School teacher Olivia Bruton shares her experience of taking a group of children to a climbing taster session and states her case for more cooperation between climbing walls, organisations and schools.
The relationship between schools and climbing is changing. When I was a child, I adored residential trips to outdoor centres where we did orienteering, climbing, kayaking and hill-walking. Schools still place a high value on these visits, yet surely there is a bigger place for climbing, especially with the rise of so many amazing centres in our cities.
I have been a teacher for a number of years, always with children who are not familiar with the outdoors. I have worked hard to promote the outdoors and climbing by sharing my experiences and organising trips. Is this just a personal passion, or should all schools be doing more to get children climbing?
Firstly, I would like to establish the importance of outdoor pursuit centres. In my current role, working in a hospital school in the West Midlands, I was teaching a writing lesson to some sixteen-year-olds. One commented that he could not write about a journey through a forest because he had never been to one. Far from being insolent or lazy, he was making a valid point. Of course he could not write about something he had no lived experience of.
I noticed that a lot of the writing tasks I set for children involve the outdoors. Think about the power of the Romantic Poets and the tangible fear books like Touching the Void (Joe Simpson) can evoke. If children are to become great writers, they need something more than their local Tesco and pedestrian crossing to inspire them. If they are to become great artists, they need to see the shadows bounce around the Brecon Beacons. This is something those of us who grow up in the splendour of the countryside take for granted. Not everyone has access to green spaces. To kids who live in our cities, the outdoors is an intimidating, elitist place.
All children deserve access to green spaces and fresh air and if parents cannot provide this, then we turn to schools for support. A weekend residential can be the start of a life-long love of nature, a desire to protect our world and a passion for adventure.
When completing a winter mountaineering course in the Cairngorms, I met a young man who has embarked on a career in outdoor photography because of a residential trip to the Peak District when he was thirteen. In fact, I believe some of my love for the mountains was because of a weekend hill-walking and camping in Wales when I was eleven.
When you ask many adults about their positive memories of school, they talk at length about adventure trips with their friends. They often have stories of surviving falling off rafts or getting lost completing their Duke of Edinburgh Award (incidentally, my friend quit during the first two hours, so I ended up carrying twice the amount of tent equipment across the Worcestershire countryside on one of the hottest days of the year).
Schools must justify the rationale for school trips so the benefits of outdoor activities are well-documented. Over the years, I have found that climbing in particular is the activity that children remember most. Quite often it is the part of the trip they are worried about (parents often have questions or concerns around it and perhaps pass this fear on to their children) and almost always the part they say they enjoyed the most at the end.
I am always in awe of the dedicated (yet underpaid) instructors: how they know just the right amount to push each child having met them a mere five minutes beforehand; how they prove to the girls that you can be strong and beautiful without fake nails and eye-lashes; how they have endless patience with challenging teenagers, regardless of the weather.
So what is it about climbing that is so special and can we capture this feeling of adventure in indoor centres?
When I worked in a primary school, I was determined to run a trip to the local climbing centre. There are five fantastic (traditional) indoor gyms in Birmingham, as well as two in Worcester and another in Wolverhampton. I was met with one constant barrier: price.
It is extremely expensive for a school to take 60 children to a centre, which is one reason why it becomes a stand-alone trip. Often it is a reward at the end of term and almost always happens because of a teacher with a passion.
Some schools have opted in to the new GCSE. However, the instructors I spoke to found assisting the groups challenging, as the specification for some exam boards requires students to go outdoors to practise particular techniques. Teachers cannot be experts in everything, so should discuss options with local centres before signing up to exams.
The instructors I spoke to, at more than one centre, found that teachers were keen to complete the module in one day, which meant that teenagers - who did not have that much experience of climbing - were exercising on the wall for five hours. This will not promote a love of the sport.
It took me five years to convince my school to allow a climbing trip. However, it was nothing to do with my amazing powers of persuasion: it was because climbing had become an Olympic sport. Suddenly, it became a valid experience for the children (it was still an end-of-year trip).
Now that lifestyle sports such as skate-boarding, surfing and sport climbing have become mainstream, schools need to make a decision. Do they promote and help to fund these sports at grassroots level? Or, do schools step back? Perhaps the popularity of these sports historically has been that they are 'alternative'. They seem cool because they are not part of the establishment of our schools. They can be non-competitive and social.
In Birmingham, the use of inner city centres has changed over the years I have been climbing. There are more and more teenagers filming themselves to improve their form and participating in informal competitions. The sport is changing in Birmingham. New centres such as Rock Up Birmingham and Bear Grylls Adventure offer climbing-related activities and are extremely popular with children.
More and more primary schools and parks have small climbing walls. However, if the holds are not changed regularly and interesting routes created, this can put children off. Climbing is about problem-solving and challenging yourself. It's about the thrill of the new and exciting. In my opinion, these structures don't help to raise the profile of climbing.
