Archives for posts with tag: urban play

by Caitlin Pontrella

Adventure Playground by Paul Friedberg & Partners

We all recognize the importance of play for children. New York City alone is home to hundreds of children’s playgrounds–adventure and imagination playgrounds, modern designs, interactive sculptures, nature inspired, wood constructions, loose parts, prefab structures, and more.  The city seems to be devoted to designing, building, and renovating new & interesting places for children to play.

But what about all those teenagers and adults?

For some reason children are the only ones allowed to indulge in play, according to society. Teenagers and Adults who attempt to engage in some form of childhood play are dismissed as unproductive, self-indulgent, and immature; and are told to ‘grow up’ and be more responsible. And, sadly, the City seems to agree by its construction.  Sure, there are hundreds of playgrounds, but how many are adults allowed to use?  Let’s take a look at an example that will reflect the city at large–Central Park.  In Central Park there are 21 designated playgrounds.  Of those 21, however, a grand total of 0 are designed for the use of teenagers or adults.  (There is ‘fitness equipment’ available for use, but we’ll get into that in a second.) Adults could of course try to creatively re-purpose the children’s playgrounds for their own use, but take heed.  Those who venture into children’s playgrounds will most likely be slapped with dirty looks and comments from parents, be questioned of pedophilia, and privy to an outcry of concerns for the safety of the children.  Oh, and did I mention, they probably will get a ticket too?  Most of the playgrounds citywide allow adults only when accompanied by a child under the age of 12. (1).   Thus get caught trespassing sans-children and risk getting a citation. (Re: Women ticketed for eating donuts, Men ticketed for playing chess)  Welcome to your NYC Playground!!Dean_St_playground_no_adult_sign.jpg

Welcome to your New York City playground!

Yet, for those of us who do find ways and places to regularly engage in play, there is no doubt that we are rewarded with a better quality of life.  Beyond the obvious increase in physical fitness & health, we also find that our stress levels drop, we learn to engage and interact with others more easily, and we begin to see opportunities in places we would otherwise have overlooked.  Play contributes to our development as individuals.

And of course the City has woken up and taken notice of the importance of getting up and out on your feet (2).  NYC maintains numerous campaigns, programs, and facilities to assist adults (and children, of course), in building & leading an active, healthy lifestyle.  However, they seem to be running up against the same wall with each solution.  A gym is not the same thing as a playground, and does not offer the same set of complex benefits.


In 2012 NYC opened its first official ‘adult playground’ and has plans to build two dozen more by the end of 2014 (3).  However, calling them playgrounds is a gross exaggeration.  That ‘adult playground’ is nothing more than an outdoor gym, with isolated stations and plastic signs telling you what you should be doing and where and how.  Pull-ups here, situps there, balance on this one beam and this one beam alone.  No problem solving required, no creativity needed, no room for exploration or collaboration… no fun, no freedom.  The only two benefits I see is that it is free to use and smells significantly better than a box gym.

The first ‘adult playground’ in NYC. Looks fun.

Teenagers are faring a little better, but just barely.  There is the development of a playground at Hudson Yards, but its completion is set way out in 2015, and what it ends up offering is yet to be seen.  For those who enjoy skateboarding, there are numerous skateparks open to the public, though it should be noted that their use is contingent upon the signature of a waiver and specific equipment requirements.  But if skating isn’t you’re thing, then you’re as well off as the rest of the adult population.

Thus there is no denying that in the City and Society today, there is a unacceptable and near complete lack of opportunity for teenagers and adults to engage in free, unstructured, creative play. When you go to a park, your options are to walk, on this path or that one, or to sit on a bench, in the shade or the sun, or to buy a vendor hot dog & people watch.  There are tons of bike paths if you’re able to afford a bike, or you could throw a ball in the field, if you’re allowed on the grass, so long as you don’t disturb your neighbors.

And, well, with those as your best options, it should be no surprise to hear that in NYC more than 1/2 the adult population is either overweight or obese(4)(5).  One could easily tie to the cause the fact that the opportunities that are available to get moving are too expensive, difficult, competitive, or, to put it plainly, not a whole lot of fun.  Fitness & play needs to be more than gym workouts, expensive specialty classes, long walks in the park, and competitive team sports.

