Inquiry-Based Experiential Parenting and Rock Climbing With Kids

rock climbing with the kids

I sent my daughter off to preschool this week with a carabiner and chalk bag for show and tell. It was a proud moment. I’ve instilled in my five-year-old a love for rock climbing, one that she’s not ashamed to share with her Disney princess friends. Now I just have to teach her and her siblings to be creative, caring, self-reliant, responsible citizens, who value their faith, education, and good work, and my job as a father will be complete.

Also, I have to teach them to climb safely.

Much of what I write at Dad vs Wild deals with encouraging kids to do difficult and sometimes dangerous things, like winter camping, catching snakes, and, most recently, rock climbing. Obviously, I buy into the hands-off parenting notion that when kids explore, discover, and overcome their challenges, especially without parental intervention, they become more competent and confident.

I’m not sure how I came to embrace this DIY, free-range parenting philosophy. Some of my research as an educational psychologist has explored what’s called inquiry-based learning, an approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to explore, pose questions, discover, and derive conclusions themselves, with minimal guidance. A related term is experiential learning.

Evidence doesn’t really support these as replacements for more structured, guided teaching and learning, but for some reason they resonate with me. Maybe because I don’t like being told what to do. I like to figure things out on my own. And I assume my kids are the same way. The result is what I’ll call inquiry-based or experiential parenting.

More on helicopter parenting and managing kids’ risks.

Of course, kids would never survive without some amount of guidance. At some point, a parent has to draw the line. Some snakes are poisonous. Some inquiry will only end in disaster. Some experiences aren’t worth the risks. Returning to my point, I think rock climbing is.


My oldest recently moved up to 5.9s in the gym. He’s only nine, but I’m already dreaming about big trips to southern Utah and the Sierra Nevadas, backpacking and climbing until we can’t remember anything else, until our blisters have blisters on them, but we don’t care. Just us and our blisters, on a remote mountain peak, under an unpolluted sky.

Speaking of dreams:

I thought climbing the Devil’s Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams.
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

I think Krakauer figured out that we shouldn’t define our lives in terms of our outdoor accomplishments. Though the mountain may inspire us and build us up, we shouldn’t hang our hat on it, because it can also let us down.

Still, the mountain may not capture our dreams, but it does give them context and provide a setting for learning, bonding, and memory making. For experiential parenting, the possibilities are endless.

Here’s what I love about climbing in particular:

  • Climbing is a great way to establish kid cred.
  • It’s simple, the objective is clear, and the difficulty can be tailored to the skill level.
  • After the initial investment in training and gear, costs are minimal.
  • Climbing teaches kids to overcome fears, giving them an immediate sense of inadequacy followed by an equal measure of accomplishment.
  • It also teaches about trust. Your kids put their lives in your hands. You have to be the type of person who can catch them when they let go.

Related to this last point, it’s not easy for kids, or anyone, to just let go once they get to the top of a sixty-foot wall. All of my kids struggled with it at first. I’ve seen the panic in their eyes as they wonder if I’m really going to catch them. It’s a huge trust fall, wiht only me at the bottom. It reminds me of Finding Nemo. You just have to let go. It’s going to be OK. This is what DIY, experiential parenting is all about – trying, trusting, letting go, and being there for each other in the end.

Rock Climbing With The Kids At Taylors Falls, Minnesota

rock climbing with kids at taylors falls minnesota

I just digitally unearthed some photos from a trip to Minneapolis last summer with the kids. We took them back to our old stomping grounds, where we spent countless muggy summer evenings digging in the sandbox, or playing hide and seek, under a canopy of caterpillar tents.

We walked around our old apartment and wondered together how another family could be living there, just making themselves at home, as if we hadn’t claimed those four walls by filling them with our closest memories, our laughing and shouting and hide-and-seeking, our diaper changing and potty training, our reading and praying. This was our first time returning to territory that we had really marked as our own. It brought a mix of nostalgia and emotions, and we could only console ourselves by remembering how we had outgrown our Minneapolis apartment life. We had moved on.

