August 04, 2008

The Climbing Trees of the Mind

By J.C. Boushh

The human brain is wired with an inborn teacher. Soon after children learn to walk, the developing brain urges toddlers and preschoolers to climb. Climbing develops the brain in a variety of ways. When children climb, both sides of their brain work together to tell the right hand and the left foot to move together and the left hand and the right foot to move together. Climbing builds pathways in the brain that teach the muscles and brain to work together and especially how to use both sides of the body at the same time. When children climb, their eyes and brain work together to learn where to grab and hold, where to place knees and feet, important skills for developing spatial awareness skills (Readdick & Park, 1998).

Playgrounds are among the most important environments for children outside the home that allows children the opportunities to experience climbing. Play environments provide valuable opportunities for experiencing the joy of movement and developing fitness and motor skills (Gabbard, 2008).

Not only is there a physical health benefit to playgrounds and specifically playground climbing equipment, but there is a mental health value to allowing our children to experience the joy of climbing. The type of climbing that takes place on overhead ladders places an enormous burden on the brain's kinesthetic monitoring and spatial computing power, since there are so many places the hand could actually be while it is moving from rung to rung (Wilson, 1999). This means that people don't just get better at the specific task they're doing, but the skills actually transfer to general cognitive abilities and mental faculties, as measured independently from the task itself (Fernandez & Goldberg, 2006).

Dr. Mary McCabe, a leading expert in physical education and health of young children, cites more than 80 brain research studies that suggest that the development of motor skills (movement) helps to facilitate academic readiness and learning. "The research suggests children can raise their achievement level, increase their motivation, heighten their understanding, accelerate their learning timeline, and expand their creativity through motor skills, music, and proper nutrition," says McCabe. A well-developed playground environment in a park or school setting can greatly enhance a child's overall physical and mental development, making playgrounds more than just fun (Hendy, 2000).

Children that play daily are better prepared physically and academically for the world ahead of them. The more we allow children the freedom to play the more we allow them to succeed cognitively. Physical health and mental health are equally tied to a child's successful future.


Fernandez, Alvero & Goldberg, Elkhonan (2006) Are You Sure Your Members are Working Out ALL Their Muscles? International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association.

Hendy, Teressa B. (2000) Jungle Gym or Brain Gym? Child Development and Physical Activity. Park and Recreation

McCabe, M. L. (1999). "FitKid" Curriculum Guide for Elementary School Exercise Equipment.

Wilson, Frank. (1998). The Hand: How the uses shapes the brain, language, and human culture. New York: Vintage Books.

JC Boushh is a recognized expert in the field of play, recess, playground, and the outdoor classroom as it applies to brain development and brain-compatible design. He has lectured worldwide as well as authored numerous articles on play and the outdoor environment.