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Indoor Climbing with Kids

Milaatthecircuit Over the past few weeks, I have taken Mila to the  Portland Rock Gym  and The Circuit Bouldering Gym for her first indoor climbing experiences. I worked as a climbing guide for Outward Bound and managed my own guiding service but I was never teaching 4-year olds until now. As a way-out-of-practice crag rat, my main challenge was ensuring that I didn't pile too many expectations on the experience. Letting Mila find her comfort zone was my mantra.

Here is a summary of both Portland indoor climbing gyms based on my experience with Mila:

Portland Rock Gym: This gym is primarily wall climbing.  The routes are mostly top-roped. There is a bouldering area but children 7 years old or younger are not allowed in that area.

Cost?  Mila’s before 3 pm day pass was $7. You don’t need to purchase an adult day pass at The Circuit or Portland Rock Gym unless you will be climbing as well.

Equipment? Wall climbing requires a harness. Until age ten (or they out grow it), I recommend a full-body harness - rather than a seat harness - for young climbers.  A seat harness may not keep a very young climber secure if he or she falls upside down, which can happen more often than you think. We rented a full-body harness for the day ($3).

You have the option to rent climbing shoes but in my opinion there is no point for a child younger than 7. Mila used an old pair of Robeez.

Safety? You need to belay your child, so you must pass a belay test and know how to keep a climber safe on belay. If you don't know what that sentence means, stick with The Circuit.

Extras? The Portland Rock Gym has camps and classes for kids as well as options for birthday parties.

Overall experience? Mila scrambled up some of the bouldering walls (against the rules, I know) and really took to the whole experience EXCEPT for being on the rope. For whatever reason she would gladly scamper the the top of the wall in the bouldering area but once a rope was on her she just didn’t feel comfortable.

The Circuit Bouldering Gym: The Circuit is bouldering only. The goal of bouldering is to work on climbing technique on a boulder or small outcropping rather than on a cliff face. The point is not so much getting to the top of something but instead linking a series of moves through a “problem” - in effect you are solving the problem of how to climb a section of rock.

The Circuit is basically an artificial, indoor boulder field. Since the moves are typically on an area close to the ground, there are no ropes or harnesses involved.

Cost?  A child day pass at The Circuit is $6 and will increase to $8 on 1/1/2007 (so go there NOW!). If your child is a fan, you can cut future costs by getting a 10-punch card. Again, you don’t need to purchase an adult day pass at The Circuit or the Portland Rock Gym unless you will be climbing as well.

Equipment? Like at Portland Rock Gym you have the option to rent climbing shoes but kids can boulder in their socks or shoes. I let Mila use an old chalk bag of mine (with a Bison Ball) but this was more of cool extra for her, not at all a necessity.

Safety? You don't need to know what belay means but, although bouldering is close to the ground, don’t get lulled into thinking it is completely safe. Supervision of your little climber is still a must. It is especially important that your little one does not climb directly above or below any other climbers. Why? Because it will not be pretty if a child (or adult!) falls on your kid from any height.

Extras? Among the many features is a boulder with especially kid friendly climbs where Mila could “top-out” and then come down a slide. The Circuit also has classes, camps, and birthday party packages for kids.

Overall experience? Mila LOVED The Circuit. The best part of the day for me was that Mila did not want to leave (yes, I will endure tantrums from kids who don’t want to quit climbing!) We will be back and picked up a 10-punch card for Mila and Papa just to make sure.

The Final Word: Overall I think Portland Rock Gym is better for children with some experience/comfort with a rope system and/or older children. The Circuit is a better choice for kid's first indoor climbing experience and I could see a child graduating to wall climbing at Portland Rock Gym from there. Happy climbing!

Portland Rock Gym, 21 NE 12th Ave., Portland

The Circuit Bouldering Gym, 6050 SW Macadam Ave, Portland


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Cool - thanks! We were just talking about how our son would probably like rock climbing. Since we haven't really done it ourselves we didn't know how/where to start. We'll check out the Circuit.

thanks for the great info, Tony...we'd been thinking about taking kate and mina to the portland rock gym, but think mina might like the circuit better.

also, if you want an easy introduction for the kids and yourself and don't know how to belay, try the pinacle at REI (call ahead because it has strange hours). it's only $3, a qualified REI employee gives direction and belays the child, and the shoes and harness are part of the deal. they also regularly hold "classes" where kids can climb with group instruction for an hour or two (about $15 i think). this helped kate become comfortable on the rope/harness system at age 4, and by 5, she had gone to the top on all three "routes".

