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Parkour Class Teaches Kids to Scale Obstacles and Defy Gravity

By Emily Frost | November 18, 2014 8:50am
 The class is for 7 to 11-year-olds and teaches the fundamentals of parkour. 
Parkour for Kids Class Launches on UWS
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UPPER WEST SIDE — They're not leaping between cars, jumping over trash cans or flipping across rooftops, but these kids are practicing parkour.

A group of daredevil 7- to 11-year-olds is learning to scale obstacles in the tradition of the adult thrill seekers who use the city as their playground. But these young parkour practitioners are training in the safety of an Upper West Side gym.

Discovery Programs launched a parkour class this fall for nine kids at its West 100th Street facility, where children dangle from monkey bars, tumble across mats and shimmy along balance beams, moving as quickly as they can without touching the ground.

It is one of the only classes of its kind in the city.

"They just want to move, to play, to have fun," said Joseph Habib, 36, who teaches the parkour class, as well as gymnastics.

Based on its popularity, Discovery Programs is planning to offer two sessions of parkour starting this winter, said Katie Kheel, the program's director. The class currently costs $646 for 16 sessions.

While adults who do parkour risk bodily harm with their gravity-defying stunts, Habib has simplified the moves and made them safer for kids in the class. He uses gymnastics equipment to simulate the city landscape and creates games to keep kids constantly engaged and moving for the hourlong, weekly class.

"I think it's really fun... you get to do all kinds of crazy stuff," said Oliver, 7, who takes the class.

Habib became certified in parkour last spring through the American Parkour Academy at a four-day institute that "was like a camp for kids who like to jump around" but was actually for adults, he said.

Parkour, which focuses on navigating obstacles as efficiently as possible through vaulting, jumping, leaping and rolling through an urban environment, was invented in France in the 1990s.

Interest spread to the United States mainly through YouTube videos of practitioners and the James Bond movie "Casino Royale," which featured the activity. 

The kids in Habib's class generally know more about parkour than their parents, he said. And reassuring parents that the class was safe took a little negotiating, Kheel said.

Gretchen Mathewson decided to take a chance on parkour for her 11-year-old son, Isaiah, after searching for an activity that would build his upper body strength, something she felt was missing from his other activities including soccer and skateboarding.

She had a limited understanding of what parkour involved — "All I could imagine was people doing crazy things like jumping off a building," she said — but she has been impressed with all the tumbling and leaping she sees whenever she peeks into a class.

Mathewson also likes that there aren't fixed rules in the parkour class.

"You can't get it wrong," she said.

Habib tailors the lessons to each child and constantly reminds them not to get carried away after watching parkour videos at home.

"These guys [on YouTube] are professional stunt men," Habib tells the students. "It's not about doing a flip over a table [if there's an easier way to get over it].... Being reckless is the least thing it's about."