In the city, we don’t see children climbing trees. In fact, we seldom see anyone climbing trees.
My mother, recalls with much fondness, the tree adventures during her childhood in Richmond Town, Bangalore in the 1950s. ‘Monkey on the tree’ was the most popular game that not only honed climbing skills and balance, but also built up stamina. “We used to be a big group of 10-12 children, and played across 2-3 compounds on the street, moving from one tree to the other.” And if they were not swinging from tree to tree, they used to be gobbling gooseberries and guavas. The game was not without risks. There would be the occasional fall or fracture, but those are a part of life. (To know how to play ‘Monkey on the tree’, see the end of this post.)
As a child, I used to listen to Mom’s tales with much envy. Firstly, I didn’t have friends who would want to climb trees, and secondly, there were not many trees to climb from compound to compound. My brother preferred bats and balls to the trees, so climbing was usually a solo sport for me.
At home we had several trees with the guava being the favourite. It was easy to climb, sturdy and flexible, moving with you as you leaned to reach the fruit. Also, with no sharp branches, the odd scratch or poke was a rarity. The nightshade tree that we now have at home, though said to have weak branches, has also been found suitable for climbing.
The mango was another tree good to climb. The fruit was the main attraction and every effort used to be made to pluck them off without injury so that they could be kept for ripening. Timing was crucial, we needed to wait for the mangoes to get “colour”, yet reach them before the birds did.
Then there was the strapping jamun tree that seemed to be a hundred years old. During the season, it would be heavy, with fruit falling to the ground and smashing into juicy puddles. Often we would catch roadside urchins on the tree reaching out for the fruit. Once one of the branches broke off under the weight of the climber and he was lucky not to break any bones. This was one tree we were wary about climbing.
The Thomas house across the road had two big guava trees, one yielding red guavas and the other white. The branches of the two trees intertwined so if one was not familiar with the guava species shapes, the colour inside would be a surprise. I had an open invitation from Thomas aunty who lived there, to climb the trees and help myself whenever I wanted. The guavas here were bigger and better than our own, so I was often on those trees, but there is a limit to how much one can eat. Thomas aunty would give me jute bags to put the guavas into, and then she would make guava jelly, jam and juice!
In school too, we had trees that we could climb. The school uniform, pinafore / skirt, was definitely a deterrent, for one needs to be adequately clothed when climbing trees. Being an all-girls school though, we did not have to worry much about this as long as we were wearing sports shorts.
These days many of the large trees are without their lower branches, and even higher branches get chopped off to avoid overhead cables, so these trees become inaccessible for climbing. When old buildings give way to new, the natural canopies most often get razed too. The saved, older trees have brittle branches, so erring on the side of caution, these are better left for the squirrels and the birds! So are there no trees to climb, or has tree climbing been forgotten as a playtime activity?
If one looks around, one can spot several small trees in apartment complexes and parks, artistically fitted in to go with the architect’s landscape. Some of these would be a bit too low to climb for grown-ups and bigger children, but for small children, negotiating the footholds as they move from one branch to another would really be fun. Something like jungle gym, but one that would add an essential connect to nature.
I recently met a few parents at a neighbourhood park. The climbing frame equipment is a total favourite, because it enables many children to play at the same time, unlike the swings and see-saws where one needs to take turns. The trees around the play area though are out of bounds. Climbing trees is not against the rules of the park, but the parents are cautious about letting their children climb. The reasons: insects may bite, branches may scratch, child may fall, security guard may object, child has never climbed a tree before, don’t know how to teach the child how to climb the tree and “no one climbs trees these days” (except at special weekend resorts!).
A good USP for parks and apartments would be a tree-climbing area. Choose trees that are suitable for climbing – low branches, sturdy and flexible. From experience, guava and mango immediately come to mind. Apart from providing natural shady play areas for climbing, and for mounting swings and slides, tree-climbing areas will serve as important carbon sinks in our cities.
How to play Monkey on the tree
Draw a circle near the climbing tree. Place a stick in the centre of the circle.
From the group of people playing, one is randomly chosen as the ‘monkey’.
As soon as the monkey is identified, the others need to get to the stick and throw it far away. Then they run up the tree while the monkey needs to retrieve the stick and replace it in the circle.
Once the stick is replaced in the circle, the monkey needs to hunt down the others who are on the tree. He/she needs to touch one of them, either from the ground or by climbing the tree.
Others can get off the tree and dislodge the stick from the circle. If this happens, then the monkey needs to fetch the stick again.
If any person gets touched by the monkey then he/she becomes the monkey.
The rules of the game can define a time limit, tree limit or any others, mutually decided by the participants.