Climbing Trees: Learning to Make Good Choices in Childhood

Unfortunately, we as teachers often feel the need to make nearly every decision for our students. We feel the need to decide where they will sit, what they will write, what they will write with, what they write about, when they will eat, when they will not eat, when they can drink, when they cannot drink, when they can go to the washroom, when they can ask questions, when they can speak freely, when they must line up (as if they are in the military), when they are free to meander to their destination, when they must be very quiet, and when it is OK for them to speak at a volume they feel comfortable with …

With the encouragement of my mentor teacher and the work of Selma Wasserman, I gained a great appreciation for the power of student choice. With time, experimentation, and thought, the complexity of my understanding of student choice is deeper.

This past year I had the privilege (in retrospect) of teaching four grades in a single classroom. I taught my K’s for the first time, my 1′s for the second time, my 2′s for the third time, and I was returned a handful of grade 3′s that I had not taught since my first year of teaching (so we might as well count that as I had never taught them … haha?). It was an interesting experiment and through it I gained a deeper understanding of child development and an appreciation for the progression of the curriculum. I learned to make difficult decisions when it came to my philosophy, educational outcomes, and needs of my students. Most importantly, I truly learned the value of teaching children to make good choices. In the past, I felt that I had done a fairly good job teaching decision making: I had provided my students with opportunities to choose, to practice choosing, to experience the consequences of their choices, and to mend anything  damaged (objects, feelings) by their choices. Although I felt this essential, it wasn’t until I was returned my grade 3′s, who had not had as much experience/teaching in making decisions, that I felt the full impact of and great importance in the teaching of decision making.

The ability to make good decisions is a learned skill. Children who do not learn to make good decisions turn into adults who are are also not capable of making good decisions. As a teacher, I have had many conversations with teachers who can’t comprehend why or become frustrated when their students make poor choices. Often, we as teachers can’t seem to comprehend why children would waste their time during writing chatting rather than getting their work done. We assume that they understand the consequence of their decision to chat. We assume that if we tell them that they will stay in during recess (if they don’t refocus) that they will immediately get down to work. I have not found this to be the case with children who have not had enough practice with decision making. In order for children to “refocus during writing time” so that they do not have to stay in during recess, they must have plenty of time practicing making good decisions, dealing with the consequences of their decisions, and reflecting on their experiences. Honestly, I have not found the traditional style of teaching to provide enough opportunities for students to practice decision making. Traditionally, the only opportunities that a child would have to make decisions would be in a scenario like I described above. And this, this is menial. In my opinion, it might as well not even occur. Children must encounter large periods of open ended time, play, and learning to experiment with making decisions. Also, the teacher must facilitate the teaching of decision making. The teacher must create environments and opportunities that enable and encourage decision making. In the beginning the teacher must guide a student directly in the steps to making good decisions: they must help a child see the potential choices, speak about the possible opportunities, the possible consequences, and the possible rewards. In the end, you simply have to step back and reap the rewards. It is magical to watch a student reflect on their past experiences in order to make a good decision. That is one of the true joys of teaching decision making.

I have nature play to thank for the perfect environment for children to practice decision making, to experience consequences, to play around with trial and error, to experiment with their own boundaries and with the boundaries of the materials they play with, to make mistakes, to experience important owies, to overcome pain, and to reflect on their decisions in order to make better decisions next time.

For younger children this experimentation usually comes in the form of jumping off of fallen trees, tree stumps, or rocks. Sometimes, it comes in the form of crawling across a thick stump over a creek, swinging on a tree branch and then finding a way to get down.

For older children, the experimentation begins to include climbing trees. Tree climbing is a perfect analogy for making good choices, for taking risks, and for discovering ones boundaries. First, a child must be confident in oneself to even entertain the idea of climbing a tree. Then, a child must find a tree that matches their height and weight: they must be conscious of their physical abilities and size, they must decide if the tree is big/small enough, they must decide if the branches are thick enough, they must decide if the branches are close enough together, they must decide if they can climb crooked branches or if they need to find a tree with straight branches, they must also ponder their ability to get down, they must decide which branch to step on first/second/third, they must decide which branch to grasp with their hand, they must decide how high they will go, and all along they must test each branch with their weight … with patience they reap the reward of  the best view in the forest: a bird’s eye view.

Decision making never ends.


  • Thank you for this post! So much of what you write here aligns with what our Kindergarten team thinks and does. Both classes of Kindergarten children go out in the forest each day, and tree climbing is a part of this. I was reading in your comments about how you approach tree climbing, and we have tried a few different approaches. We try to get our students to do some reflection. We’ll often ask questions like,

    1) What kind of shoes might you need to climb trees? Do you have them? If not, what might be a better option?
    2) What about your clothes? Is there anything that might be unsafe? What is it? How could you fix this problem?
    3) What was the weather like last night? What might this mean for the trees? What will you need to consider as you climb them?

    Climbing also requires that the children can get off the ground and into the tree. Not every child can. We also have this wonderful tree of tightly-knitted branches that almost looks like a web. It’s very close to the ground. Many child experiment with climbing on this tree, as they can be closer to the ground and test out their weight on different branches.

    We also talk to the children a lot during the climbing process, and again, get them to reflect.

    1) How high might be safe? How do you know?
    2) How will you get down?
    3) How do you know that those branches will support your weight?

    There’s a lot of problem solving and mathematical thinking in tree climbing! And this is also meta-cognition.

    We want children to make good, safe choices, but we realize that some children may need more support than others. I think about Stuart Shanker’s work and self-regulation vs. co-regulation. Sometimes children need co-regulating. Sometimes they need us to suggest appropriate heights and comment on “safe risks.” We do this, but with the idea of gradually releasing this responsibility to them. And now, all of our students — JK and SK — can make these safe choices. Tree climbing isn’t of interest to all of them, but those that want to have learned what they can do and what works for them. This is very exciting!

    Thanks for inspiring such a long comment, and thanks for writing such a great (and important) post!

  • Hi, Cassie, Thank you for your comment! 🙂
    I also experience a lot of people questioning my sanity about tree climbing. What I have done is set parameters so that I can ensure the safety of the child and I can reiterate that to the adult.

    …. I only let children with good motor control climb trees (from my observations), I only let children climb trees when they are wearing appropriate attire (tied shoelaces, good shoes, not too baggy clothing, etc.), I only let children climb to a certain height until I feel confident in their tree climbing skills … then, gradually the height may increase (but I usually don’t let them know I’m doing so … as they always try to tease me and move higher than the previous agreed upon height 🙂 hehe…

    Sometimes, with adults questioning my sanity I don’t say anything … (depending on who they are). If it is a parent, I feel the need to inform them of my safety routines, if it is my principal, I feel I need to let them know of my safety routines … but if it another adult who I don’t need to prove safety too … I might just let them know the BENEFITS of tree climbing, rather than immediately rushing to protect my philosophies … AND arguably scientific research!! (this is something I am working on!!).

    I am SOOO excited for you and your girls and your BRAVERY in freeing your children to explore nature whole-heartedly! You have very lucky little girls 🙂

    Best of luck,

    Ms. Tremayne

  • My daughter finally started climbing trees this year and I am thrilled! What I didn’t expect is that practically every time she does there is someone who questions my sanity. =D I didn’t even think of decision making as one of the benefits but will add that to my repertoire of benefits I give to climbing trees. She also concurred her fear of the woods next to our house after being here almost a year. Both her and her younger sister have designated a clubhouse area in the woods but tomorrow I think we will work on embellishing (fort building).


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