Unleashing a kid on a climbing wall enables great physical rewards. The low-impact sport of climbing helps them strengthen their whole bodies—from their fingertips to their toes, including those ever-important core muscles. Moving from hold to hold also helps them build stamina, coordination, agility, flexibility, and balance. Plus, what parent doesn’t want to see their kid being active and having fun instead of staring at a screen?
Rock climbing for kids proves beneficial in other aspects of life as well. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle found that rock climbing may improve self-esteem, self-efficacy, and confidence in youth. And a 2015 study conducted at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg looked at the therapeutic qualities of climbing, and its “positive effects on anxiety, ADHS, depression, cognition, self-esteem, as well as in the social domain.”
Mike O’Connor, head coach of the youth climbing team at the Santa Barbara Rock Gym, has seen proof in the gym. “We have a kid who came to us with some health problems, and because of that, was really shy,” says O’Connor. “Now he’s this confident young man whom adult climbers ask for beta on problems. I think the sport has really built his confidence.”
“There’s just an emotional side to climbing that really benefits kids,” continues O’Connor, explaining that with every climb, there’s a strong mental component, from visualizing the moves before you leave the ground, to getting your body to move in a certain way and figuring out sequences that aren’t obvious, to overcoming a fear of heights, if you have one.
Every little success on the wall becomes a personal win, which, in turn, can do wonders in helping kids feel good about themselves. “Especially through middle and high school,” says O’Connor, “where kids are going through puberty and all sorts of crazy stuff and figuring out who they are, climbing is great in helping them build confidence that they can apply outside the gym.”
Kids have an innate need to move their bodies in big ways. These gross motor activities are needed to help strengthen muscles, provide an outlet for energy, and help kids gain confidence in their abilities.
Climbing is a total body workout. So, when kids use these climbing structures, they’re able to exercise everything from their fingers (need good grip strength to hold on!) down to their toes. And it’s not just physical strength that climbing helps develop. Climbing requires flexibility, coordination, balance, and mental challenges like strategy and planning.
It’s no wonder why kids get a boost of confidence when reaching new heights.
These are all things we want to develop in our kids. Plus, having fun is so good for kids. We definitely want that, right?
An indoor climbing space in your home is a great way to provide all of the benefits of climbing in a safe environment. Not to mention how great it would be to have a space like this to have for a fun rainy day kids activity. It’s been so cold here lately that my kids have no interest in playing outside. Instead, they’re in here climbing the walls with their pent up energy. So, why not let them, literally, climb the walls!
The greatest thing about climbing is that you’re never too old or too young to do it. Ever since I started climbing two decades ago, I’ve had some kind of home climbing wall to play on and train on.
Kids climb walls. So why not give them one they are allowed to climb? A DIY climbing wall is a simple project that will have your kids climbing the walls with joy. Sorry, that was just bad.
Now, before someone brings this up, I’ll tell you that we are big fans of the outdoors here. We are blessed to live in a knock-your-socks-off gorgeous place here in the Pacific Northwest. But sometimes, just sometimes, we go indoors, too. So while it remains a definite possibility that having mom and a dad who like to build can lend itself to spoiled kids, we like to think we are simply creating good times as a family. And who doesn’t love a climbing wall?!
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But first, let’s talk about safety, eh?
This is, bar none, the most popular project on this blog. The vast majority of comments are pretty darn cool and encouraging. There are, however, a contingent of people who seem to think it is my aim to send my children to the ER. Obviously, as with any DIY project, kid toy, or, well, heck, anything, safety should be considered. As of this writing, the wall has been up for nearly a year. Neither my kids nor any others have taken a tumble from the wall. And I assure you, there is nothing docile and mild about my children. If you are too lazy to read to the bottom, I’ll tell you now that there are mats at the bottom and those mats are rigged up to lock over the wall as a safety measure when there is no adult supervision.
Recently, I Googled “kid climbing walls” and found a lot of overbuilt and elaborate contraptions, from dinosaur heads to moving apparatuses straight out of a theme park. I’ve always found that the best climbing walls are the simplest ones. I wasn’t sure if kids would share that same preference for simplicity, however, and when Randy and I were talking about what kind of wall to build for Theo, we went back and forth on the design. I wanted to just screw some plywood onto a blank section in our climbing shed. Randy wanted some kind of angle.
