Letting Toddlers Climb: Teetering on the Balance of Exploration and Danger

For the last few months, climbing has been BabyC’s favorite “job,” perhaps second only to collecting things.  It started with climbing up on the couch, which felt like a huge milestone at the time. I was proud of her, watching her tackle the problem of pulling her weight up onto something chest-high, skillfully using the notch between the base of the couch and the top cushion as a foot hold.

It took her days to work out the moves for the couch climb. She tested different hand holds and explored the balance of her weight as she learned to transfer it from her feet into her arms. When she finally put all the moves together, she thoughtfully placed her hands and feet and then gave a toddler-sized grunt for the big move onto the couch. And then she turned around to lower herself off the couch in a careful and controlled way, only to practice this sequence of movements over and over again.

Next up were the kitchen chairs, which quickly led to climbing onto the kitchen table. I made the table off-limits (“We don’t climb on the table. That is where we eat.”), something BabyC seems to understand but still tests at least once per day. But the kitchen chairs are heavy and stable. BabyC has fallen off of them several times, and we’ve talked about how the chairs are up high and about how falling hurts. We let her climb on them as long as she sits down on her bottom when we are at the table for a meal.

Recently, BabyC has been taking on some new and riskier climbing challenges. Her favorite is to climb onto the back of the couch, which butts up against a window. From there, she can traverse over to reach the key rack (“keesss, keesss,” she says) and the lock on the front door, which she flips back and forth.

This new climbing project makes me feel uncomfortable, so for the last week, I’ve been asking BabyC to get down off the back of the couch. She has been testing this rule repeatedly. When I am in the kitchen, BabyC will often go into the living room, and the house will get quiet. Lately, a quiet BabyC has meant a 90% chance that she’s up on the back of the couch.

The other night, Husband told me that he thinks we should let her climb on the couch. His argument went something like this (and I hope I’ve gotten it right – I’ve elaborated a bit, as I tend to do):

  1. BabyC is careful. She is thoughtful about her movements, and she has a healthy fear of heights.
  2. BabyC loves to climb, and as she does, she’s learning about physics and her body. She is testing and gaining confidence in her balance and her strength. Her efforts are focused, and she’s working on something that interests her, something she has chosen.
  3. The risks are not life-threatening. In his line of work, Husband has seen a lot of injured kids. He has seen minor injuries and very serious injuries. In his assessment, if BabyC fell from these heights, it would hurt and she would cry. She would think twice about taking that risk again, but she probably wouldn’t be seriously injured. [Note that this is a first story window.]

I actually think this argument makes a lot of sense. And Husband hasn’t just thought this through. He has also talked about it with BabyC. When she is balancing high, he asks her to look down at the floor. He reminds her that a fall would hurt. She listens, looks, and nods her head.

Still, I hesitate to condone furniture climbing. I think it comes down to two things:

  1. Etiquette. It general, it is frowned upon for humans to climb on the tops of couches and in windows. If we are visiting at someone else’s house, I would not want BabyC to behave this way. I realize that this is mainly to protect my own image as a mother to a child who behaves appropriately. It could be that the world is just all wrong about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior for a toddler. Still, if the couch were by a stone fireplace or the window was on the second floor, this would be a real safety concern.
  2. Fear. I am afraid of BabyC getting hurt, even if her injuries are minor. I hate to see her in pain. And while I think children learn best from natural consequences, I do think that it is the parents’ responsibility to step in at some point and say, “It is dangerous to climb there. Please come down and let’s find something safer to do.”

There is also a piece of our history – Husband’s and mine – that is relevant to this discussion. We used to do quite a bit of rock climbing together. Climbing was a big part of the early years of our relationship. As climbing partners, we learned to trust each other and to challenge each other. We learned to appreciate our partner’s strengths and gently (sometimes) point out shortcomings.

Essential to responsible rock climbing is risk assessment. Up several hundred feet or so on a rock face, an unprotected fall means certain death. And so together, we had to make a plan to mitigate the risks. Every anchor had to have a back-up anchor, and then another back-up behind that. Despite our thoughtful planning and careful actions, we were still more likely to die out on that rock than if we had stayed home to watch TV. We chose to climb because it was challenging, exhilarating, and made us feel alive. I think I know how BabyC feels when she is summiting the couch.

Watching our daughter stand on tiptoe on the top edge of the couch, I think both of us admire BabyC’s climbing. I can’t help but think how much fun it would be if BabyC keeps her interest in climbing and we can go rock climbing as a family someday. It may not be socially acceptable, but maybe this early practice with climbing and balance will serve her well when she is climbing much higher on a jungle gym or in a tree. Maybe falling now will help her to assess risk more accurately in the future. Maybe fostering confidence in her body now will free her from self-doubt when she has the opportunity to try a new sport or activity.