Going back to the north start state also reminded us of our many outdoor adventures, camping, canoeing, and playing in the snow. Just as the four walls of our apartment had absorbed our domestic memories, the forests and waterways, the iron-ore dirt and entrenching snows of Minnesota had captured our earliest outdoor memories as a family. So it seemed fitting that we returned for the kids’ first rock climb on actual rock.

The quaint town of Taylors Falls sits on the Dalles of the St Croix river, about an hour north and east of the Twin Cities, on the border of Wisconsin. Taylors Falls, from our experience, is home to a pizza and ice cream parlor that appears to have once been a saloon, and Interstate State Park, where you can explore billion-year-old glacial potholes, some over fifty feet deep, and where you can rock climb amidst throngs of excited but nervous beginners who bus in from the city.

The climbing at Taylors Falls/Interstate is perfect for beginners. Mountain Project lists 139 total routes, all trad or top-rope, bring your own anchors, and the majority at or under 5.9 and having roughly 60-foot to 80-foot pitches. The holds are mostly basalt ledges, and the simpler routes are full of them. We spent most our time doing 5.5s in what’s called the Tourist Rocks section.

There was some initial trepidation, and only my oldest ever made it to the top. But, overall, they all did well and claimed to enjoy it. For young kids, even putting on a harness and tying in is a success. Someday, we’ll return and reminisce, and maybe try something harder than a 5.5.

Gear Review: Ohyo, The Collapsabottle


A few weeks ago, the lovely chaps at UK-based Ohyo sent me their 500ml and 1000ml collapsible water bottles to try out. The liter version hasn’t made it across the pond yet, but the 500ml is available on Amazon.

This is my first review of gear I didn’t pay for, so I want to clarify that I’m going to be as merciless as possible with this, and with future reviews.

That said, the Ohyo “collapsabottle” is pretty cool. The smaller and larger versions scrunch down to about 1 and 2 inches tall, and only weigh a few ounces when empty. In that way, they’re sort of like reusable disposable bottles. Here’s my take after two weeks of guzzling.

The Cons

A few limitations of the aquaccordions:

  1. The straw on 500ml is tiny, and there’s no pressure release. This is great if you’re rationing water, or if you’re a rabbit. Otherwise it can prolong thirstiness. The 1000ml version with the flip top is better suited for humans, but it’s not yet for sale in the US.
  2. The scrunchy parts are prone to staying wet, and they’ll probably start growing algae if you aren’t diligent when drying. Most water bottles acquire a funky flavor with time, but these may quickly turn into collapsible fish tanks. Which is a brilliant business idea. You’re welcome.
  3. It does not produce a folky sound when squeezed, so it’s useless at a Polka dance, except for drinking from.

The Pros

Here are some scenarios where I see the Ohyo being useful:

  1. Ultralight backpacking, though it doesn’t double as a stove or pocketknife, which serious ultralighters may scoff at.
  2. Freezing conditions, for example, to stock an ice-chest or when winter camping, which is not unheard of. Experience shows that solid bottles will crack when frozen.
  3. Flying, or when you’re otherwise pressed for space.

freezing ohyo collapsible water bottle

I’ve run three simple tests on these squeeze bottles. First, I filled and froze them both outside overnight. The low was -2°F. After thawing they bounced right back to life. Next, I dishwashed them on the bottom rack, and then tasted for plasticity and soapiness. Nothing but water. Finally, I sent them to school with my kids. Keep in mind, kids backpacks are hazardous environments, where only the strongest survive. Both bottles emerged unharmed.


The Ohyos are sturdy and functional, plus they look cool and they’re a little less expensive than the other crushable bottles on the market.

Currently, you’ll only find them on Amazon.

DIY Modular Rock Climbing Bunk Bed Fort

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

Bed time just got more exciting and a little dangerous for my boys. I made them a rock climbing bunk bed fort to replace the nonexistent beds they’ve been sleeping in for two years.

My plans were inspired by these from and these from Ana White. The main difference in mine is the fort paneling which supports climbing holds. The typical ladder, for wimpy kids, is replaced by bouldering problems.

Below are my rough plans and a few pictures for each step. Until I receive thousands of emails requesting more details, I’ll leave it at this.

