Every aspiring mountaineer has to start somewhere and for the great majority of us that first foray into alpinism begins with the humble staircase. One might be forgiven for taking the ascent and descent of this architectural staple for granted, but has anyone really ever stopped to consider how we learn to master this first milestone in an explorer’s career? Fortunately, new research in Elsevier’s Infant Behavior and Development explores this issue on our behalf.

Researcher Sarah E. Berger, assistant professor of psychology at The City University of New York’s College of Staten Island, and colleagues interviewed the parents of 732 infants, who had observed first-hand the staircase activity of their offspring. Berger found that most infants (77%) had negotiated at least a first-floor ascent by 11 months old, several weeks after they had begun to crawl. The descent however proved a far more daunting prospect for those same infants, typically shying away from tackling the journey back to ground level until 12.5 months old. One assumes that they were rescued from their perch during the interim period.

Examining the various strategies that infants selected to undertake their first ascent, the researchers found that the overwhelming majority favored the tried and tested hands and knees/hands and feet approach. When it came to the descent, however, the infants adopted a much wider variety of styles. While most chose to turn around and either crawl or slide down backward, 9% walked while holding a banister, 13% scooted down in a sitting position, while 2% opted for the somewhat more adventurous strategy of sliding down face first.

The researchers also investigated whether coaching affected when infants learned to climb and descend the stairs. Although 58% of parents made a concerted effort to teach their infants to descend stairs safely, coaching had no impact on the age at which children managed to accomplish this feat.

Interestingly, the researchers state that infants may actually have a stair-climbing advantage over adults, due to the low center of gravity that their crawling strategy gives them. Given the number of accidents that occur on the staircase each year, perhaps it is not we who should be teaching our infants to climb stairs, but they who should be teaching us.