What do you think? Are we crazy? How do you decide what risks to let your children take?

Update: I wrote this post yesterday. And this morning, for the first time, BabyC fell from her couch summit, straight to the floor. She cried for about 30 seconds and then started pointing up to the keys again. Not a scratch on her. Still, I think it is time to move the keys to a different location for now.

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42 thoughts on “Letting Toddlers Climb: Teetering on the Balance of Exploration and Danger

  1. My little goofball (almost 3 now) is also a climber. Mostly, if something he’s doing looks dangerous I say “you need a spotter for that”, and I stand near him. I’ll usually stop him from climbing higher than I can reach.
    He also has a gymnastics class, and gets lots of practice on a rock wall and cargo net when he wants them (though, honestly, I think he likes the trampoline better).
    Probably, I am a terrible horrible uncareful parent. I put him up in trees and help him get up on walls all the time. The other day I’d helped him up on a rock wall (nice and wide), which was not so very high on the one end. But the ground varied so the wall was way over my head at the other end. He got to that end, looked down at the sidewalk below, and kicked some rock off the edge! I was scared, but I talked him down. I think if I’d *shown* him how scared I was, he would have been scared too (and maybe more likely to fall), but I kept saying “if you can walk on it low, you can walk on it high” (which is what they used to tell me on the high beam when I took gymnastics). Thus far we’ve been lucky, but I do wonder if it’s quite all right…

  2. Your last paragraph made me smile, not because BabyC fell but because I looked at the photo of where your keys are and thought “Worst place to store keys for an opportunist burglar, should I tell her to move them?” – but perhaps my mind works in strange ways! Interesting article as we’re at a similar stage with our toddler but my husband is much more cautious than I am about climbing!

  3. We have a similar philosophy when it comes to exploration and climbing. As long as our daughter isn’t in immediate danger, we let her go for it. She’s figured out how to climb down from the couch (quite a feat at 11 months!) and she can climb up steps pretty well. As far as etiquette goes, I can understand your concerns. Maybe allow Baby C to climb only at your house. Is she able to understand the difference between things we do at home and things we do anywhere else yet?

  4. don’t have time to read all the comments but just thought I’d throw my 2 cents worth in.
    I have always allowed climbing onto the couch, but not up shelves or the table. Chairs are ok in my book. I focused on teaching my kids how to get down again safely (feet first). My first managed to climb onto the couch before she was 9 1/2-10 months old, so she was pretty young.
    The one thing I NEVER allow is climbing near a window. We have a large TV bench type thing that is set up under a low window. It is about couch height and situated opposite the couch, so would make the perferct “stage” for my little perfomers. But I’m just too scared they lose their balance and fall through the window. We live on the ground floor and it’s not the fall itself that scares me but the broken glass.
    You mentioned something about a window and I don’t know how that window is situated in relation to the couch, but I just thought I’d mention the dangers of a window even thought it’s position might make it safe in your case.

  5. My husband stays home with the kids. He gives both (3.5 and 14 months) a pretty long leash (less so for the latter, obviously). Consequently, the older one climbs everything she can at the park, at home, and in the backyard. She recognizes her limitations and asks for help if she needs it. It’s hard for me to sit back and watch her climb the tree in our backyard, but she has proven time and again that she is capable. Has she fallen? Yes. Has she gotten right back up and tried again? Yes. Has my heart stopped? Yes, on more than one occasion!

  6. I’ve always regarde the ability to climbout of/fall from a cot as a hint to move to a grown-up bed!
    In the meantime, keep the sides down on the cot and let her climb like a monkey under your supervision. And remember that howling after a fall is a good sign, silence is bad.

  7. Awesome post, something thats been on my mind for a while now that my youngest is almost at that stage, I never let my older two climb as much as they wanted but this really reiterates what’s been niggling at me lately … Very thought provoking! Maybe I need to step back a tad

  8. Our son is a climber and we’re going through this now. I tend to be laid back about it and think it’s good for kids to learn to climb and what they can do. I also think that falling, as long as it’s not a huge drop, is beneficial because they learn cause and effect. My husband and his dad are afraid of heights and I don’t want my son to be scared. Cautious, yes, but not terrified.

