Climb aboard

Science of climbing class brings bouldering experience to kids

Courtesy of the Womens Wilderness Institute

On a chilly April morning, a school bus pulled up to the Alicia Sanchez Elementary School in Lafayette with some unusual cargo. It wasn’t full of children. It was, in fact, emptied of its seats and lined instead with a floor of padding covered in red carpet and walls layered in plywood over a reinforced steel frame and covered in hundreds of rock climbing holds.

For the second time, The Women’s Wilderness Institute’s bouldering bus was coming to the school to bring to a group of students what many of them couldn’t otherwise get to — a chance to try bouldering, the low-level, ropes-free version of climbing.

With the Flatirons still visible on the horizon, it’s tough to imagine that any outdoor sports are out of reach for these kids, but fewer than half of the 20 fourth graders who circle up in the gym that morning raise their hands when asked if they’ve climbed before — and some of them are counting climbing on playgrounds. Most of them list off outdoor activities closer to home as their favorites — walking, climbing trees, biking, swimming, fishing, doing cartwheels. When Meghan Mosher, field staff for The Women’s Wilderness Institute, asks if anyone has bouldered in a bus, their eyes widen.

A boy walks up to a stuffed mountain goat brought along as a prop for
talking about the adaptations that allow an animal to survive in the
high alpine environment, and asks, “What kind of cow is this?” “That’s
no cow at all,” says Molly Daley, Colorado Mountain Club’s Youth
Education Program coordinator and lead instructor.

Colorado Mountain Club and The Women’s Wilderness Institute have
partnered to teach kids a course called “The Science of Climbing,” which
gives them a chance to learn about the biology of what makes a good
climber, mountain goats and humans included.

Science of Climbing helps kids understand the real world applications
of science, and how science applies to their everyday lives,” says Shari
Leach, executive director of The Women’s Wilderness Institute. “You
could do the Science of Kickball as well, and talk about angles, force,
vectors, etc. But climbing is a more individual sport, which allows each
student to connect with it personally and very directly.”

The class meets Colorado state education standards for both science and physical education.

been amazing for us to see how much the girls in the classes enjoy the
climbing, particularly when they get to try it without any boys around,”
Leach says. “The girls are also pushed to be more engaged in the
science portion of the program without any boys in the room. We believe
the Science of Climbing program is a very hands on way to meet STEM
goals and objectives, and to inspire girls to think outside of existing
social and cultural norms in the areas of science as well as physical
body standards.”

a younger generation in the outdoors is an issue conservationists and
outdoors enthusiasts have been working to address all the way to the
highest levels of government. In October, Secretary of Interior Sally
Jewell announced plans to create opportunities for 10 million young
people to play outdoors and provide nature-based educational
opportunities to 10 million K-12 students. If this group of fourth
graders follows the trends of the Millennial generation, currently ages
18 to 33, despite caring about the planet, they’ll grow up disconnected
from their natural world.

to The Outdoor Foundation outdoor industry advocacy group,
participation rates in outdoor activities rose in 2011 — a change the
organization attributed to nationwide efforts to reconnect youth in the
outdoors — and remained stable through 2012, but participation numbers
are still lower than they were in 2006.

dictates that building the critical connection to nature at an early
age is vital to he enjoyment of the outdoors later in life,” reads the
2012 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report.

youth report spending time with family and friends as a top reason why
they enjoy the outdoors. So, to engage youth, entire families and whole
communities must emphasize the importance of the outdoors as a lifestyle

organizations have also been working to welcome changing demographics in
younger generations — 71 percent of youth and young adult participants
were Caucasian in 2012, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
At Sanchez Elementary, 70 percent of the students are Hispanic.

forward, a growth strategy focused on today’s youth and future
generations of outdoor participants will be critical to reconnecting
Americans with nature and healthier lifestyles,” says a 2013 report from
the Outdoor Industry Association.

The Women’s Wilderness Institute and the Colorado Mountain Club have
existing infrastructure for getting kids outside. The Women’s Wilderness
Institute runs summer camps for girls that offer varying levels of
commitments to time in the great outdoors, from rock climbing day camps
to overnight backpacking trips, and offers a program specifically for
Latina girls. The Colorado Mountain Club’s youth education programs
include after school programs, such as climbing clubs, at Jefferson
County schools and use the American Mountaineering Center in Golden as a
base for summer camps and courses.

of the goals for the year was to engage more Boulder County schools,”
Daley says. “We wanted to kind of make it a little bit unique, and bring
the science of climbing to Title I schools and schools that may not be
able to get to the climbing wall at the American Mountaineering Center.”

I provides monetary assistance to improve learning opportunities at
high-povery schools. Sanchez is one of eight schools in Boulder County
classified as Title I.

this program has focused on Title I schools in Boulder County, it’s
giving the chance to climb for the first time to many of the students
we’re serving,” Leach says.

