Youth Engagement in Arboriculture

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At-Height Experiences to Engage, Inspire, and Recruit

Alissa Cotton, Chad Giblin, Laura Nelson, and Monica Randazzo

Recreational tree climbing offers myriad benefits to its participants. In addition to being fun and contributing to physical fitness, elements of tree climbing include opportunities to develop analytical thinking, improve knowledge and appreciation for natural resources, as well as build self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. Can you imagine a child with a bigger smile than one who has just successfully navigated a rope system and advanced herself to a lofty limb of a bur oak? From learning hitch knots and proper gear safety, to moving about in the canopy to reach “goal objects,” to solving rigging puzzles using principles of physics, the range of skills cultivated in tree climbing is immense. Additionally, tree climbing introduces young people to skills and professional development opportunities in urban forestry and arboriculture.


After the enthusiastic success of hosting a second youth tree climbing summerYEA2 camp at the University of Minnesota in 2017, the Urban Forestry Outreach, Research & Extension (UFore) Nursery & Lab has developed a streamlined approach to implementing youth recreational tree climbing in educational and summer camp settings. Keeping safety at the heart of this system, the Youth Engagement in Arboriculture (YEA) approach maintains full compliance with the Standard for Safety Requirements for Arboricultural Operations (ANSI Z133) throughout and integrates the expertise of ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) Certified Arborists through consultation during the planning and implementation process. In addition to adhering to the Z133, the YEA approach is kid-centric. Many summer camps and youth programs are designed to meet the “average” child and, in many cases, may not be fully accessible to all kids. YEA focuses on getting every participant at-height with customized experiences tailored to the age, skill, and comfort levels of each child.



In developing the framework for a proposed curriculum, UFore staff drew on experience gained while conducting youth tree climbing programs as part of the University of Minnesota’s Recreation & Wellness Summer Youth Programs. The first day of camp was split between visits to the UFore Nursery and Forest Pathology lab. Campers experienced a hands-on approach to discovering tree biology while discussing what makes a species unique, and even grew fungi in petri dish culture! Day two was devoted to tree climbing, starting with training on gear and communication safety, then jumping into four different climbing stations. In addition to training the camp counselors in belay safety and general climbing technique, ISA Certified Arborist volunteers were present at every station to encourage and instruct campers.


Skill levels of campers ranged from those who have had experience rock climbing to those who have climbed freely in trees to others who have never been in a tree at all! Rock climbing campers had some familiarity with similar gear and verbiage, as well as with the physical climbing concepts. Age and size also played a role in campers’ abilities to ascend on different climbing systems.


Having a variety of climbing systems available allowed each camper to explore the canopy within the scope of his or her own skill level. Some systems had a mechanical YEA6advantage, meaning that for every one unit of work applied to ascend the rope, two or more units were gained, essentially requiring less strength to climb. In the belayed speed climb, campers tapped into that instinctual climbing skill that seems inherent in childhood—just grappling up a tree by whatever means necessary—though with this system, there was the safety backup of having an adult belayer. Static rope technique (also called SRT or single line technique) has a number of mechanical devices that make ascending the rope safe and simple, as well as requiring less strength. As sort of a hybrid setup, the DMM Hitch Climber system involves the use of a hitch cord as well as optional mechanical devices. It was interesting to see the campers work through the different climbing stations, having difficulty with the challenge of a particular system but then excelling at another. The beaming satisfaction of a camper that succeeds in scaling a tree cannot be matched! 


The YEA program introduces youth to careers in arboriculture, sending participants home with a tangible and memorable experience by safely and technically ascending trees assisted by professional arborists, University faculty, staff, and students. The Department of Forest Resources staff connects climbing activities to future opportunities by discussing the importance of education in preparing for careers in arboriculture. The project aims to inspire participants, not only to envision themselves at the University of Minnesota, but as future professionals in the fields of urban forestry and arboriculture.




YEA strives to create a more diverse and inclusive campus atmosphere that becomes increasingly accessible and welcoming to students of color and those from currently underrepresented minority communities. During the 2017-2018 academic school year, UMN Forest Resources YEA intends to serve students from the following schools and grades:

  • Four Seasons A+ Elementary (Saint Paul, MN) (75 to 80 - 5th Grade Students)
  • Great River School (Saint Paul, MN) (15 to 20 - 7th & 8th Grade Students)
  • Hmong College Preparatory Academy (Saint Paul, MN) (60 - 10th Grade Students)
  • Windom Dual Immersion Elementary (Minneapolis, MN)


In efforts to share YEA with a broader community, UFore staff presented an YEA7interactive session on youth tree climbing programs at the annual conference of the American Camp Association’s Northland chapter in October 2017. The event was held at Lake Geneva Christian Center in Alexandria, MN and was attended by youth development camp professionals. The design and philosophy of YEA was introduced and discussed, and how existing summer camps might proceed in initiating their own recreational tree climbing programs, including consulting with local ISA-certified arborists. Attendees had the opportunity to try out the various climbing systems, and the program was well-received, with many camp associates looking forward to further collaboration for the implementation of recreational tree climbing systems.


Further work is underway to complete the framework for organizational tree climbing implementation. Camps during the summer of 2018 will see the addition of a new Rigging Games section and look to advance the skills of our young climbers during week-long camps! Look to the canopies in the coming year for young tree-friends becoming better acquainted with tree ascension as well as with the trees themselves!


A special thanks goes to Robert Blanchette and the University of Minnesota Department of Plant Pathology for making a laboratory available for this group of young scientists. Additionally, these youth camps would not be possible without the time donated by generous organizations and ISA Certified Arborists in the Twin Cities metro area. We are particularly grateful for the time and expertise provided by Brian Luedtke (Holistic Tree & Forestry) and Charlie Perington (Four Seasons Tree Service) Both Brian and Charlie provided the foundation to build safe and accessible YEA climbing systems.

    Photos: Chad Giblin, Michael Bahe, Ashley Reichard, Vanessa Fiedler

    Funding provided by a grant from the USDA Forest Service.

    This institution is an equal opportunity provider.

    Additional funding provided by:

    Minnesota Society of Arboriculture

    Minnesota Turf & Grounds Foundation

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    Thank You Volunteers!

    Thank You Volunteers!

    These skilled volunteers truly made YEA a success - THANK YOU!

    • Mike Bahe, UMN - Forest Resources
    • Aaron Crye, City of Saint Paul Forestry
    • John Elward, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Forestry
    • Kipp Hanson, City of Saint Paul Forestry
    • Benjamin Koenig UMN Alumnus
    • AJ Lange, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Forestry
    • Brian Luedtke, Holistic Tree & Forestry
    • Ryan Mahoney, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Forestry
    • Luke Midura, CityForester
    • Karl Mueller, City of Saint Paul Forestry
    • Charlie Perington, Four Seasons Tree Care
    • Robb Raymond, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Forestry
    • Danielle Ringle, UMN Landcare
    • Wyatt Spruck, Vineland Treecare
    • Pierce Wasmund, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Forestry