Parkour: Movement for the Next Generation
1. States Parties recognise the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and arts.
2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.
Article 31 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children
Parkour is the fastest growing adventure discipline and fitness method in the world. Videos featuring parkour now constitute the most uploaded type of video on YouTube every month. It can be seen in just about every new Hollywood action movie, in numerous television commercials, on poster campaigns for all sorts of brands, being taught in schools and for local authorities in various countries, and being practised on the street corners of every major city in the world. It’s even now an officially recognised sport in the UK! And yet despite this rapid rise to prominence over the past five years or so, there are still pockets of people out there who have never heard of it.
So what is parkour?
Put as concisely as possible, parkour consists of training to move freely over and through one’s surroundings using only the abilities of the body: running, jumping, climbing, crawling, swinging and more. Parkour focuses on developing the fundamental attributes required for such movement, which include practical strength and fitness, balance, spatial awareness, agility, coordination, precision, control and creative vision. At the same time it aims to create a resilient and adaptive mindset capable of overcoming obstacles, solving problems and finding solutions to any scenario encountered. Simply put, it’s what our bodies are evolved to do – to get us around from one place to another swiftly, easily, effectively and safely.
So it’s nothing new. Yet at the same time it is quite unprecedented. It’s play combined with focus and discipline, working off the type of movement that comes naturally to all children but which at some stage in their development is curtailed, restrained, discouraged and limited. Parkour not only encourages a return to that natural, adaptive movement, it actively demands it.
Those of us who teach and have taught parkour are extremely aware of the enormous benefits this new discipline can have for young people, and not only on a physical level. We have seen classrooms of Muslim girls, a demographic that traditionally engages in no sport at school whatsoever, attend regular weekly sessions in some London schools. We have seen crime-rates in 8-13 year olds drop by 69% in one London borough while running an inclusive summer parkour course (London Metropolitan Police figures). We have seen school ‘dropouts’ go on to become the recognised athletes of the school.
Since 2004 Parkour Generations has established the world’s first and largest training and education establishment, running weekly Parkour Academy classes across the UK, USA, South-East Asia and now South America as well. We deliver parkour in schools and for social inclusion programmes, train fitness professionals in movement skills, and provide workshops and seminars around the world, as well as delivering our globally recognised and accredited education and certifications for those looking to become professional coaches of the discipline.
And we’ve seen incredible results in terms of participation numbers amongst young and old, men and women, often engaging those demographics who traditionally do not engage in any sports or physical activities. Young people feel an instant affinity with parkour, simply because it is what they already know and do. The art is organic in that it shapes itself to fit the practitioner and not the other way round, which is a requirement for many traditional and outcome-specific physical activities.
One explanation for its extensive and broad reach lies within the ethos of parkour itself; that it is non-competitive and looks to develop only the natural abilities and talents of each individual rather than attempting to force them to conform to one singular way of performing or ‘playing the game’. It does not prescribe a certain way of moving or of completing the exercises, only that each practitioner learns to move in the manner which best suits his or her own anatomical and psychological type. Parkour is a constant dialogue between the mover and the movement.
And it is highly accessible to all.
Here we have a genuine transformative practise open to all, not limited to specific locations – in fact it revels in the exploration of new and varied terrain – requiring no special equipment beyond a good pair of shoes and no particular training environment. It is an art geared toward the individual, wherein one develops at one’s own pace and in one’s own unique manner.
In fact, parkour can be picked up at any time, in any place, by anybody. And this is a crucial point for a global population moving inexorably deeper and deeper into urbanisation: the concept of ‘training in nature’ is all well and good but if, by the year 2050, 6 out of 7 people on the planet will be living in a city it doesn’t do them much good. Physicality, sport and play needs to take context into account: which means if you spend 99% of your life in an urban setting then you should be looking to make that terrain your playground, your gym, your jungle. Parkour does exactly that.
It is precisely this level of access to a progressive and holistic method of practise that provides a whole new arena for human development on a mass scale. It is an art that encapsulates all the requisite aspects of the ancient transformative practices, providing both a physical and philosophical paradigm for practitioners to utilise. Indeed, parkour offers a path by which all can aspire to that ancient but perennially relevant Greek ideal of mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a sound body.
We know the benefits of restoring and encouraging natural movement, and the aim now should be for us to enable more people to be able to access activities like this that appeal to them and get them active with their support rather than without it. Article 31 enshrines this demand in law – yet at the same time societies and authorities are constantly restricting where young people can play with a fear-based and risk-averse mentality that would have all children sitting at home playing on the X-Box every hour of the day just to keep them out of harm’s way. Of course, by doing this we expose them to more long-term harm than ever before.
“Parkour is a fine example of how individuals can become highly skilled in overcoming obstacles, engaging with their environment and managing risks in a way that produces numerous benefits in the form of physical health, skill and judgement.”
– David Ball, Professor of Risk Management and Director of the Centre for Decision Analysis & Risk Management at Middlesex University
Firstly, excessive risk-taking runs in opposition to the philosophy of parkour. According to one participant, “one of the most striking differences between parkour and other so-called ‘extreme’ sports is that it is not concerned solely with the acquisition of physical skills, but also with the improvement of one’s mental and spiritual well-being. Ensuring that physical progress is not at the expense of mental progress is one of the main aims of a good traceur”. (Dan Jones, MA Thesis, The Art of Displacement) In fact, statistics from our London Parkour Academy classes, which see some 6-700 people go through classes every week, demonstrate clearly that parkour has fewer injuries than many of the traditional sports, and is way below the UK’s top two of horse riding and rugby.
Secondly, an element of managed risk is essential in the healthy physical and mental growth of all people. It is precisely the development of those risk-management tools and paradigms when young, during play, exploration and physical activity, that leads to a healthy body and mind as one matures. Improved spatial awareness, confidence, cardiovascular fitness, muscular tension and strength, balance and coordination all contribute to an improved standard of living and less chance of injury and/or lifestyle illnesses such as obesity, heart disease and so on. An element of managed risk is vital for the healthy development of any child.
Our approach is to embrace healthy risk; to encourage the development of physical intelligence and mental competence to provide young people with a resilience that will see them through the innumerable unpredictable challenges life will throw at them. We aim to make them stronger, faster, more creative, more adaptable, more courageous. In touch with their true potential. Better, all round.
And we remind them that the city is their city; their space; their home – there to be explored, understood, enjoyed: and in this way made safer for all.
by Dan Edwardes