A lot of our communication with parents took the form of, "My kid is already running, jumping, and climbing over everything, and it scares me; can you teach her how to do it safely?" We felt fortunate that there were parents willing to investigate this, rather than simply shutting down their children's natural movement instinct. We struggled back then with whether or not to offer kids classes. On the one hand, there seemed to be a demand for it; but on the other hand, it didn't feel right to be applying a structure to what kids did naturally.
Our position back then was that structured classes in parkour were inappropriate for children younger than about 10-12, and that is our position today. This is not to say that parkour classes are necessarily bad or harmful for younger children -- there are plenty of high-quality kids' parkour programs out there -- but rather, we wanted to move away from the American tendency to try to shuttle kids into structured programs too early. There is a lot of research out there showing that early sports specialization prior to adolescence can lead to higher incidence of injury as well as a loss of interest in athletic pursuits altogether (more on this in a later post).
Ryan Ford of Apex Movement in Colorado, and one of the most respected authorities on athletic training for parkour, opened his TED talk about parkour with, "People often ask me, 'When did you start parkour?" My favorite response is, 'When did you stop?'" This gets at the heart of the matter: kids do parkour on their own, naturally. Watch any child below the age of, say, 10 or so, out in the world. They are naturally curious, climbing on things, jumping off of things, hanging and swinging. If they are lucky, they have parents who encourage them in their endeavors. If they are very lucky, their parents continue to encourage these behaviors, and even model them themselves, in a lifelong way.
Culturally in the US, we have a fascination with achievement. There is certainly nothing wrong with this; however we must be mindful of the effects: more and more with each passing decade we are seeing a trend towards most structured activities, starting much younger, for children. Also we are seeing a greater emphasis on child safety: not necessarily a bad thing except to the extent that our safety measures actually take away from children’s necessary learning experiences. There seems to be a feeling among many adults, especially those with children or who care for children, that a structured class is the best way to allow children to engage in physical pursuits in the safest way possible. But this is rarely the case.
Structured classes tend to be more focused on skills and techniques: developmentally inappropriate for most kids under the age of 7 or 8; or they are focused on exposing children to what a certain type of activity (dance, gymnastics, soccer, etc.) is like: how to line up, how to listen to the coach and follow instructions, how to move creatively, etc. While the latter is more developmentally appropriate, it still denies the child the ability to do the introspective work necessary for knowing her own body, understanding his feelings surrounding risk, etc. To quote Sonja Lukassen, of the Ottawa Forest and Nature School, “Taking a risk looks different for each individual, and shifts based on a great variety of factors. The need to listen to our bodies and brains remains the same- if something doesn’t feel right, it makes sense to pause and take a closer look. If something does feel right, if it feels safe and fun and perhaps even exciting, go for it.” Putting children in structured physical activities too soon deprives them of this critical opportunity to learn how to listen to their bodies and brains, and understand their own landscape of risk.
I would encourage any parent whose child shows interest in parkour (or whose child, without mentioning parkour directly, is one of those kids who is “always jumping and running and climbing”) to take a deep breath, and look for ways to encourage their children’s development of autonomous risk-assessment and creativity in these types of movement. It can be scary to watch your little one climb up the slide, or swing from high above the monkey bars, but each of these experiences is an opportunity for your child to know his or her own body better, and to develop rich brain-body connections with regard to risk, thoughtful behavior, measured decision-making, and self-confidence. The easiest way to do this is to follow your child in the activity: “Wow you are climbing so high! That looks fun and also a little scary. I’m going to try it with you!” and climb on up!
In addition, the Child & Nature Alliance of Canada suggests that parents limit the use of the phrase, “Be careful!” instead, be more specific with your direction, applying it to the situation at hand, for example, if your child is climbing higher than you are comfortable, instead of saying “Be careful,” you can invite your child to “Stay focused on what you’re doing,” or ask your child, “Do you feel safe there?” These types of statements validate the physical activity while at the same time modeling appropriate self-awareness and risk-assessment behaviors for your child. This is critical for raising wise, resilient, courageous children.
If you have an active child who seems to do parkour naturally, wonderful! If you are able to allow her to cultivate that through natural, unstructured play, using some of the tips mentioned here (and in the resources linked below), so that she is still excited about parkour when she is around the age of 11 or 12, then it’s time to start her in structured parkour classes.
If you’re not sure you’re up for fully embracing “risky” play for your younger child, seek out a parkour class for kids that emphasizes:
- free play and creative exploration of the environment
- active, imaginative physical games (such as tag, or “How many stuffed animals can we rescue from this maze before the monster gets you?”)
- non-calisthenic physical challenges (“Can you balance on this railing?”)
- skills instruction that emphasizes creativity and imagination over technique drills (“Let’s try to move silently like ninjas!” vs. an explanation of quiet landing technique and a repetitive drill)
- child-centered decision-making (“try to get over this box in whichever way your body wants you to”)
- actively modeled risk-assessment (“Do you feel safe there?”)
- respect for the child’s sense of limits (i.e. does not force the child to do a movement or jump that they feel is too risky for them)
That said, though, you may be inspired to try outdoor physical play with your child! In a future post I will talk about who parkour is “for” (hint: everyone!), and what “type” of person can do parkour (hint: everyone!), which may come in handy if your little monkey inspires you to join in the fun!