Climbing the Way to Youth Development

by Madeline K.

5.11, dyno, crimp, ATC, slab, heel-hook, quick-draw, cam, hand-jam, crux…These are all terms I grew up understanding and loving. I was a rock climbing kid, but I knew very few other kids who had bought in to this fantastic sport. Fortunately, the numbers of kids pursuing the defeat of gravity is increasing. And for good reason.

I have always felt the benefits of climbing, but never fully understood them, or realized them. Looking back on all of the things rock climbing taught me, and all the experiences it gave me, I realize that for youth who rock climb, it can play a huge role in their development.

The positive effects of rock climbing have (almost) always been known. For adults, that is. Once rock climbing overcame the “crazy people doing crazy things” status, the mental and physical benefits became better well known.

First off, rock climbing builds muscle and endurance. While it is commonly thought of as a sport that benefits from a strong upper-body, rock climbing actually utilizes lower-body strength just as much, and provides a cardio workout similar to that of jogging. With long stretches and high feet placement, rock climbing is not possible without some level of flexibility.

Reaching the top of a climb is demanding, not only physically, but mentally. Climbing has the ability to improve problem solving skills and increases body awareness. It also benefits the mind by increasing levels of norepinephrine, a chemical that helps balance our brain’s response to stress (Wise, 2014). Regular exercise has its benefits, but climbing provides an opportunity to lose oneself in the flow of the activity, entering a mindset that can create a sense of euphoria and even block pain (Engs, 1987).

While it may sound cheesy, rock climbing can act as a teacher: it instills focus, determination, balance, and helps overcome fears. It is not uncommon for a climber to have the “only through climbing can you find yourself” perspective.

So what does this all have to do with youth development? I would argue that all the benefits rock climbing has for the typical adult, it also has for the youth. Physical activity is important for youth, and rock climbing provides an excellent workout, without the feeling of doing exercise. In addition, it is an all-around work-out, meaning that kids will develop their muscles, cardio, and flexibility all at once. Climbing also raises body awareness and coordination, something that youth are in the stage of developing. In addition to this, climbing can act as a de-stressant for kids who may have a busy schedule. Although it is another activity to add to their list, the focus required can often take the mind off of other things happening in life.

Rock climbing is the continuous act of overcoming your fears. For kids, this can boost confidence, but doing this with other people can form relationships and build trust between them. Between children, this can build bonding social capital, but climbing areas always have adult climbers, so getting to know them can build bridging social capital. Finally, climbing encourages individuals to seek the outdoors, exposing them to areas and nature, as well as the benefits that come from being outside that they would generally not experience otherwise.

There are two case studies exemplifying the potential rock climbing holds regarding youth development. The first is “Rock Climbing: An Experience with Responsibility”. This article describes a youth development program helps youths “climb” to adulthood, utilizing a five level model, focusing on personal and social responsibility (Hansen & Parker, 2009). The second is an organization known as “Climbing Borders”, and is a non-profit organization based out of Monterrey, Mexico that uses rock-climbing to get youth away from gangs and drug cartels and back into life pathways that offer more promising future opportunities (Smith, 2014).  If you are interested, I would encourage you to look further into these examples.

Rock Climbing: An Experience with Responsibility

Helping At-Risk Youth Climb to a More Promising Future

As a final point, the focus here was rock climbing, and I am most certainly biased towards the benefits of climbing. The benefits described, however, can be provided from other adventure-sports, such as mountain biking, kayaking, and hiking. The focus is less on the specific sport, and more on the mental and physical challenges and opportunities it provides to youth.

References Used

Engs, R. C. (1987). Stress and stress reduction. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Hansen, K., & Parker, M. (2009). Rock climbing: An experience with responsibility. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 17-23, 55.

Smith, R. (2014, February 8). How I’m using rock climbing to save youth from gangs. Retrieved from GOOD magazine:

Wise, A. (2014, August 30). How rock climbing does your mind-and body-good. Retrieved from HuffPost Healthy:

Wise, A. (2014, August 30). How rock climbing does your mind-and body-good. Retrieved from HuffPost Healthy:




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3 Responses to Climbing the Way to Youth Development

  1. kimeagher says:

    I agree Madeline. Just two years ago I was introduced to bouldering a harnessless form of rock climbing and I love it. Unfortunately I am highly distractible, a little lazy, and have many interests and I haven’t been active on the wall, as I would like to be. I will say though that your article has inspired me to once again work regular climbing time into my fitness and wellness schedule.
    Now I’ll get to climbing and child development. I grew up in Northern Alberta in the beautiful and daunting town of Fort McMurray. Unlike many of my classmates and friends whose parents worked in the oil industry, my father was an educator and didn’t rake in the big bucks an oil plant job. As a result my family didn’t travel to Disneyland, or Cancun, instead we drove to the Canadian Rockies, eight hours one-way and 100% worth it. If you haven’t been to the Rockies I suggest planning a trip in your near future. Not only did I get the experience of tenting in the great outdoors, being taught to both respect and marvel at the wilderness, I was taught how to adventure as well. You may laugh but how many kids now a days would have the slightest clue how to explore a rock face safely and without getting lost. Similar to Madeline, I knew few other kids who would pull over on the side of the road and try to scramble up a rock wall, for fun.
    There is something about trying to get to the top of something. It’s an internal competition as opposed to competing against another person you have only yourself to prove something to and wage a battle against. Madeline is perfectly correct in all the benefits climbing can offer to people, young and old. One thing that I would like to add is that it helps develop intrinsic motivation. Being intrinsically motivated is so vital for success and commitment to education, physical goals, and relationships. To be motivated from the inside out is a gift and one many children, I believe, are without in todays society. Awesome post Madeline! Would you like to go climbing sometime?

  2. jesseunderhill says:

    Great post Madeline, I really like the topic you chose and how its linked with sports that really challenge one physically and mentally. I totally agree with you that rock climbing and other adventure sports could really provide both mental and physical stimulating opportunities that our youth could really benefit and learn from. I like how they are such natural activities that you can enjoy with others but yet can still be personally challenging and rewarding. I think these kinds of sports have much potential for youth, and the development of a wide range of assets since they can provide such unique and challenging experiences which also allow a degree of risk to be calculated.
    As a kid I had never had the chance to go rock climbing or par take in much adventurous sports since I was only introduced to sports that my school offered and it was very limited. I’m not sure if other schools have adventure sport programs or not for their youth but I think it would be very beneficial to get kids active in these kinds of sports at a young age- as soon as they are comfortable with them. Like you mentioned, these sports can just simply encourage our youth to seek the outdoors, exposing them to areas and nature, and the benefits that come from being outside. I agree with you on many points you have made and I really think it is important to introduce youth to these kind of sports and let them experience what they have to offer.

  3. codyb06 says:

    This is a very interesting topic. I have been rock climbing before and it is extremely fun, which is very important for youth for multiple reasons that at this point we all should know. Rock climbing can help build these fundamental movement skills that are so important to youth. Rock climbing is a exciting new way for youth to participate in an activity that can be but doesn’t have to be competitive. This aspect can help target youth that may not like competition and be an activity for them to enjoy the many of the same benefits of sports and competing. The stress benefits alone are enough to make rock climbing a worth while experience. As you mentioned climbing encourages individuals to seek the outdoors which is a very important aspect that many youth do not get enough of. Outdoors activities bread creativity which many youth are struggling with in today’s generation. These outdoor type activities bring many different benefits that typical indoor sports may not.

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