    I think how we react to the situation as parents leads to a connection within our children’s brains. If I’m freaking out over him climbing, he’ll eventually learn that it’s something to be scared of and that’s what I don’t want. I loved to climb as a kid and still do and I wouldn’t want to take that drive to explore away from him. What I’ve been doing is talking him though it and being there to make sure he’s careful. He usually is and if he’s not, I guess he’ll have to learn. I’d draw the line at windows though. No need to teach him how to sneak out of the house.

  9. Interesting stuff Alice! TK is getting there – his “climbing” is still just pulling up on things. Living on a farm though, I think we’ll have to watch the balance carefully of safe to climb on vs. otherwise. He already much prefers to be outside and in particular, riding on the gator. Oh boy!

  10. My 22-month-old is a climber, which I found challenging at first because my older son never climbed. A few weeks ago, every time I turn around he’d be up on something. Now it’s abated a bit because I realized that he only really wants to climb when he knows I’m watching him do it! If I don’t make a fuss over him climbing, he (generally) won’t. Now that I’ve said that, I’ll probably come into the room later to find him on top of the radiator…

  11. Our 3 1/2 yr old and 1 1/2 yr old are constantly climbing and jumping on / off the sofa. It is such a constant struggle that I have taken your husband’s stance. That said, I often worry about it because we have one friend whose daughter fell of the back of the sofa and broke her arm and another friend whose son fell off the back of the sofa and actually fractured his skull and had a serious concussion that took almost 2 months to recover from. So I try to make sure they are being careful and safe when they are climbing & jumping…

  12. I never had a climber, so I wasn’t faced with this dilemma. Good points on both sides. As BabyC grows, you can put reasonable limits — like “you can climb only in our house” or “only when Mom or Dad is in the room.” But the joy of toddlers is they defy limits. In the meantime, a careful watch, and lots of prayers . . . (which never end).

  13. Let her climb. My kids climb on everything (3.5 and 13 months) and yes, they have both fallen from things. But they learn from it and are more careful next time. How else are they going to learn the physics of their bodies?
    Also, there is time for etiquette later in life. We need to just let our toddlers play and explore.

  14. I have another safety issue for you to consider which is that she can unlock the door. Now I know toddlers are smart because I have had two. I know toddlers do things when you least expect them to….like open the door for the male man when you are in the bathroom. Or say the baby opens the lock and soon to reach the door knob. Now I very rarely left my kids in another room but I can say they often would sneak out while I was putting cloths away or such. I am just saying I might consider moving your couch so baby can’t reach the lock. That being said I personally would make playing with the lock off limits. As for baby climbing…let her climb. Other people who have or have had toddlers are not going to get up in arms about the baby climbing at their house

    • I agree, the lock is absolutely off limits. I told her this, and I actually think that the lock must not be that interesting to her, because she hasn’t played with it again. It is definitely something to keep an eye on, though. Thanks for reminding me.

  15. My 2.5 yo son had my heart in my mouth a couple of times due to his early climbing but this was nothing compared to his little sister! Only now do i know what it’s like to live with a true ‘climber’ baby. she is 17mo now but since walking at 9m has only been interested in the vertical !! I loved your posts as nearly every point and both arguments go through my head in a single day lol. I am all at once proud of her skill and caution but terrified and anxious about the next fall. none have ever been serious but shes my baby and every tear hurts. I think she may have a future in the circus :)

  16. I think your husband’s arguments seems pretty reasonable. I have been thinking about this a lot myself, like many of the other readers. My 3 1/2 YO has never had great balance. He never seemed to be too connected to his body, and I think as a result we were kind of careful with him. Still, I allowed certain levels of climbing, and he has fallen, which further pushes my cautiousness. (the first fall landed him on broken glass in his scalp, and rushed us to the emergency room. He also fell down the stairs more recently.) I find my heart dropping into my stomach often at playgrounds as he runs to keep up with his buddies. His best friend is the complete opposite – began climbing before one and jumping off the couch by 14 months. He is very sure of his body and knows how to use it. As a result his parents are much more relaxed with what they allow him to do. When together at the playground we sometimes see other parents glance our way as he manages his way all the way to the top of the equipment, espeicially since he is the same age as my son. There is just a difference in the way they handle and know their bodies. I can already see my younger son displaying some of the sureness of his own body, and testing his limits at his ripe 8 months. I can feel that we will handle his abilities differently, based on his connection to himself. It’s all relative and different with each child.
    Oh, and I love your honesty in knowing that part of why you don’t want your daughter climbing on couches is the social acceptance factor! I feel that too…it’s a hard one!

