Tree hugger

Yesterday, I had one of those glorious “tra-lah!” moments, something completely unexpected, that ended up being a turning-point moment for both my son and I.

Instead of making a beeline for the treehouse on our visit to Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden, we turned left in search of a hedge maze we happened to notice on the map. We’ve been to the garden many times before, but never walked in this direction.

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As we turned the corner, angels started singing and the clouds parted. Right before our very eyes was the most perfect climbing tree I have ever seen in Singapore. If our afternoon was a movie, sunlight would have started shining out of its shimmering branches and the kids in the sandpit would have slowed to watch me run to it. I gripped my son’s hand a little tighter and spoke in a hushed voice, “Do you see what I see?”

Meeting the tree

He pretended to be excited for me, and we rushed over. He made some frail attempts at sitting on the trunk, the very first parting of branches. He eventually stood up and reached out his hands, then asked me which way he should go. A few attempts later, he confessed he needed the toilet so we left and came back.

On our return, the heavens smiled on us again. For there, up in the branches of this perfect climbing tree, were two very capable climbers. These boys had obviously been here before, and were swinging around the upper branches of the tree like acrobats. My son was mesmerised and, sitting in his post at the very first “V”, he watched their every move.

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First attempts

About a minute later, he stood up and started feeling the branches around him. Moving his feet this way and that. Stepping then pulling back. He asked my advice, and I suggested a route for him to try out onto a branch. I stood about a metre away, complimenting him when he switched feet or chose an easier part of the branch to grasp. “I think this is the highest I can go,” he said, when he got to a part of the branch with no easy support nearby. “Just sit.” I said. “Just sit and think of what to do next.”

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Truth be told, I was not sure what he could do next. He was clinging on for dear life. He was just over a metre off the ground, and shaking like a leaf. I thought we might have come to the end of our climbing road for today. But while sitting there, he was doing some very critical viewing of these other two boys. They were climbing up and down, finding a “comfy spot” and claiming it, swinging with one hand, hanging upside down.

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Try and reach me!

The next time my son stood up, he was no longer shaking. I could see the determination in his movements now. He wanted to get as high as these guys. And he wanted no more pieces of advice. He was getting up as high as he could, all on his own. He would climb another branch and call out, “Look at me, Mummy! Can you reach me now?”

It was about this same time that I was hit with a belly full of nerves. Where was the nearest hospital and how would I drive there? If he hit his head on the way down, how fast would the ambulance be? Could I see anything close by to use as a splint? I only have a spare pair of undies in my bag – would they be ok as a compress if he was bleeding seriously?

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He was now as high as he could get without sitting on the upper leaves of the tree. “I can see the sun up here!” he called out to anybody and everybody, the exhilaration flying off his voice. I felt sick. I could only look down at the leaf-covered ground. I had to focus on not letting two things come out of my mouth – my lunch, and the words, “Be careful!”

“I’m so high, I’m getting a lovely breeze” came the words from the treetops. I let my nervous energy bubble up with a laugh. I could hear the pride and sense of accomplishment in his voice. He had faced his challenge all on his own, and finished victorious. I relaxed a little, also feeling proud that I had not once pointlessly suggested he “be careful”, because I knew he already was. I knew he would only do what he felt capable of. That all kids have some kind of internal barometer for risk, and his body was going to take his lead, rather than my empty words. (See what Teacher Tom suggests instead of saying “Be Careful”)

Knowing their own capabilities

I had seen this first hand that very afternoon, while I was focused on keeping my lunch down. A mother had come past the tree with her young son and, eager to have him join in the climbing fun, picked him up and made him hug a branch about a metre off the ground. The boy rolled his body back into hers, laughing and making it clear that he wasn’t going to stay there. She continued, peeling his arms from around her neck and trying to get him to hold himself onto the branch while lying on his belly. This went on for a little while, until his mother maybe got tired and realised nobody was having any fun.

Within a minute of being brought down from his perch, the boy was back at the tree, this time standing beside one of the lowest branches. His mother was standing a little way away, probably looking up into the branches at my son and wondering how I was managing to not freak out at the sight of him so high.

First resting his body on the low branch, this little boy then swung a leg up to touch the branch. Swinging it again, he looped it over the branch and pulled himself up to sitting. Just like that. He was maybe 40cm off the ground, but from the smile on his face he may as well have been in the clouds. He was so happy with himself, and rightly so. His mother rushed over, and excitedly asked him if he wanted to be put back on the higher branch. But this little climber was having none of it. He stayed right where he was, listening to his own internal barometer letting him know his capabilities for that day.

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Benefits of tree climbing

As well as being able to test, evaluate and challenge their own capabilities, tree climbing has much to offer children.

  • Creative thinking & problem solving: Tinkerlab published this post about how tree climbing is a great way to develop creative thinking, reasoning and problem solving.
  • Learn to regulate their response to fear: My favourite Peter Gray has written about how risky play helps children regulate their own emotions, such as fear, by allowing kids to create their own opportunities to experience and manage fear in small doses.
  • Core strength and balance: A paediatric occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom from Timber Nook writes about the link between the kind of movements children practice when climbing trees and their core strength and balance, and how a lack of these can impact on their ability to focus in a classroom.
  • Sensory development: what better way to stimulate your senses that have to deal with different textures of a tree, judging which branch will hold your weight, testing if there is a foothold below you without seeing it, figuring out which space will be the best fit for your body. Angela Hanscom writes a great article about why she runs nature programs to help children with sensory integration.

The next morning after his life-changing tree-climb, my son woke with a few aches. “My hands worked hard, my legs worked hard, even my head worked hard!” he exclaimed, realising that somewhere, someplace inside himself, he had changed. He had a better sense of his own capabilities, a stronger sense of his ability to face challenge, and a vision of himself as a climber. He had grown in his own estimation.

P.S. I was equally proud of myself for not suggesting, not for one minute, that he should not go higher. I let him direct every moment of his climb. Though, yes, it at times made me shake with fear.

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