Jennifer Jones first introduced her daughters to parkour on the streets of New York.
“We traveled to New York in 2014, when my daughters were 7 and 8 and my stepdaughter was 15. I was concerned about the younger ones wanting to be carried as we walked 20 blocks at a time,” says Jones, owner of Market clothing boutique in Brentwood, “so I thought outside of the box and set up a private parkour class by the Hudson River.”
Parkour can be loosely described as the act of getting from point A to point B, regardless of the physical objects that might be in your path. It can be downright heart-stopping for a parent to see kids clambering up walls, leaping between rooftops and plunging from great heights with seemingly no fear.
While the lesson Jones arranged didn’t involve any rooftops, by the end of their session, her girls were looking at the New York sidewalks from a completely different perspective. The instructor taught them some basic jumping moves and how to vault over benches, which enhanced their sense of adventure as they navigated the city.
“We started using ‘parkour’ as a verb,” Jones says. “’How can you parkour that curb?’ Or, ‘Mom, I just parkoured that, did you see it?'”
Since the trip, her daughters have become regulars at Aerial Warehouse in Culver City, a studio that combines aerial arts such as silks and trapezes with “action arts,” including parkour and trampoline.
“My kids were very clear they didn’t want to do anything with a ball, and we had exhausted ballet and gymnastics,” says Jones. “I believe this avenue of sports will explode because there are a lot of kids who don’t fit the traditional basketball-soccer mold.”
Aerial Warehouse co-founder Shana Lord explains that her inspiration came from seeing her own kids on the playground. Lord is an elite-level gymnast and she and her husband are former Cirque de Soleil artists. She created the mixed-arts program to help young kids develop “playground skills.”
“When kids are as young as 5, they’re still growing,” she says. “Their heads are still wobbling around. We help them become more aware of their bodies.”
Even basic tools such as foam pits and obstacle courses can help kids develop fundamental muscular skills and coordination, while elements such as aerial silks, tumbling and trampolining inspire athleticism and creativity.
“When you’re flying through the air, you have to know where you’re going to and how to get there,” says Lord. “It’s OK to be a little scared, but you can embrace that fear and trust that we’re here to help.”
Risks and Rewards
Some experts consider these unorthodox activities more than just enrichment and an alternative to traditional sports. In some ways, they can be an improvement. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, doctors are reporting an increase in overuse injuries in kids who play tennis, soccer and basketball. Kids—whose bones, tendons and cartilage are still growing—are now being pushed to focus on a single sport year-round, which can cause issues such as tennis elbow, achilles tendinitis, shin splints and growth-plate injuries.
That said, unorthodox athletics don’t necessarily shield kids from injury. Robert Bernstein, M.D., who specializes in orthopedic pediatric surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, recalls recently seeing an 11-year-old acrobat who landed on his head and ended up with a cervical spine fracture.
“He was fine, but is that a sport I would want my kid involved in? Probably not,” he says.
Bernstein explains that besides the inherent risk of falling in aerials, any activity that involves hyperextension of the spine—including gymnastics and yoga—can make kids more prone to back injuries.
Managing these risks, of course, is part of the process at any legitimate training facility. “We start from the bottom and move up, to build confidence first,” explains David “Flip” Rodriguez, an instructor at Tempest Freerunning Academy in Chatsworth.
Rodriguez specializes in training 6- to 9-year-olds in freerunning—a discipline similar to parkour in getting from point to point, but with even more artistry in the form of backflips, spins or somersaults along the way. Rodriguez doesn’t have any formal acrobatic or gymnastic training, and credits the street basketball and skateboarding he enjoyed as a kid as his training ground. But, he points out, he’s never broken a bone with freerunning and parkour because of proper training, and he looks to instill that same sense of confidence in his youngest students.
“As a kid, I was always climbing roofs and trees, and I can’t tell you how many times I got stuck because I was afraid to come down,” he recalls. “I don’t want a kid to be afraid to do something because it’s intimidating.”
Energy and Discipline
While older children might gravitate toward action arts and aerial arts after seeing them on TV or online, younger kids are often steered in that direction by parents looking for a way to help channel energy and instill discipline in a manner similar to martial arts or gymnastics. Some even enroll kids in programs such as kids’ CrossFit, a high-intensity cardio, strengthening and conditioning workout. And, in rare cases, kids as young as 7 are competing in mixed-martial arts, where grappling and choke-holds are part of their training.
Other parents might prefer to steer their kids in the opposite direction. That’s why Antonia King, a mother of three, was surprised to learn how few yoga options there were for kids in Los Angeles. A former film producer, she kept meeting fellow parents who were seeking ways for their kids to cope with stress and avoid electronic-device overload, and opened Zooga Yoga in Culver City.
“I grew up doing yoga with my mom, and it was something I always looked forward to,” says King. “Our yoga program is completely focused on entertainment, play and education. It’s like acting out a story with yoga poses.”
King has seen children – even very young children – who learn the fundamentals of yoga, breathing and meditation develop balance and flexibility, and build attention span and confidence. Children on the autism spectrum have also benefited from the program.
“We create a routine, and eventually the kids are even doing it at home,” says King. “One 3-year-old had her grandparents lying down, and she was doing meditation with them.”
While non-traditional athletics aren’t likely to eclipse more traditional team sports, instructors and parents agree that there’s room for every option. And having choices for kids who may not fit the traditional mold—while promoting movement, discipline and confidence—can only move things in a positive direction.
Spots Kids Will Flip For
Aerial Warehouse: www.aerialwarehouse.com, 310-397-2200
With classes led by Cirque de Soleil performers and Hollywood stuntmen, Aerial Warehouse combines elements from all disciplines of aerial and action arts for ages 5 and up.
Tempest Freerunning Academy: www.tempestacademy.com, 818-717-0525
With locations in the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay, the academy employs trainers with freerunning backgrounds in film, television and live events. Programs are available for ages 6 and up.
TSNY Los Angeles: losangeles.trapezeschool.com, 310-394-5800
Kids ages 6 and up can learn trapeze, aerial silks, trampolining and aerial hoop at the Santa Monica Pier.
XTC (Extreme Training Center): www.xtcgym.com, 323-259-9009
The Eagle Rock gym offers myriad activities including aerials, muy thai, Brazilian capoiera and kickboxing, for ages 6 and up.
Zooga Yoga: www.zoogayoga.com, 310-839-6642
Zooga Yoga has parent-and-me programs and classes dedicated to kids, teens and expecting moms. Instructors have backgrounds in yoga, dance and theater.
Sarika Chawla is an L.A. mom of one and a frequent contributor to L.A. Parent.