Does Your Toddler’s Desire to Climb Make YOU Want to Climb The Walls?

June 18, 2012 · 17 comments

in Daily Life, Development, Discipline, Play, Toddlers, Uncategorized

“Help! My toddler has discovered climbing and tries to climb everything — chairs, tables, gates, bookcases. I am constantly telling him no and pulling him down from things. When we’re at someone else’s house it’s hard to enjoy myself because I’m always chasing him. What can I do to get him to stop? Or is climbing a good thing?” When and where is it appropriate to allow babies and toddlers to climb? Should they be allowed to climb on furniture or in the shopping cart areas of store parking lots because they want to and they are capable of doing so?

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Many children go through a stage of wanting to climb on everything, and some never seem to outgrow the desire to climb! Children develop their self confidence, balance, judgement, planning skills, eye/hand coordination, perseverance, and more as they climb and move their bodies through space, so why not let them climb anywhere and everywhere they choose to? You might be surprised to hear that I discourage allowing young children to climb on furniture, (or in public places like store parking lots that aren’t designed for this purpose), and my reason for doing so doesn’t have as much to do with safety concerns (although safety is a consideration), as it does with the fact that furniture is not made for climbing on, and while I encourage and support children to move, explore, and play freely, I also feel strongly about guiding young children to learn to respect not only themselves, but other people, and their environment. The reality is that we live in relationship and community with others, and children first learn about expectations, boundaries, and social mores at home with parents and siblings. I think babies and toddlers are able to understand that there are places and times appropriate for climbing, and others that aren’t, and a child’s desire (and maybe even need) to climb and explore can be met even as loving adults guide him to appropriate places to practice and hone his physical skills.

I once worked  in a childcare center as a member of a teaching team of three, caring for a group of seven infants and toddlers ranging in age from three to fifteen months. A frequent topic of conversation during our weekly planning meetings was how to utilize our classroom space to best meet the developmental needs of the group. We were lucky to have access to a number of  movable pieces of wooden climbing equipment, and a twin sized mattress, so the possibilities for creative and challenging room arrangements were many. We also had access to a fenced, grassy, shaded play yard with climbing equipment suitable for mobile babies and young toddlers.

We had a wide open floor plan, with floor to ceiling windows against one wall, a separate nap room, a designated area for diaper changing and a small kitchen area with a linoleum floor and a toddler sized table and chairs. There was a rocking chair for adults to sit in while feeding babies a bottle. One of the most frustrating aspects (for children and adults) of this floor plan was that while we endeavored to create an environment that allowed the children to play and explore freely, we often found ourselves having to stop inquisitive and eager new explorers from climbing over the non-mobile babies, or on the table or the rocking chair, or from trying to scale the low wooden toy shelves. The children often made no distinction between the “approved” climbing equipment, and the other babies or the utilitarian pieces of furniture in the room, and in fact, sometimes seemed to prefer the furniture for climbing.

My colleagues argued that we should patiently and consistently let children know that other children, the table, chairs, and the rocking chair weren’t for climbing, which meant stopping them and showing them where they could climb instead. If a child was particularly persistent, and not easily redirected we resorted to “containing” him  for a short while by sitting him in a chair at the table with a book or a few toys, or maybe by taking him and a few friends for a walk outside in the stroller. In theory, this sounded like a good idea, but in practice, we ended up spending a lot of our day redirecting babies and saying no, which was frustrating for them and for us, especially since there was usually only two adults in the room at a time, and one of us would inevitably be busy changing, feeding, or helping a baby in the nap room, while the other supervised the remaining children.

climbing steps

 

I had a nagging discomfort, a feeling that somehow we weren’t meeting the needs of the children very well, because (my rationale went) if they were so driven to climb, we either needed to provide an environment that met and allowed for that need without us having to constantly redirect them, or maybe we should let them climb wherever they wanted to, and not restrict them (except for when it came to climbing over other babies). After all, with the exception of the glider, which could potentially tip over if a toddler stood up on it, none of the furniture posed a very big safety risk. My colleagues maintained that it was important for the babies to learn that some places were for climbing, and others weren’t. I didn’t know if I agreed if it meant spending my day “putting out fires” and  redirecting babies to other areas of the room, or somehow confining them.

