off, so there are things we need to learn, from how to fall and land safely, to holding each other’s ropes. If you feel like you need a bit of help with this, you might like to find a qualified and competent instructor.

Sustainable habits

If your nipper’s had a taste of climbing and wants to keep it up, you might like to find a club. If your kids are keen to become competent in their own right then, like many sports, climbing has a structured progression scheme.

The National Indoor Climbing Award Scheme (NICAS) is run at many climbing walls around the UK, and will give them a basis in the skills they need to climb for life.

a young child and two adult on a via ferrata climbing route

Useful links

The British Mountaineering Council has a great guide for parents. If you’re lucky enough to live in Scotland, see Climb Scotland for guidance, workshops and a path into competitions.

What are you waiting for?

Martin Chester (usually our Backcountry Editor) is also the Coaching Development Officer for Mountain Training and an International (IFMGA) Mountain Guide. He teaches rock climbing and scrambling from his home in North Wales throughout the summer months.