  17. As a mother to two very risk averse kids, we’ve had to work hard to get ours to tackle even the simplest of playground equipment! Of course, we respect their fears, but we’ve also had to provide a lot of encouragement to help them to expand their boundaries. Now they are much more confident, and we are actually happy that the couch features in the ‘obstacle courses’ they make up. My kids aren’t the sort to immediately assume they can do the same at someone else’s house, however if they were, I’d probably insist they go by the rules of the house they are in. It might be confusing a little at first, but it’s certainly not the only instance where rules change under different circumstances. So I guess I sort of side with your husband…? Sorry!

  18. Hi,
    I am kinda with your husband (but as a mum your comments totally strike a chord!). I’m a child development Physio and think that between you guys you have a great balance. Climbing can be ok at your house and not at others. Sounds to me like your wee girl completely understands what is going on but just loves to climb.
    My wee girl just loves climbing too! You are right I think with your thinking about her motor learning :) it is better for her to learn by practising and she will be a safer toddler and child by having had this experience. Have you thought about maybe providing her with other safe climbing opportunities? Here in NZ we have playgym (gymnastics/basic gross motor play) – both my girls go and just have an awesome time climbing swinging rolling and falling :) .
    Love your posts-thank you!

  19. We’ve learned the hard way about the etiquette issue. We pretty much let our 21-month-old climb on all of our furniture and have now had to try to undo the damage as he’s learned to climb up our swivel stools and onto the dining room table to “hing” (swing) the chandelier. And, embarrassingly, has tried to do the same at others’ houses. It’s hard when you have adventurous, fearless little ones! You want so badly for them to discover, explore, and become self-sufficient and it’s so tough to know where to draw the line. Thanks for the good read!

  20. I think the most important thing we can do for our children is help them figure out how to fall safely, and protect their noggins from a very early not even yet walking stage!! I see way too many overprotective parents that freak out with any slight fumble and it makes for a skittish whiney/whimpy child. You freak out, the child will freak out and learn that fear. (Frankly, I took a very similar perspective with choking too – knowing the difference between choking and gagging. Freaking out as a parent doesn’t serve the child whatsoever!!!) As long as you’re careful to make sure she understands the dangers of heights and falling and hitting her head(brain) i fully believe she’ll do well continuing carefully.

  21. I’d like to hear more about how “etiquette” shapes parenting. I feel that our society is not very tolerant or welcoming toward children acting just as they are. There is still a huge expectation for them for them to be seen and not heard, or act like proper little ladies and gentlemen at all times, according to very outdated ideas of what constitutes “proper” behavior.

  22. I don’t allow standing on the furniture (any of it), which eliminates some of the climbing. We do allow sitting on the coffee table, because DH and I do it too. We have far too many things with hard surfaces/edges and electronics in our living room to allow much climbing-type activity.

    I would definitely move the couch away from the window if you decide to allow climbing – in NYC all windows, even first floor ones, require window bars if there are children under 10 in the residence (http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/win/winbroc.shtml).

    We are near a number of playgrounds that include some sort of climbing feature, whether a child-sized wall structure or some kind of molded “rock” fall. Some gymnastics clubs have something similar for their preschool classes as well, and REI holds a parent/toddler climbing time for members using their indoor walls (the one by me: http://www.rei.com/stores/pittsburgh/climbclass.html).

    I don’t feel that toddlers or even preschoolers have good enough judgement for risks to allow climbing on surfaces that aren’t designed for it. It may just be a media coverage bias as opposed to something common, but every now and again it seems like you hear about some child seriously/permanently injured jumping off something trying to fly. I would far rather need to push my child to take risks later than take the chance on possible life-altering injuries now.

  23. i do know someone whose 1 yr old toddler recently fell from the back of a couch and broke her arm… however, i believe in letting them learn how to do things for themselves. i say if they can get themselves into a situation, they’re probably okay… i wouldn’t lift them into places where they were not able to climb by themselves because i think that gives them a false sense of security/ability… they don’t judge things as well when they didn’t do the climbing to get to wherever an adult might “help” them to…

  24. love this post! so true & reminds me of reading “eskimos”…you know parents in other cultures would be laughing at us for over-thinking our toddler’s climbing & exploring. But, with that in mind, it’s also important to think about our culture & context and you did a wonderful job of breaking down the concerns. I try so hard not to be a helicopter mom when we are at the playground, but it is so hard NOT to! I love your husbands desire to let her “learn” physics on her own. And really, sometimes I have to laugh at myself when I remember what playgrounds looked like when I was a kid – no plush rubber pads beneath swings, METAL bars & slides that would (after a day in the hot sun) LITERALLY burn your flesh off, and all other sorts of “dangers” that wouldn’t be imaginable in a modern-day play area. :)

    I think only allowing them to climb/jump from/explore in areas that are MEANT for such activities is a good place to start (stairs, jungle gyms, outdoors, etc as opposed to furniture).

