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.