Bouldering for Kids

Its not as scary as it seems.

Family traveling can seem like a daunting undertaking without proper preparation. Convenient concepts often drift from daydream to drama, converting to chaos quicker than a B-list celebrity marriage. However, it’s important to remember kids are resilient. If you plan and provide possibilities, they’ll become as pliant as Play-Doh. That might be a “stretch,” but the truth is family fun is multiplied when there’s a plan of attack. Active adults don’t have to avoid their favorite outdoor activities just because the entire family can’t participate. OK, so you probably won’t be able to climb Mount Everest with a handful of tots, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go bouldering. Bouldering for kids can be a great outdoor activity to add to your family routine.

What In the World Is Bouldering?

Bouldering is the beginning stage of rock climbing. Often taught indoors, it’s an equipment-free option for learning the basics and having a ton of fun in the process. But wait. Isn’t that dangerous? Any type of sport has its downfalls. Parents of kids under six-years-old are encouraged to suit up their little ones in harnesses and helmets.

Indoor Bouldering in San Francisco. Photo by Michael Skrzypek.
This is actually top roping, though it was taken at a place called Dogpatch Boulders. Located in San Francisco, it claims to be the largest indoor bouldering gym in the country. Photo by Michael Skrzypek.

Kids are natural scramblers. Bouldering appeals to their sense of adventure while helping them to burn off that excess energy that all-too-often turns adult brains to mush. It’s important to note we’re not talking about tackling a massive mountain range here. Bouldering involves up to a 20-foot climb in most cases over tested indoor climbing walls or large outdoor rock faces.

What Tips Can Extend the Fun?

Fun is the key word here. Bouldering should be a part of family or group fun time-free of harsh goals and expectations. Grab the sunscreen and bug repellent. Bring a cooler with snacks and water. Dress in weather-appropriate clothing, and introduce the little ones to a mellow grade rock face. Let them touch it, play at the base, chase each other a bit, and explore the local area before jumping in.

Bring friends and discuss protocol. Activities are always more fun when done in a group setting. But rock climbing at any level can be dangerous if egos overtake sensibility. Discuss the importance of respecting other climbers and the consequences of playing at the expense of others or showing off on the climb. The fun immediately stops when someone gets hurt.

bouldering for kids
Bouldering in Yosemite. Photo by Michael Skrzypek.

Bring backup gear. Just because you don’t have to use equipment doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be available. Once the kids see the rock, they might feel they need the support. Pushing them to free climb at that stage will only cause fear and lead to stress all around. If you don’t need the backup, great. But it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Pack extra entertainment. Chances are the adults will outlast the kiddos here, especially if they’re experienced climbers. Fifteen minutes into the activity might be nothing to you, but suddenly the kids are bored, tired, thirsty, or have to go to the bathroom for the fourth time. In any other activity, this might be easily redirected, but not in rock climbing. An effective workaround: Bring the cheats. Coloring books, board games, mad libs, even dump trucks and beach pails will help ensure everyone gets the most out of their bouldering experience.

Caption of Dogpatch Boulders updated Nov 11, 2016, when a clever Outdoorsy engineer spotted it and nicely shared that the technique shown is top roping, not bouldering.

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