In the midst of my search for answers to this dilemma, I was introduced to Magda Gerber’s idea of creating a totally safe, but challenging, play environment for babies in which they are free to explore and move as they wish without a lot of interference or direction from adults. This seemed like an impossible task to accomplish given our floor plan and the fact that we were caring for seven babies of varying ages and developmental abilities in the same room. Much to my surprise, there was a simple answer to our dilemma, and that was to use sturdy gates to create very clear environmental boundaries for babies. The other solution was to stop rearranging and re-configuring the room on a weekly basis as we had been doing- the theory being that the babies didn’t need novelty as much as they needed consistency and predictability.

We decided to try this idea, using gates to partition the room into four distinct areas- one for feeding, another for diaper changing, a small play area for non-mobile infants, with the largest part of the room becoming a play and climbing area for mobile babies and toddlers, with a cozy quiet nook under the climbing structure. The “creation” of distinct areas for certain tasks immediately reduced the need for adult intervention and redirection by about 90%. It was clear to the children what the purpose of each area was, and despite the gates, which had to be opened and closed by the adults, the children actually had more freedom and choice than they had enjoyed previously.

This was the beginning of my understanding of how to “use” or adapt the home or school environment to create safety and freedom within clearly defined limits. So, how might this lesson translate in a home and family environment if you’ve got a little climber on your hands, and you want to encourage and support her growing physical prowess and mastery? What can you do to allow her to exercise her desire to test her limits, while also helping her to learn to exercise some self control, learn social graces, and to utilize furniture for its intended purpose as opposed to using furniture as her personal climbing gym? Here are some ideas:

 

Two Ideas For Creating Inexpensive Outdoor Climbing Opportunities In A Small Space

 

1) Childproof and use gates in your home and yard to block off areas or rooms that are off limits unless you are able to be present and available to intervene and model desired and expected behavior. If you are able to, consider dedicating a room or part of a room to creating a completely safe play area, and start spending time with your baby in this play space from day one.This space can evolve as your child grows and her needs change. If you’ve got stairs in your home, use them to allow your child to practice climbing. Do this by using a sturdy gate to block off all but one or two stairs, and then gradually increase the number of stairs she has access to as she becomes more confident.

2) Within the environment you have created, allow your child free, unrestricted movement. Stay nearby to observe, but don’t put babies into positions (or lift them onto equipment) they can’t get into by themselves. In this way, they will develop good judgment about what they can and can’t safely do. Surprisingly, a recent news article pointed to the fact that a common playground injury (a tibia fracture) often occurs when parents slide down playground slides with their toddlers on their laps! Magda Gerber urged parents to allow babies to move in their own time and their own way, according to their inner dictates,”Whenever you restrict an infant from doing what he could and would do naturally, in my mind you tell the child, “I know what’s good for you.” But you, the adult, do not know. For example, most children (not all), when they first go down stairs, go head first-they like to see where they go. Some people say it’s safer for infants to crawl down stairs backwards, and they teach infants how to go down that way. The child may become confused because his body tells him one thing and the adult another, and then the child may fall.”

Climbing Sunshine Mountain

3) Consider adding a few simple pieces of play equipment to your indoor space that are appropriate for, and invite climbing. This can be especially important and helpful if you live in a small home and don’t have easy access to a yard, or if you live in climates that make outdoor play prohibitive at times. Here are some suggestions for climbing equipment that is sturdy but easy to move, and can be used indoors or out: I recommend the Step 2 Naturally Playful Lookout Treehouse and Community Playthings Step Climber/Rocking Boat. (You can often find perfectly good, used equipment at garage sales for a fraction of the price of new.) Here is a link to a site that sells child size table and chairs, and climbing equipment like the kind we utilize in RIE parent/infant classes.

4) Spend lots of time outdoors, at playgrounds or parks. Let your children climb rocks, trees, slides, monkey bars, and hills to their heart’s content. If the weather prohibits this, consider finding and using an indoor children’s gym or play area that has free play time. (I’d recommend avoiding organized movement classes or directed play until children are well past the preschool age.)

5) Remain calm and consistent when setting limits with your young toddler around climbing. “You want to climb on the table, but I don’t want you to climb here. The table is where we sit to eat. If you want to climb, you may climb here (showing him).”

