If you’re scrambling after a toddler to keep her from standing on tables or scaling bookshelves, you’re not alone. Toddlers LOVE to climb, and for good reason! After mastering crawling and pulling to stand, they need a novel challenge. They’re also curious, and climbing gets them to new heights (and objects – hello, hidden remote) that were previously out-of-reach. Plus, let’s face it, climbing is a fun way to burn that toddler energy.
Climbing is a nerve-wracking milestone, but it’s also an impressive one. We’ll take a look at the many ways it supports your little one’s burgeoning skills (and how to set up safe climbing activities), but first let’s explore how it evolves.
How Does Climbing Evolve?
Climbing evolves alongside other milestones: When baby learns to crawl she begins climbing up stairs on all fours. When she learns to stand, she starts climbing on low furniture. Increased agility soon leads to crawling both up and down stairs (backwards on the way down). Established walking and early running open the door to increasingly complicated climbing, as well as walking up stairs (with help). With practice, she needs less and less help getting up and down stairs (still leading with one foot). By 24 months, climbing is an established part of her getting-around repertoire.
How Does Climbing Support Development?
Climbing strengthens several skills, including:
Climbing requires a child to skillfully use her entire body, which provides vestibular and proprioceptive input that helps improve balance and coordination. Climbing involves stretching, which increases flexibility, and pulling with the arms/pushing with the legs strengthens large muscles. Bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body in different ways at the same time) is also in full swing.
Climbing helps refine small hand and foot movements, including grasping and gripping. It’s also primetime for hand-eye coordination practice as a child continuously uses what she sees to guide her movements.
Climbing supports spatial awareness concepts like above, below, over and under. It also involves continuous problem solving and motor planning, which help little ones learn to safely navigate their environments. Very few instances of climbing are exactly the same; even climbing onto a chair or up stairs can present slightly different challenges depending on the size of a chair or the width of a step: Where do I put my hand to pull myself up? How far do I need to lift my foot to reach the next stair?
This study from the University of North Florida, linked climbing activities to improved working memory – an essential cognitive skill. The study’s authors concluded that climbing and similar activities involve unpredictability which, in turn, recruits working memory to continuously update information so the body can adapt appropriately.
How do I Keep My Climbing Toddler Safe?
While we do recommend redirecting your little one from climbing on high furniture and bookshelves, we place emphasis on the word redirect. Because climbing is so important for development, scoop up your tot midway to the kitchen counter and show her where she can climb instead. This may be a small, developmentally-appropriate indoor climbing structure, or even a homemade obstacle course of cushions. Outdoor toddler playgrounds are also excellent for climbing, if your schedule (and the weather) permit.
Lastly, remember that toddlers are quick! Even if you monitor them closely they can get halfway up a bookshelf in a flash, so be sure to secure large pieces of furniture to the wall and block stairs at the bottom and top with a safety gate.