I've been thinking about taking the kids to the rock wall in Vancouver, at the Firstenburg Community Center. They have classes for ages 4 and up, and seem reasonably priced, comparativly. Has anyone been there?


Thanks for the tip Sharai! I didn't know about the Firstenburg Community Center. Another one to add to my places to see list...

Although it sounds like the amount of climbing space is less than you will find at private gyms, the rates and class fees seem like a pretty good deal. It would be great to hear from anyone who has been to there or taken a class.

All the best,


I have a question...how young can you start? I have a 1 year old who climbs everything and both dad and I enjoy bouldering. Is a toddler welcome at the Circuit? and would there be anything for him to do?

Hi Sarah! One of the dads at the school is really involved at the Circuit, (his friend is the owner) and he has been bringing his daughter there since she was a toddler. A few families have gone there because of his enthusiastic recommendation and their preschoolers LOVED it. John is actually taking Fionn there for the first time today, so I'll ask him to scope it out with you and your little climber in mind.


I don't think it is ever too early to introduce a child to climbing. The big thing is making sure that a child is allowed find his/her comfort zone. Kids don't care about routes or ratings or even climbing to the "top." Also sometimes the most enthusiastic furniture, playground, and/or real rock climber will not take to a gym immediately.

Overall I don't think any gym has much in terms of routes that would ideal for a toddler (holds are often placed a little farther apart than their reach for one thing). You may want to take your little guy with you to boulder at The Circuit (or anywhere) so he can see you in action and gauge his interest and abilities to what is there. Basically, it just may not be worth a day pass for your little one - yet!

Happy climbing (and New Year)!


My boys loved The Curcuit! John spoke with someone there who said children as young as 2 are "all over it" (literally, I guess...)
Happy New Year!

Hello all,

My name is Andy and I am the owner of The Circuit, and I am very glad to see that some of you have come in to let your kids experience this wonderful sport. I myself have a 2 and 4 year old. My two year old boy started climbing in the gym a few months ago-daddy was very proud. I am a family man who is very pasionate about bouldering and the belief that it is a wonderful activity for people of any age, and its a great sport that familes can participate in together. Bouldering is fun and safe for kids, and kids as young as two are generally successful and have a great time. Bouldering is great developmentally as it improves coordination, strength, and confidence.

Our first experience with climbing was last month at a friend's 4th birthday party. Our 6 year old LOVED it; our 3 year old didn't care for it at all. We went back, just my older daughter and I, yesterday, and had tons of fun climbing/bouldering. It's quite fun learning and exploring a new activity alongside my daughter.

Tony, you made me chuckle when you wrote something above about "belay" and then said: "If you don't know what that sentence means, stick with The Circuit." Yes, this mama will most definitely be found only at The Circuit, until I figure out what this "belay" is. Maybe, then, I can graduate to Portland Rock Gym.

I am happy that both The Circuit and Portland Rock Gym offers camps, classes, and parties for kids. When we were at The Circuit yesterday, there was a kid's birthday party going on. It was great to see kids doing something new and fun as a celebration.

There was a little fella bouldering there yesterday with the rest of his family. He was not any older than 2, and he was climbing up the wall happily (supervised, of course!). It was awesome to see. I was also completely inspired and in awe by a new mama, who was bouldering with ease to the tippy-tops of the walls and whose month-old child watched (and slept) happily in his carseat while mama mastered "new problems." So awesome. It was a great family vibe. We had a great time at The Circuit and we'll definitely be back.

Climbing gyms can be a great spot for a rainy day playdate!

Great work, thanks for the sweet indoor kids climbing blog, as this is a great exercise for children.

My boys loved The Curcuit! John spoke with someone there who said children as young as 2 are "all over it" (literally, I guess...)Happy New Year!

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