Our little one is becoming a regular weekend gym rat at our local climbing gym, Climb Nashville. Nea and I workout and climb there during the week and take our daughter on the weekend. We play games and act goofy, but we have found that there are some other things we need to do or ensure to make sure we all fun while at the gym. After all, she is a toddler!
We love taking her to the climbing gym. We'll usually ask her if she wants "to go to the climbing gym" before we leave. She has always said yes, but if she ever does say no, we'll honor her choice and give her some other fun options of things to do. Nea and I both came to try and enjoy climbing (mostly in the gym) later than most. We were just passing 30 when we started going to the climbing gym together regularly. Neither of us participated in activities like hiking, climbing, etc. much, if at all before we met each other a decade ago. Our goal here isn't to shape our daughter into a world class climber, it's simply to expand her opportunities and repertoire of available activities as early as possible. It's up to her to decide what she likes, dislikes, loves and wants to spend more time on. We're trying to be introductory and then encouraging, i.e., we are doing our best to not push things we like on her, which would be an easy trap to fall into.
Climbing Expectations (or lack thereof)
It may sound odd at first, but we don't have any expectations that she will climb when we go to the gym. We want the climbing gym to be a welcoming, safe and fun place for her to go. The staff there are always warm and welcoming, so they have that part taken care of before we even walk through the door. We find that she responds well to a predictable routine, as do most kids, so we try to adhere to a common arrival routine. This includes checking in at the front desk, asking for a harness and shoes, finding a place to sit and put on the harness and shoes, putting on our harness and shoes, stowing our extra items away, and then walking around, eventually making our way to the toddler-friendly routes.
Once we're at the routes we look at the hand holds, point out the really fun ones (lady bug, monkey, fire fly, etc.), and ask her if she wants to climb. If she says yes, we go through the routine of checking buckles, hooking her harness up to the rope and communicating with the belayer. If she says no, we leave the immediate climbing area and allow her to walk around and observe. Part of the fun at the climbing gym is seeing the walls, seeing the people, watching bodies move in funny ways, and hearing the noises of music, people, climbing and laughter. If she chooses to climb, then awesome, we'll help her do that. If she requests to come down while on a climb, we help her down right away. It so happens, that she has never completely declined to climb while at the gym, but some trips have a higher quantity and quality of climbs than others. Either way, she has always had fun.
I wish I could say we always had fun, too. The truth is, and this is confession time, the first time we took her and she chose to not climb, I was really bummed out. I was even a little frustrated. Fortunately for me and for our daughter, we have an amazingly smart and loving person to provide proper perspective. Nea reminded me of all the points above, and we decided that we (read: "I") needed to adjust our (read: "my") climbing expectations. Together we decided to not have any at all, but we also decided that it was fair to have parental goals.
These are some things that we attempt, as parents, to accomplish through practice and modeling every time we take our daughter to the climbing gym. Again, none of them are directly related to her actual climbing attempts or skills.
We try to make sure that everything we do at the gym is safe. Not only do we need to make sure she is safe, but we need to make sure others are as well. It's really cute to have a toddler all harnessed and shoed up, but we are very aware that it can also be hazardous. It wouldn't take much for a little one to knock a belayer off balance or end up underneath a boulderer. We do our best to model and shape appropriate gym behavior at all times.
Follow Gym Rules
Here are the big ones we're really emphasizing at the moment:
1) We can only be within the climbing wall area when we are climbing. These boundaries are clear: loose pebbles = the climbing wall area. If we're on loose pebbles, we need to be engaging in behaviors related to climbing a wall route. Speaking of loose pebbles...
2) We walk on and look at the loose pebbles around the climbing wall. This is in direct opposition to laying on, sifting, throwing or tasting them.
3) We watch boulderers from outside of the bouldering area. At our gym, as I imagine at most, no one under the age of 14-years is allowed in the bouldering area. This particular rule, while completely understood and appreciated, is hard. Seriously, the bouldering floor is super soft, and fun to walk/run on! Speaking of running...
4) We walk...no matter how excited or annoyed we are.
Wear Harness and Shoes
We always require her to put on the harness and climbing shoes. The shoes are easy; she loves shoes, and the Evolv Venga climbing shoes we borrow from the gym are really easy to put on and adjust. Full-body harnesses, on the other hand, can be pretty difficult to put on a tiny moving body. Luckily, she seems to really enjoy wearing it, so she's fairly chill while we're putting it on her. We've found that we need to work as a team to keep her fairly chill about it, though. One of us will position the leg loops on the floor and hold them in place so the other can set her feet down into them. That usually takes some delicate positioning and a touch of good luck.
I vividly remember going with my dad when I was a kid to see a huge helicopter place the Goddess of Liberty statue atop the Texas State Capitol in Austin (it was replaced during Capitol restoration). Whenever we start putting the harness on our daughter I think about that helicopter hovering with a statue connected below it, trying to position it just right over a very precise location. They tried several times over three days before they got the positioning perfected. Placing our daughter into those leg loops is a lot like that. Sure, we could de-buckle the straps and wrap them around her legs before re-buckling them into loops, but neither of us have the kind of coordinated speed that would require. So, once her feet have been inserted inside the leg loops we both work like a race car pit-crew to get the harness pulled up and properly positioned, all straps tightened and all extra straps folded and tucked away. If the process isn't fast and seamless she gets restless, which makes it all exponentially more difficult. By the way, we're currently researching harnesses for purchase. The CAMP full body harnesses at the gym are great, but probably a little too big for our daughter. Suggestions? We'll post about this soon.
Last, but certainly not least, we do our very best to be aware of her needs. Our daughter's enjoyment of gym time (thus our enjoyment of gym time), is directly related to our awareness of her needs. In other words, if she's not able to identify and/or communicate her needs, it's our job to help her figure out how to. We do our best to be aware of her level of engagement, excitement, frustration, etc. If she gets upset, we don't pack up and leave, we give her time to calm down and then ask her if she wants to stay. If she does, we do. If she doesn't, we don't. If she gets frustrated with her coordination we encourage her to keep trying and offer help. If she would rather just hang out and watch other people, that's what we do. We've found that when we go to the gym consistently her all around behavior and skill maintenance is much better than if we go inconsistently. The days that we go after a longer-than-usual period of time are the days that we find that she needs the most support from us in those regards. We've written before about keeping toddlers actively enaged while outside; those same points work really well in the climbing gym, too.
We're Constantly Learning
As previously stated, we're newbies to the whole climbing gym scene, and novice climbers at best. We have fun though, and want our daughter to enjoy what she chooses to enjoy at her own pace. We feel like we have a system and set of practices that work really well for our family, but we're also certain these will continue to be dynamic and fluid as she grows and her skills and interests expand. Hopefully we'll be open and available to recognizing those shifting needs. We would really love to know what other families do when they take their little ones climbing. Any tips and tricks that you try every time you go?