In the end, I think we came up with a pretty nifty design. This adjustable wall is slabby for now, while Theo is young, and we can make it more vertical when he gets older and stronger. And when we want to permanently attach it to the main wall, we can reuse the materials. Theo has loved it, and as an added bonus, it’s been great for rehabbing a certain injured finger of mine.
Plan and sketch the climbing wall
I use Google SketchUp to plan most of my designs, and it is a great program if you care to give it a go. However, a pen and paper will also do. The idea for the design of the wall actually came from some images I found on Google and would attribute if I could find a source. Kudos to whoever first came up with the idea of doing the wall in sections, because it is brilliant. Not only is it visually interesting, but it is also the perfect solution to a corner such as this, and for working around outlets.
What I love about SketchUp is that it makes it simple to figure out the dimensions of the pieces. I sound like an ad for the program but believe me, and there is nothing in it for me on this one. It’s just a cool free thing, and I like to pass on cool free things.
We chose to make the wall out of higher-grade hardwood plywood, but you could save a little going with something a bit rougher. Using the dimensions, I sketched I drew out each piece on the hardwood like a big puzzle. The nice thing is that you are not building a ship here, so it doesn’t have to be exactly perfect. I used a four-foot level to get my lines straight. Label each piece as you go along, so you don’t have to think too hard about it later when putting it up on the wall.
1 – 4′ x 8′ sheet 3/4″ plywood – finished on one side
5 – 8′ 2 x 4s (plus additional as needed to attach the wall to your support structure)
2″ decking screws for attaching Plywood
3″ decking screws for assembling the frame
128 – 3/8″ T-nuts
Assemble the 2 x 4s in a conventional wall frame (studs on 16″ centres with a top and bottom plate), using 3″ screws. Next, screw the sheet of plywood onto the frame using 2″ screws spaced about 6″ apart from all the way around the frame and along each stud.
Using a 1/2″ bit, drill T-nut holes on 6″ spacing, blocking out over the framing boards. Tap the T-nuts in from the backside, making sure to keep them straight.
Cut and attach the pieces of the climbing wall.
We used a table saw to cut out the pieces, but since they are not square, that meant cutting without a guide. My husband happens to be exceptional at freehand cutting, so I was more than happy to let him do this one. Also, it was like 90 degrees out, so it was not the most pleasant of jobs.
To attach the pieces of the climbing wall start by marking the studs that they will attach to. I drew light lines with a pencil the full length of the wall to help ensure that I didn’t miss the stud. Then simply secure each piece to the wall with 2 or 3 screws. I did this while my husband was at work and I gotta tell you, you can do it alone, but it would be easier with another person. Always pre-drill to ensure that the wood doesn’t split. My preference is the use the drill for making a pilot hole, and the impact driver for setting the screw. My toddlers are trained to know the difference and to hand me whichever one I need plus a screw. Soon I hope to upgrade them to do the work themselves, and then I will hire them out.
Attaching the handholds
The plywood is 3/4″, which in reality is slightly under that (.70, whatever that is). So we purchased and used 1 1/4″ lag screws instead of the 1 1/2″ that came with the holds. That way, they would not go into the wall itself and leave puncture marks everywhere. You could also use furring strips, but that’s more work.
I actually bought the handholds last year at Christmastime for my husband because he really enjoyed climbing and wanted to share that with our children. So he got to take over the next part and attach the holds. And because I basically did nothing at this point I’m going to hand it over to my him to share a few pointers:
Spacing depends upon the size of the kids climbing. Toddlers need more holds than older kids. They will have more fun if they can easily climb the wall. Use painters tape to layout your pattern. Start the first row about 8 inches off of where the floor mat will be. Put two holds 12 to 14 inches apart (measured dead centre per hold). Then go up the wall adding tape every 8 to 10 inches up. Adjust a little and add some in the middle of the route every so often to give them more flexibility in the route they climb.
Once you are done with the tape, grab your kids and test the layout with them. Hold them up as if they are standing on the first holds. Can they reach the handholds? If they can, the spacing is correct. If not, adjust the tape.
Once you are satisfied with where the holds are placed, grab the drill and start installing.