  25. My 19-month old son is a climber, and we are struggling to keep him off the table, the couch, and the shoe-rack (where he can reach purses and keys). It’s hard to baby-proof every area of a house. When he climbs on our couch, that leads to climbing on top of the stereo or the bookcase, and pulling down the blinds, or COULD lead to falling onto/between other furniture, so I’m on a mission to keep him from climbing on the furniture. Also, I share your concerns about etiquette. It’s not just about being polite–it’s about not damaging or dirtying the furniture, which can be expensive. I’m always shocked when I go to people’s houses and they allow their kids to jump on the furniture like it’s a jungle gym! And I’m even more shocked when they let their kids jump on my furniture too. Now, that being said, kids GOTTA climb and jump. That’s why we keep a mini-trampoline in our living room where a coffee table might be, and try to get outside to the park where the kids can climb on playground equipment. It’s time to get some play equipment for the backyard too.

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  27. Every two weeks a child in the United States dies of a “tip over” accident and tens of thousands are injured. Something heavy, such as a media center, chest or drawers, a barbecue grill, etc. is being climbed and tips over onto the child. So, please, regardless of your stance on climbing, use the anchors that came with the large TV or buy and install anchors for heavy furniture. Please, keep them safe. http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml11/11345.html
    KFB, rural pediatrician

    • Thanks for the reminder. I absolutely agree with you about tip over accidents, and we’ve made sure to secure everything in our house for this reason. I think these types of accidents are much scarier than falls from stable objects.

  28. I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. And I’m a scaredy when it comes to my kiddo climbing. So I bring her to places where she can climb (gyms, playgrounds) and supervise her. So hard to know when to let them fall and learn:) Thoughtful post as always.

  29. Wow, I’m just now getting to read all of your comments on this post! I posted this right before we left for our trip, and I’m overwhelmed at the response. Apparently, we aren’t the only ones blessed with a little monkey. During our trip, BabyC had lots of opportunities to climb outside and otherwise play hard, so climbing on furniture wasn’t much of a problem. She does have a very hard time remembering to sit down in chairs, which was a challenge on this trip since we didn’t have a high chair for most of the time. Husband and I still haven’t arrived at a definite plan about climbing on furniture. For the time being, we’re letting her climb on the couch with supervision, but the door lock and the keys are off limits. Most importantly though, summer is here, and we’ll be outside during most of our waking hours. What’s interesting is that BabyC is pretty hesitant about climbing at playgrounds. She often becomes engrossed in watching other kids, which is fine, and I don’t push her to play on the playground equipment. I think just getting out there every day may allow her to get more comfortable climbing in that environment. Here’s to summer and adventurous toddlers, and thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments!

  30. Oh, and I also want to add that I think it is possible for BabyC to learn that our couch is the ONLY couch she can climb on. This may be more work for us in the short term and a bit more confusing for her to learn this distinction, but I believe she is fully capable of understanding this. We’ve also been working on teaching her to take off her shoes when she climbs up on the couch, which she likes since taking off her shoes is one of her favorite tasks these days. This often slows down her climbing trajectory and redirects her attention anyway.

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  32. I have to wonder if your position changes based on the kind of flooring you have. A tumble from the back of a couch onto carpet or onto tile seems quite different to me. I live in Florida, so I have tile, and I am struggling with how to keep my daughter climbing on things only in our area-carpeted family room and not on the tile, as she already had one big head bump there.

    • I agree, type of flooring is definitely part of the risk analysis! Our floors are wood laminate, and I’m not sure what is underneath, but they are pretty soft. Our previous home had concrete floors, and I know I would feel differently about climbing on furniture above that HARD surface!

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  35. Our 2-year-old (he’ll be 3 in August) was scaling a 10′ staircase – he’s climbing the ledge on the outside of the stairs. If he would have fallen, it would have been on tile. However, he’s careful and I was spotting him. He didn’t make a mistake. I think not allowing him would just make it Forbidden and Exciting…and worse. We took down the safety gates because he only fell down the stairs once – by leaning against the gate which wasn’t securely latched…he would not have done that if the gate were not there.

    tavi

  36. Our 2.5 year old son (he’ll be 3 in August) was scaling a 10′ staircase – on the outside ledge, not the stairs:

    tavi

    If he would have fallen, he would have landed on tile floor. But he’s cautious and thinks through his moves; I trust him so I spotted him. I think fighting it isn’t worth it. He is very skilled at climbing. His twin sister tried to copy him but was scared after a couple steps.

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