So, having finally succeeded in taking 60 eleven-year-olds over two days to a local indoor climbing centre, what was the impact?
Upon arrival, there was visceral excitement. The children were much more impressed by the height of the indoor walls than similar pupils had been by the great outdoors. The instructors were so slick that it took minutes to kit them up and explain the safety rules. Allowing the children to wear their own trainers sped this up and kept the cost down. Four of the children had been to a centre before. They also happened to be girls who enjoyed gymnastics. As soon as the others saw them on the wall, they were entranced and inspired.
The fact that the pupils were able to hold the rope for each other gave them purpose and a sense of responsibility. This meant they were far calmer and more supportive of each other than in school P.E. lessons. Hearing genuine words of encouragement from children to help their friends ascend the wall proved how climbing can help to develop empathy. A shared experience doing something everyone finds challenging will always consolidate relationships. This is something that the Army has utilised for years. The children were able to experience fear and hardship in a safe space.
"That bit's really hard, but you can do it!"
"I got stuck there, but you'll be ok."
"You're doing way better than me."
In under an hour, some children had become mini-instructors. Climbing was improving their communication skills in a way I could not have imagined. Their instructions became clear and precise as they quickly realised they needed to specify which foot a peer needed to move and onto which colour hold.
Children who had previously expressed reservations about attending because of their fear of heights were suddenly at the top of some of the highest walls in the centre and shouting down for me to look at them.
All the children were sweaty and panting but grinning and laughing. If this had been a P.E. lesson, they would have complained about being hot, tired, thirsty or bored and the task being too gruelling, strenuous or complicated. Their rate of progress was awesome and I could only imagine how proficient some would become if this were a regular activity.
The most profound thing I noticed was the ability and grit of a particular individual. He was an exceptional problem-solver, witty and hard-working. He was useless at football and basketball. This meant he never quite had the respect of the other boys in the year. He was never picked for teams at break time, so would often stand at the sides and watch.
I watched him ascend a slightly overhanging 4+ route on the highest wall. He was graceful, thoughtful, methodical. It was joyous to watch him move so naturally between holds. When he descended, he was completely serene and went to get a drink. "I think I did that ok," he mused to me between sips of water. His friend, and top footballer, tied-in and copied his moves. He did not make it 12 feet up the route. Because he was sporty, he persevered, trying different strategies and brute strength. He spent the best part of 10 minutes on the route until the rest of the group told him they wanted another go. He was beaten.
Not only was this a triumph for the less sporty pupil, it gave the footballer a valuable lesson in accepting defeat and respecting the talents of others. This is what climbing can offer. It is increasingly challenging for girls to take part in sport at school due to uniform pressures and body image anxiety. None of this matters when you are on a wall.
You can climb on your period and when your body is changing – it is not the same as trying to run around a playground with the boys. At secondary school, when many girls begin to drop out of active play and sports, climbing allows young women to keep up their flexibility and gymnastic prowess as well as providing cardio exercise. You can wear what you like without being put in a team outfit and you only have to compete with yourself.
So what next for these kids? Will they continue climbing or take it outdoors?
When I met with parents on the last day of the summer term, I received so many 'thank yous'. The children had had a fantastic time – many had achieved things their parents didn't think they could. Lots of people told me their children had come home bursting to tell them about the day and begging to be taken to the centre again over the holidays.
Of course, this is now on the parents to facilitate, but perhaps some children will remember the experience and pick it up when they can. My colleagues at that school will repeat the trip every year going forwards too, because the impact on the pupils' wellbeing was clear. After taking pupils from the hospital school to an outdoor pursuit centre, three of them visited Bear Grylls Adventure in Birmingham to climb.
So yes. I believe schools should promote climbing for wellbeing and exercise. But how can climbing centres do more to support schools?
Most climbing centres I spoke to said they relied on word of mouth to encourage young people to attend. Offering NICAS and a range of clubs is a great idea, but it will still only attract children from families who are already invested. Having competitions, certificates and structure is great for dedicated kids, but for some it could feel like another chore or exam, rather than a liberating hobby. The young people who occupy these inner city spaces often use climbing as an escape.
Creation in Birmingham is using a grant from Bring it on Brum to offer free taster sessions. They are already finding that young people are sticking with the sport. Most schools want to visit climbing centres during the week in the middle of the day. This is when centres are at their quietest.
Surely, it would be worth dropping the prices for schools who want to bring groups of children regularly? Chances are, some of these children will bring their friends and family back. Perhaps centres need to reach out and contact local schools and invite them to enjoy discounted sessions. This would ensure more diversity and help to spot new talent.
Think about how many athletes say boxing changed their life as a teenager. We have the facility for climbing to change the lives of young people, but we have to encourage them into centres when they are young.