Now your wall is finished, and you have to decide how to attach it to your support structure, whether that’s the wall of your garage or basement, in a shed, an existing climbing wall or whatever. The variations are infinite, so I can’t tell you how to attach your wall. However, you must be absolutely certain that it is solid and safe. Consult a licensed contractor if you aren’t sure.
We hinged our wall at the top, tilted the bottom out to make a slab and braced it securely in place. As Theo grows, we can slide the bottom in and reattach the bracing to make it steeper.
How to child-proof your climbing wall?
It took our kiddos roughly 5.3 seconds to get the hang of the wall and start scrambling to the top like monkeys. That can be a concern if we are not right there with them, so we created a way to secure the wall if you want to be sure it is only used with supervision.
There it is. I simply drilled a hole in the outer layer of plastic on the mats where the seam is and ran a shook through it. I put a couple of screw eyes into each side of the wall, and then hooked the s hooks on the mats through them.
My three-year-old gave this a try and was frustrated that he was unable to climb the outside of the mat. In other words, – success. It’s really just that simple because we try not to do a lot of overthinking around here.
Finally, because you stuck around, here is a preview picture of how the wall sits in relation to the rest of the playroom.
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Must-Have Accessories for Backyard Climbing Walls
If your playground equipment is high, we suggest purchasing a climbing helmet for your child. We recommend good quality headgear, especially if your child is adventurous!
Traditional holds are textured for grip, and this means bare or socked feet will hurt after a few minutes of climbing. The size of the footholds lets you know what type of shoes to buy. If they are larger, tennis shoes will fit. Smaller holds require technical climbing shoes.
Protective Surfaces to Safeguard Your Kid’s Noggin
Many playgrounds and parents choose sand to break falls. If you decide to go this route, make sure you purchase play sand. You will also have to abide by a few safety rules around sand depth, maintenance, and moisture distribution.
These are the rubber squares you typically see at preschool playgrounds. Made of recycled rubber, these squares are only as good as they are thick. Unfortunately, many available to the public are not thick enough to offer protection. Additionally, it is important to compare the types of rubber recycled into the final product.
We’ve been saving the best for last! Rubber mulch is the top way to break a fall because it is shock resistant. Adding just 3 inches of this safeguard can keep children from getting hurt on a 7-foot fall. Did we mention the weatherproofing and minimal maintenance?
We did the research ourselves and found Jelly Bean makes the best rubber mulch for a backyard playground. Why do you ask? For safety, it’s made from sterile, non-toxic, latex-free, non-wire, and non-tire rubber. Moreover, Jelly Bean Rubber Mulch has the best head impact attenuation data in the industry. This led them to win approval by the ADA, and the title of safest playground rubber mulch on the market! Finally, the vulcanization process ensures your investment lasts for decades to come.
DIY CLIMBING SPACES FOR THE HOME
Making an indoor climbing space at home can be as easy as attaching climbing holds to a wall by their bed. Or, you can have an entire indoor climbing playset. Think about your kids’ ages and activity levels, and go from there. Bigger kids will need a bigger space, but you may also be able to use space on ceilings and such.
Take a look at the ideas below and get your juices flowing on the best way to add an indoor climbing space to your home:
(quick note: These are genius ideas, but always follow safety instructions and guidelines when installing your own climbing structures at home.)
DIY CLIMBING WALL OVER BED
Use the space above your kid’s bed to add colourful climbing holds. This has even greater impact if you’ve got nice, tall ceilings in the bedrooms, or a low bed. The mattress below the climbing wall provides a soft landing for jumps and falls. From TRIPLEX.
FLOOR TO CEILING CLIMBING SPACE
This family used gas pipe fittings to create a challenging climbing course with ladder, monkey bars, and climbing rope, from the Fine Home Building.
LOFT BED WITH CLIMBING WALL AND FIREMAN POLE
Simply Designing shares a detailed look at how they pulled together this amazing kids bedroom. The main features are this climbing wall going up to the loft bed. Then, getting back down is even more fun with a metal fireman’s pole.
WOODSY BEDROOM CLIMBING SPACE
Here’s another creative climbing space in a kids bedroom—more Like home shares how they created this woodland-inspired climbing space with a climbing wall and monkey bars.