What do you think? Do you allow your child to climb on furniture at home? Why or why not? If not, what have you found works to help satisfy your child’s desire to explore his desire to climb?

 

 

 

 

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 janetlansbury June 18, 2012

Wow, the baby on the green ladder’s expression speaks volumes! I love the way you’ve addressed so many important issues in this post, Lisa. We certainly don’t want to curtail the precious enthusiasm of a climber, but how to we create an environment where the intervention will be minimal and the encouragement maximized? You’ve answered this and so much more here. LIsa. Thank you for this post.

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2 janetlansbury June 18, 2012

*do*

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3 Gina Osher June 19, 2012

It struck me that part of this is about creating an environment where our children can be successful. That is, if you set it up so that children know where they can and cannot climb, they have no need to struggle against us and we can enjoy their natural instincts. Great post (as usual), Lisa. Thank you! And I seriously LOVE that tire pile. I wish I had room for that in our yard…my kids would go bananas for it! :)

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4 Antje June 20, 2012

What a timely article! We have just needed to implement a “no climbing on the table” rule. Our 13-month-old daughter is allowed to climb onto chairs & sofas, and also the bedside tables in our bedroom so that she can look out the window. Perhaps that’s too permissive; I don’t know. But tables & desks are where I draw the line. Thankfully she is not the renowned climber her father was!

We have recently moved to a new (but still small) apartment, and have done our best to keep the entire place as child-friendly as possible. We keep the doors to the bathroom and our adult bedroom closed if we are not able to supervise her, and otherwise she can have a lot of free range throughout the apartment. She is learning that books and CD’s/DVD’s must stay on shelves (except her own books), and which kitchen cupboard is for her to play in.

We can only manage a very small (approx. 5′x3′) gated play area in our living room that is 100% hers. We are starting to use it less and less, and I’m wondering at what point such a thing should be eliminated? At this point I try to put her in there once a day to keep it “current”, but I really only want/need to use it when I’m dealing with hot things in the kitchen, or on the rare occasion when my daughter is in a “must test all the boundaries” sort of headspace and needs a break. Her own bedroom is also 100% safe in case she suddenly learns to climb out of her crib, but I don’t want to encourage that as her default play area because it is not easily monitored from anywhere else in the apartment, and I want her to think of it as a calm room, not a stimulating one.

Any advice for our tiny gated play area? How to keep it engaging for an ever-mobile child? When to eliminate it altogether?

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5 Lisa June 24, 2012

Hi Antje!

I wonder if it would work for you to purchase a step stool, and let your daughter use it to climb onto in order to look out the windows? Just a thought. I like to encourage and allow children to use real tools to accomplish goals and tasks, if possible. So, I’d say, “If you want to look out the window, let’s go find a step stool, instead of climbing on the table.”

I would keep the gated play area for another several months (until your daughter is at least two years old), even if you only use it as you are describing, although I would encourage you to use the space every day at a consistent time if possible, so your daughter sees it as “her space” and looks forward to playing there, as opposed to seeing it only as a place where you “put” her when she’s getting into things or may be in danger.

One way to keep the space engaging for a growing child is to have fewer toys, but ones which provide for more complex play and imagination, and/or meet her current interests and needs for movement. For instance, can you add just one piece of climbing equipment- even if it is a simple ramp? Think of all the ways she could use that ramp , both for climbing and sliding herself, but also for experimenting with balls and toy cars! Some other ideas- big, big pillows, and a sheet to turn the area into a fort, or empty 10 gallon water bottles for pushing around. How about adding some big cardboard boxes? Not all of these things at once, but maybe change it up every two weeks or so.

I’d also try adding some containers and small toys for filling and dumping, baby dolls and kitchen items (empty egg cartons, empty paper towel rolls for pretend play), simple puzzles, a ball run, shape sorters, and big cardboard blocks (again, not all at once, but changing them out maybe every few days)- toys that encourage pretend play, and challenge her mind as well as her body. You’ll know when it’s time to eliminate the play space all together! I’d love to hear how it’s going for you, and if any of these ideas are helpful!

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6 Janet S June 21, 2012

Great article. One of my twins is a super climber. I have stopped trying to get them both from romping all over the couch, but I have always drawn the line at the tables…they are not for climbing on. This is pretty hard to reinforce, certainly, but with lots of repetition (many long months) it seems to be getting better.