The Plans

There’s not much to it. The frame consists of

  • 2 by 4s at the posts and for some of the rail pieces and panel support
  • 2 by 6s for the four mattress side rails and the four mattress headboard rails
  • 1 by 3s for slats and 2 by 2s screwed to the side rails to support the slats
  • 1 by 6s for paneling

These are mostly connected by hex bolts, with 2 and 3 inch screws here and there.

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

One side has paneling screwed to the rails, which are connected vertically by 2 by 4s. The other side consists only of the two 2 by 6 rails that support the mattresses, and an extra 2 by 4 rail for the top bed.

The head and foot are identical, except for the filler pieces that go above and below the side rails making all the posts two 2 by 4s thick. These filler pieces are on the left of one end and the right of the other.

Finally, I made a detachable paneled piece that can bolt on to either end, or just roam free as a separate bouldering section.

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

The Sides

Here I’ve pocked hole jigged the frame for the side that will be paneled.


The frame is finished and I’ve started screwing on the 1 by 6 panels from the back.

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

Here’s the rock climbing side, with panels and support pieces for the slats.

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

The other, non-climbing side of the bed is just the 2 by 6 rails for the bottom and top, each with slat support, and an extra 2 by 4 rail for the top to keep the mattress in.

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

The Ends

The ends are 2 by 4s and 2 by 6s butted up against the 2 by 4s that make up half of the posts.

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

Here are the two sides, side by side. The inside posts, with the gapped pieces, are the ones that take the non-climbing side rails. The climbing side is then bolted to the other posts. It rests on those bits of 2 by 4 at the bottom.

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

Finally, the extra paneled end piece. Those are 2 by 2s attached across the back. They slide just over the rails on the side you want to attach to, and two separate 2 by 4s then bolt through the rails into this paneled piece.

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort


The bed assembles with a few dozen hex bolts. I countersunk the bolts and the nuts and washers on the inside with a spade drill bit.

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

Last of all are the climbing holds. I carved these out of the left over pine, and bolted them in with t-nuts. More on this later.

diy wood rock climbing hold

diy modular rock climbing bunk bed fort

DIY Jean and Fleece Chalk Bag for Rock Climbing


This year Lincoln got its first climbing gym at the University of Nebraska outdoor rec center. It’s a short approach from my office on campus, about a carabiner’s throw away, so I sneak over two or three times a week to crux it up.

I’m still a noob when it comes to the jargon, though I’ve been rock climbing off and on for about ten years. My DIY chalk bag gives me some much needed crag cred. I’m obviously not a flat-lander or a belay slave. No way. This DIY bag surrounds me in a dusty cloud of climbing potential and legitimacy. It says, “I rock climb so much that I can’t afford a store-bought bag. Also, I have a sewing machine.”


This 30-minute project only took me 4 hours! It was grueling, like a pitch full of tiny crimpers. But I’m pretty stoked by the final product. I incorporated elements from sewing plans on this blog, this instructable, and this site.

My chalk bag is about 7″ tall and 6″ diameter across the bottom. I’m making smaller ones for the kids, since they’ve been stealing mine and bathing in it before every climb like its pixie dust. Theirs are roughly 5″ tall and 4″ diameter.

In parting, here are some climbing terms to master, from

Bucket or Jug
The most secure of handholds; a hold so deep, incut, and big it’s like grabbing a lithic bucket lip.
Usage: Gimme buckets and gimme jugs, cuz Daddy’s so pumped he needs a hug!
A small edge upon which you crimp your fingers, i.e. bend your digits to exert pressure on the knuckles, bringing your thumb against your index finger to close the grip.
Variant: Any small edge is a crimper, while a crimp-intensive climb is crimpy.
A route or problem’s most difficult passage or sequence. To crux doesn’t always mean to reach a route’s crux, but instead to redline anywhere on a climb.
Usage: Rachel is cruxing hard on Los Dynos del Muerte, and she isn’t even at the crux. Stand by for a takefest.
That tight, weak, swollen feeling in the forearms that comes, while climbing, from the accumulation of lactic acid combined with restricted blood flow. It’s much easier to get pumped than to de-pump. Also, as a verb, to sag to a straight-armed position and then cock to initiate a dyno or deadpoint.
Usage: I have the perma-pump; no matter how long I rest, I’m totally flamed out 15 feet up.