DIY CLIMBING WALL AND MONKEY BAR CEILING
Bigger kids will love this bedroom that is totally decked out for a climber. The climbing holds go from wall to ceiling, but the ceiling-mounted monkey bars really steal the show here (and provide a convenient place to hang an indoor hammock!). I can’t tell what is used here for the monkey bars. They look a bit like these playground safety handles, but you’d need to make sure that you’re using something made to support a swinging body. From Imgur
NATURAL INDOOR CLIMBING TREES
I’ll admit, this one might not be considered a DIY project, but I had to include it. Tree climbing is a quintessential childhood activity, yet I bet there are many kids who live in more urban areas who rarely get the chance to do it. If you have the means, it would be worth figuring out how to tackle a project like this so you can use trees for your DIY climbing spaces for kids indoor play. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much detail about the trees in the post on Trend Hunter where the images are from.
“BUSKAS” INDOOR CLIMBING TREE
If the project above is a bit out of grasp, you might try this idea instead. There aren’t detailed instructions on creating this indoor climbing tree, but all you would need is a skill saw to cut the shapes, some wood, and strong hardware to bolt the pieces to the wall. (source link, and original)
WOODEN DIY CLIMBING STRUCTURE
This Instagram user Nutritious Movement shared how her family keeps the kids active indoors during the cooler months. I love the setup of these DIY climbing spaces for kids because it allows for kids to climb and swing from below, or get on top to play and climb across. It looks like, despite the many pleas from commenters, there aren’t any plans to build this. However, I think a savvy DIYer or carpenter could work out the details.
The benefits of climbing, however, aren’t just limited to older kids. Even toddlers who climb have to make decisions about how to sequence the climbs and move up the wall, which in turn teaches body control that can carry over into other sports. And climbing provides even the littlest toddlers with mental challenges that are both fun and good for their developing brains. “A route is similar to a puzzle, but there’s more than one way to solve it,” says Laurie Normandeau, Kids’ Program Supervisor at the Boulder Rock Club. “There’s no right or wrong. It’s really about learning what works.”
Normandeau says that toddlers tend to want to climb from side-to-side, traversing, and don’t always want to climb to the top. “Whether they get to the top or not,” she says, “climbing gives them a great opportunity to build coordination, strength, and balance.”
Normandeau says that while younger kids do best with play-based climbing, and older kids tend to want to work on technique, climbers of all ages differ in their strengths, weaknesses, and preferred types of climbs. “On the same climb, say an overhanging route,” she explains, “some kids rely on their strength to muscle through a steep section, while other kids will focus on their footwork.” With climbing—whether indoors or out—there is always something for a kid of any age to work on, she adds, which creates a constant stream of mental and physical challenges.
Another great thing about getting kids involved in climbing say both O’Connor and Normandeau, is the social aspect, especially among youth climbing teams. “A lot of kids aren’t super psyched to do traditional team sports,” says O’Connor. “Being on a youth climbing team allows kids to encourage each other and experience camaraderie and community-building without the pressure of traditional team sports.”
“Though there is partnership, leadership, and trust-building among kids climbing together,” adds Normandeau, “once you’re on the wall it’s just you and the wall. From the bottom to the top, there’s more than one way to do it. There’s no right and wrong; everybody’s a winner.” And especially among teenage groups, she says, the trust between climber and belayer helps build strong relationships and teaches the importance of communication.
Even for kids who aren’t on a team, but who enjoy climbing with other kids or with friends or family, learning the etiquette of sharing the gym or wall alongside others is beneficial, too. There’s mutual respect of space and a need for polite interaction. Kids learn, for instance, not to walk underneath fellow climbers. And they learn how to take turns on the bouldering wall and not just rush in when they feel like climbing.
There are a whole host of reasons kids love being unleashed on the giant indoor playground of a rock gym or home gym—or, of course, the local cliffs. As it turns out, there are even more reasons parents can feel good about encouraging kids to climb, too. So when your offspring easily scampers up a route or solves a boulder problem you’ve been struggling with, just smile knowing all the physical, emotional, mental and social benefits they’re gaining as a young climber—and also knowing that you are cultivating not only a potential new climbing partner but a passionate climber—and person—for life.
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