Actually, one thing that helped a lot for us was opening up *more* of the house. We previously had them gated into two rooms due to our kitchen being in mid-remodel. It is going to stay in that state a while longer, so I finally put everything dangerous or breakable up out of their reach (much is hanging on the walls now) and gave the girls more free reign (they are two years old now) which has made them feel more “in control” I think. I also ask them to do little tasks for me, like load the washer or vacuum the floor, and the empowerment makes them more compliant in other areas, if that makes sense.

We do have a new climbing dome out in the yard that is just a little bit beyond their ability yet, but I’m trying to make it clear that this is really the only place around our house to do major climbing. I wish I had more options for them, but I haven’t figured that out yet. I’m actually thinking of buying a ladder just to fasten to the wall somewhere. If it doesn’t “lead” anywhere, will it still satisfy?

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7 Lisa June 24, 2012

Hi Janet,

I think a “ladder to nowhere” could be a perfect solution to the challenge you are facing. Two year old children love to climb for the sake of climbing as opposed to climbing for the purpose of reaching a particular destination.

You make a good point about opening up the more of the house to your children. Establishing safe play areas and boundaries when children are babies helps them to form good habits and internalize boundaries. It also allows them the opportunity to move and play freely without being “corrected” or interrupted and allows you as a parent the opportunity to relax and just enjoy watching or being with them, or to be nearby, but engaged in your own work at times. Also, childproofing every area of the home is often a daunting task, so completely childproofing one or two rooms and then gating or closing off others unless you can be present and focused makes your job a bit easier. But as children gain more and more self control and understanding, it is often possible and desirable to open up more and more of the house to them, and two year old children are often thrilled to assist and participate in whatever household tasks you’re doing, so if they’re interested, and you have the time and can include them in a meaningful way, I say go for it!

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8 Alice Callahan June 24, 2012

Hi Lisa,
I so appreciate this post! As you know, climbing is something that has been on our minds with BabyC these days. For the time being, we’re allowing climbing on the couch and chairs, but not onto tables. I’m not totally comfortable with this, but I also feel uncomfortable “shutting her down” every time she tries to climb on something, not to mention the fact that saying “no” all day long is just not that much fun. I feel like we’ve been thoughtful about what we allow and don’t allow, and included in that is a consideration for the fact that BabyC is really careful, deliberate, and joyous in her climbing. Also, my husband and I have had a friendly disagreement about this. I would prefer to set a few more limits around climbing on furniture, but he feels strongly that BabyC should be allowed to go for it. In the spirit of co-parenting, we’re giving it a try.

I’d love to implement more of your ideas for creating appropriate climbing spaces, and I’ll think about how we can do this. One problem for us is that we do live in a very small house at the moment. It would be nearly impossible to gate off a special area for her, and we don’t have space to add much in the way of climbing structures – indoors or out. Regardless, with summer here, we’ll be outside for most of our waking hours, and we’ll find plenty of appropriate things to climb out there. My guess is that in a week or two, BabyC will have mastered the couch and be bored with it, anyway.

I also appreciate the idea that it is our job to teach our children socially acceptable behavior, and part of that is teaching them that climbing on furniture is not socially acceptable. However, I wonder if it is so crazy to try to teach my daughter that climbing on one and only one couch – the one in our home – is OK but that we don’t climb on couches anywhere else. What do you think about that idea?

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9 Lisa June 25, 2012

Hi Alice,

It was ironic that I got the e-mail that I quoted from to start this post on the exact same day you published your post about the “friendly debate” you and your husband were having about whether or not to allow Baby C to climb on the couch at home. This is a question that seems to come up for almost every family at some point, and like any other question that involves limits and boundaries and how to live together peacefully, every family has to come to their own conclusions and solutions based on what works best for the individual and collective needs of their own particular family members and situations. I believe there is value in considering and discussing the options and the pros and cons of various approaches or courses of action, and then doing what feels right to you. You can always change your mind (and change things) if something isn’t working, and as you note, when your partner has a different take on a particular situation, and you are co-parenting, you’ve got to find a way to compromise.