Colorado Mountain Club was awarded a grant through the Millennium Trust
at The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County to bring the
“Science of Climbing” to schools in Boulder County. The Women’s
Wilderness Institute was asked to join the project so their “bouldering
bus” could provide a place for kids to immediately put some of the
science they learn to the test — specifically, that biology is on their
side, and anyone can climb.

breaks it down a little bit more as opposed to looking at something and
just being intimidated by it, kind of breaking it down to why you
can use your body and why your body has evolved to have this
characteristics that enable you to be a climber,” Daley says. “We’ll do
some activities toward the end — having them hang on a straight arm, or a
straight arm pushup versus having it bent — and kind of show how their
body and their skeleton is really accommodating to climbing, and that
gives them a little bit more, ‘Oh, it’s not just about me needing to be
super strong or super athletic. It’s something that’s inherent in our
evolution,’ and I think that’s cool for kids to be able to see and get a
handle on.”

divided by gender (and Daley starts with the girls), circle up around a
white board with a ring of photos around two columns: “climbers” and

just going to start talking about the physical adaptations that certain
animals have developed and evolved over time to be a climber,” Daley
says. “So this is just a little interactivity to get kids thinking about
what sorts of animals are climbers.”

fly up, eager to try, and the girls come up one at a time to move
animals to their respective columns. A big horn sheep, mountain goat,
human and sloth move quickly to the “climbers” column. The non-climber
column gets a turtle, pufferfish, cow, pig, hippo and giraffe. And oops,
a bunny goes to the climber column and a bear goes to non-climber.

any of you disagree?” Daley asks. Discussion ensues — frogs should move
from non-climber column, they’ve got sticky feet that let them climb
well. The bear gets moved over, as does a snow leopard — their claws let
them climb. Clearly, we’re on to the fact that climbing has something
to do with hands, feet or paws.

a crash course in center of gravity, a series of experiments with
various limb sizes as they build their own “climbing animal,” a dose of
straight-armed pushups and an introduction to “Nanny,” the taxidermied
mountain goat loaned by the Denver Zoo, they’re
finally ready to explore the bus.

intention really with having it … was to be able to bring climbing to
people who otherwise wouldn’t get to have it,” says Lori Mathews,
marketing coordinator for Women’s Wilderness. The bus was built by a
current Women’s Wilderness board member while she was living in North
Carolina, where there weren’t places to rock climb. After she moved, and
the bus fell into disuse, Women’s Wilderness staff were able to fly out
to retrieve it and bring it to Boulder. It has visited students at
Emerald and Columbine elementary schools, in addition to a previous
group of kids at Sanchez.

in the bus, the girls look around, part excited and part nervous —
which is the report they give to Mosher when she does a verbal checkin
on how they’re all feeling.

covers the basics quickly — hand holds versus foot holds and how to
fall. The girls practice tiny falls with shrieks and giggles. Each is
instructed on safely spotting and given the rules — always have a
spotter, take turns, spread out and keep your feet lower than your head.

is so eager she jumps onto the wall in purple, sparkly ballet flats
rather than wait to borrow a pair of climbing shoes from a bucket of

They begin
tentatively with just a few holds, working a little way up toward the
five-foot-tall ceiling on the bus, and toward the end of the session
some are climbing all the way onto the ceiling, their bodies
horizontal to the ground and their spotters holding “spoon hands”
carefully below them. A little girl who has shyly hidden her face
beneath the hood of her pale blue coat springs to life on the wall,
clambering from one hold to the next.

the end of the class, they’re talking about feeling awesome, like
they’ve just done something kind of hard, and their hands are getting
tired — about par for given the course for a bouldering session. Nine
take of the 10 of them raise their hands to indicate yes, they want to
try this again. A few of the girls buzz with excitement listening to
Mosher talk about the camping and hiking programs available through The
Women’s Wilderness Institute.

“Can I go?” one girl asks immediately. “Does it cost money?” another inquires. 

does,” Mosher says, “but there are a lot of scholarships available, and
we’ve never had to turn a girl away because of money.”

a promise The Women’s Wilderness Institute has kept through a
scholarship program, some 90 percent of which went to Colorado girls in
2012, many of whom were making their first trips into the mountains.

annual Gear and Cheer event, which raises money for scholarships for
girls ages 8 to 18, takes place at 6 p.m. April 17 at the Rembrandt Yard in
Boulder. The silent auction, which includes a bevy of outdoor gear, will
also be accompanied by a “100 Days of Summer” initiative, where donors
can pay for one day of “summer” — a day of Women’s Wilderness
programming — for one girl.

Correction: This story originally reported that “Nanny” the mountain goat was on loan from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. She’s actually from the Denver Zoo.