If you haven’t heard of it yet, you soon will. Parkour (also known as freerunning) is an improvised form of outdoor gymnastics that has gradually spread across the globe, seemingly out of nowhere. There is still no consensus on the exact classification – whether it can be classed as a sport or form of movement art or just a discipline. Yet all its adherents, commonly termed traceurs, agree on parkour being an exhilarating and creative full body workout, encouraging lightening fast reflexes and accuracy, with no equipment needed other than a good pair of trainers and good nerves. Traceurs can be regularly found vaulting over fences, scaling brick walls, sliding under park benches and throwing themselves over any obstacle that stands in their way. The basic premise is to find the most efficient method of navigating through the urban landscape, learning to overcome one’s fears and limitations by mastering the body and mind.
Parkour or freerunning clubs have now sprung up in many cities, with a growing number of followers each year. It brings a host of benefits to the participant, from increased agility, improved general fitness, balance, co-ordination, spatial awareness, instinctive movement, strength and muscle tone, and all-around athleticism. One study by Grabowski and Thomsen (2014) highlighted the potential role of freerunning in school-based health promotion for young people. The paper noted the difficulty that educators faced in trying to increase levels of participation and enthusiasm for physical activity, as children and adolescents often requested activities with content that was more relevant and meaningful to their own lives, and suggested that the growing popularity of parkour amongst young people could therefore be utilised as part of the solution.
Researchers have recently begun to investigate the additional cognitive benefits that parkour can bring. Fernandez-Rio and Suarez (2014) noted that although parkour is not usually described as an educational activity, it does fit into the instructional model of adventure education. In doing so, it allows students to acquire useful physical, cognitive and social skills that can be applied to other areas of life (such as risk-taking, cooperation, resourcefulness, autonomy, and problem-solving). Parkour is not classed as an extreme sport, yet it can carry the same elements of risk that any athletic training does and these challenges allow individuals to practice quick response and decision-making abilities. It requires participants to push their level of skill both physically and mentally, and it is the challenging nature of parkour that is seen as one of its major advantages. The ability to cope with and even use fear is encouraged, which can have a positive impact on a young person’s self confidence and result in a better capacity to deal with fear in other areas of life (taking exams or giving a class presentation, for example).
Parkour adherents do not compete against others, but instead attempt to further their own limits, and the parkour community is seen as attractive for youngsters due to its very non-hierarchical and inclusive nature. The lack of set rules can also be appealing for young people, with some academics even going so far as to indicate freerunning as a form of modern social protest (Bavington, 2007) due to its contrary approach to the urban environment. Rather than viewing obstacles as deterrents, traceurs are encouraged to react to space in individual and creative ways. Bavington concluded that this added to the development of individual agency and empowerment. If young people develop a sense of ownership during participation in activities such as parkour, then it is more likely to result in changes to their practice and behaviour in everyday situations.
Parkour has evolved from a small and hidden movement in France to a modern activity spawning thousands of followers online and off, and has in recent years filtered into mainstream view. In 2006 Westminster Council enlisted two parkour instructors to teach the students of several inner-city schools and sports centres, and following their success more councils across the UK have followed suit. This has led to the creation of the vocational A.D.A.P.T Qualification programme for those who wish to become recognised coaches and include the fundamental concepts and training principles of parkour as part of their P.E or school sport programme. As Grabowski and Thomsen (2014) note, parkour is a very flexible physical activity, which allows for the possibility of differentiated teaching. Different exercises at varied difficulty levels ensure that all participants are challenged in ways that match their individual capabilities, and it is the participants who take ownership of the learning process by deciding how far they want to push themselves. Dedicated parkour sites continue to open across the UK as its supporters grow in number, and it is likely that parkour or freerunning will increasingly be viewed as an attractive physical activity amongst young people and by those promoting health and fitness within education.