For some children and some parents it works better and is easier if the limit is consistent and the same at home as it is everywhere else. For others, it works if there is a certain freedom that is allowed at home but not anywhere else. “At home, it is OK to climb on the back of the couch, but at everyone else’s house, you can sit on the couch instead of climbing.” Do I think that young children can understand and co-operate with different expectations, guidelines, or preferences for different people/places/situations? Absolutely. Children are often very observant, flexible, and resilient, and as long as adults are clear, kind, and consistent, children tend to adapt well. (It’s more difficult for young children if there are lots and lots of different rules to remember, or if the limit changes arbitrarily from day to day or situation to situation.)

To give you an example, in one family I worked with, Mom and Dad were both very active, hands on parents, but they had some areas where they didn’t agree 100%. For instance, one parent was comfortable with allowing the children to climb on the couch and bounce on the bed, and the other was not. The way they solved it was that when Daddy was “in charge” climbing on the couch and jumping on the bed was allowed, but when Mama was “in charge” it wasn’t. When the family was all together, Mama’s wishes prevailed on this one because she felt more strongly about the issue than Dad did. The children were clear. There was no negative energy around it. It was just the way it was in their family, and it worked. I think maybe even more important than the answer to the question of “Do we let Baby C climb on the couch?” is the discussion (and the spirit in which you are having the discussion) you and your husband are having about your values and the process you are engaging in of making conscious choices about how you will instill those values (raise your child). What a tremendous example and gift to Baby C that you are both so thoughtful, listening to each other, working together, and sometimes compromising when you have areas of difference.

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10 HIlary September 28, 2012

I’m wondering if anyone has advice on how to have an 11 month old who’s not walking yet outside. He still wants to put everything in his mouth, rocks, leaves, bugs, and not sure how to let him have free play outside. Thanks!

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11 Lisa October 23, 2012

Hi Hillary,

I just discovered this wonderful web site that I think might be interesting/helpful to you. It’s called Nature Play. Take a look! http://www.nature-play.co.uk/index.html

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12 Helen November 11, 2012

We used the step-stool method very successfully … I realised as I pulled my first toddler off an armchair (that I was afraid would tip over backwards) that he couldn’t see out of the windows of the rented flat unless he was being carried! I took for granted the view out onto open fields and even, joy of joys (!), some construction traffic but because of his height he couldn’t actually see out of the windows independently unless he was standing on the coffee table or creeping up the back of this chair ….
We had a stool in the bathroom for him to climb to reach the handbasin, and one in the kitchen so that I could reach higher shelves … that in itself modelled the fact that adults sometimes climb on a stool to reach something and reinforced the idea of making a safe choice to meet a need.
The stools with two steps were particularly popular with both of my boys and sometimes just climbing up to sit on top of the stool with a toy was the desired activity. Sometimes turning the stool upside down to become a boat was the choice, and that sometimes led to a spill out of boy and collapse of stool hitting floor! For that reason, as well as the trapping of fingers, I would avoid the stool where the lower step folds up within the main stool body. A simple solid rectangular wooden stool with one jutting out lower step and a slit like handle in the top (for posting things!) was the best of our various purchases, and plenty strong enough for an adult to stand on as well.
We aimed for something in every room, or area of the open plan part, that the child was welcome to climb, and we have also maintained a mantra of “That is not made for climbing on, what do you have that is safe for climbing?”
One particular bugbear of mine, that I am still fighting with my 4 year old, is the grocery packing shelf at the end of check-outs in supermarkets …. It is not just the image of him toppling backwards onto the tiled floor, it is, as mentioned above, the fact that other people’s homes and businesses and so on have rules that must be respected – and it is also the truth that many inviting surfaces are not designed to take the weight of a growing child and may not be strong enough to do so.

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13 Angie October 29, 2013

Hi! Thank you for your article. I tried to find RIE inspired furniture with your link, but it was broken. Here’s the new site for Radomir: http://radomir.org/RIE_Furniture.html

Thanks!

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14 Lisa November 7, 2013

Thanks for letting me know Angie. I’ve updated the link in the post, as well.

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15 Heidi November 11, 2013

Hi…what is the name of the green slide on the stairs? Where can that be purchased?

Thanks, Heidi

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16 Lisa November 11, 2013

Heidi, I don’t know. I took the picture in Santa Cruz, CA, because I was intrigued to see such an ingenious use of a slide.

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