“As well as improving self esteem, tree climbing also encourages team work”
This weeks episode of BBC’s Countryfile, Matt Baker visits a charity called Down To Earth on the Gower Peninsula, South Wales. One of the staff members he speaks to is Lois Woodward (from 53:21 mins in) who has an MA in Developmental and Therapeutic use of Play.
Matt: Give us an idea of the science behind the therapy of play?
Lois: For children it is their natural form of communication and expression, and that is something we loose a little bit as we get older. Adults play in different ways but it still has all of the benefits. It can reduce stress, can improve well-being, mental health.
Matt: How does that fit into what goes on here?
Lois: The tree climbing, the adventurous activities and play are essential parts of the programmes. Tree climbing can help them to build trust because they are literally relying on other people to help them get up the tree. If they make their own goals with the tree climbing, they get a very big sense of achievement when they achieve that.
This short section was a joy to watch.
Tree of wisdom
There are many stories connecting trees with wisdom and change.
In the Genesis Bible story of Adam and Eve we have a Tree of Life which provides for all their needs and also a Tree of Knowledge which removes their innocence and tempts them.
In Norse tradition we have Odin discovering the meaning of life by pinning himself to the Yggdrasil tree and staying their for 9 days.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Two Towers it is a lengthy encounter between the Ents and the Hobbits which eventually leads to the defeat of Saruman the White.
In Disney’s Pocahontas, it is Grandmother willow who offers guidance and wisdom.
These stories place trees in the centre of life changing moments. Times of reflection, decisions and transformation.
The trees I have climbed
Thinking back to my own history of climbing trees. I remember being a child on holiday with my family and copying the games of the older kids around us by swinging from a tree branch over a river – fearless and seeking adventure but aware of the concerned looks from adults thinking about the “what if”. I remember one house where I lived as a teenager had a huge tree in the back garden; a swing which my grandfather had made hung from the lowest branch but when I climbed to the highest branches I was taller than the house itself- a great place to escape from teenage pressures. More recently while walking my dog in a local country park I again found myself climbing a tree, this time very aware of the height and my less agile body and much more in tune with those concerned looks from my childhood.
The risks of climbing
To climb a tree you have to trust in your grip and foothold. You have to be in-tune with the strength of the branches and flexible enough to navigate the path up. Then there is the coming down with the added impingement of not quite always being able to see the best places and needing to feel your way and control the descent. I understand why many people stopped climbing trees and why many children are now not encouraged to start. But being in a tree is also a very peaceful and connected experience. Seeing the world from a different perspective. A chance to get close to nature. It is liberating.
I once attended a health and safety training course ran by Hackney Play Association who said that we have taken away the danger from child play but this has made the world more dangerous for our children because they no longer learn to manage risks. Children who do not take risks in play are far more likely to grow into teenagers who take dangerous risks such as playing on railway lines. This is also the ethos behind Free Range Kids parenting which wants children to have more autonomy and opportunities to play in a way which is natural.
There is a danger to climbing trees. You could fall. You could get stuck. Broken bones, twisted ankles and scrapped knees are all possible. So I understand not wanting to take that risk. It is great that programmes such as Down To Earth have found ways to use harnesses to allow children (and adults) to experience tree climbing safely. No one should put themselves in unnecessary danger of serious harm but I wonder if we have become so fearful of potential harm that we are no longer prepared to trust our own bodies and the nature around us and climb the great trees.
I wonder what trees you have climbed and when you last climbed them?
The episode of Countryfile can be watched again by anyone with a British TV licence until 2nd July 2019.