To put the long story short–we don’t need more gyms and classes in our city; we need more playful, adult infrastructure.  We need infrastructure that is complex, inter-generational, and flexible, that allows adults & teenagers to develop and explore their own open-ended challenges.  We need a place that is safe, welcoming, accessible, and fun. …And We need to stop looking at play as a distraction or diversion from reality, but rather as an integral element of our continual, healthful development.

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Quote Response by Caitlin Pontrella

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Parkour NYC

Two Traceurs Having A Conversation

I. Language of Movement

Language is one of the most important components of civilization.  It allows us to express our thoughts, to explore our ideas, and to overcome our problems.  And, even though there are thousands of languages, it is hard to find one that is truly universal, one without a huge learning curve, one that speaks across any juncture of age, place, and intelligence.

But it exists.

Movement is that universal language and is, above all, the most accessible form of communication.  Each and every person can both observe and participate in the dialogue with little to no training.   We can express emotion, reflect thought, and expose the complex characteristics that make us each uniquely ourselves.

And though there are many dialects of this Movement language, such as dance, gymnastics, and martial arts, the dialect that stands out, above them all, is Parkour.

II. Dialect of Parkour

Parkour is a unique physical discipline in that practitioners, known as Traceurs, have complete control over their practice.  They choose their environments, they set their own challenges, they make their own rules.  The purpose of practice is left to the individual to define.  Thus you can step back and really examine–Are their rules non-negotiable or loose guidelines?  Do they train in the heart of the public or in the quiet alley behind their home?  Are their challenges primarily of the physical nature or the mental?  Complex or simple?  Inspired or out-of-the-pack?

And with these choices, Traceurs weave their amazing stories–stories of who they are, what they believe, and what they want.  With every movement, they clearly reflect their values, personality, and temperament.

II. A single jump.

In a single jump, for example, you can read about the characteristics and personality of the Traceur.  There will be practitioners who jump with cold, calculating certainty.  Their jumps speak a story of maturity, of discipline and self-knowing.  Some jump with violence, revealing a story from their depths–a buried rage to give them a final push.  Others jump with fear, unsure of the end result, unsure of their own selves.

Clumsy jumps, creative jumps, passive jumps, the list can go on, each one uniquely reflecting the jumper, each uniquely telling a story.  Some jumps reveal hesitation and self-consciousness whereas some reveal overwhelming pride and ego, some speak to the degree of creativity and others to a meticulous planning nature.

Don’t understand?  Well then, I ask–go find a jump, whether it is two curbs or two cliffs, and observe how you feel.  Did you pick a jump that scares you or did you play it safe? Is your heart pounding in your chest?  Is the jump a strange one–requiring you to duck when you land so as not to bump your head or relatively simple?  Are you safely out of sight, so no one will see you if you fail or are you in public, hoping everyone will stop to watch?  The more jumps you take, the clearer the pattern emerges.

III. A Half Hour of Play

So, you can only imagine then, if a single jump can say all that, what can it say in an half hour of play? Well, look around, look at the people you choose to train with:

What challenges do they choose for themselves?  How do they prepare to confront them? Do they seek critique and collaboration or are they isolated in their practice? Are they first to volunteer an activity or do they follow along?  Are they passive observers or active participants?  How do they deal with failure?  Success?

A few years back I attended a Parkour gathering in San Antonio Texas.  We had 75+ practitioners, Some as young as 10 and those well in to their 50s, some with years of play under their belt and some new to the experience.  And this group, flush with variety, took a trip to a wonderful wooden playground in the suburbs to train.

The group dispersed, each individual finding challenges unique to their interests or skillsets.  When walking around, the personalities of each Traceur slowly came out.  One group immediately sought out the largest jumps in the park–ambitious, courageous, reckless, all these personalities followed.  Another group went to the fence line, carefully hopped up on to the rail, and attempted to balance without fail, reflecting different degrees of discipline and patience.  And yet another group stood around watching the others move, nervous to join in, unsure of their skills, curiously observing.

And the variations go on.  I watched people tremble before jumps, psych themselves up, cool themselves off.  Some only worked on challenges found by others, whereas there were those who were only interested in the challenges they could set for themselves.  A few played games while others designed obstacle courses.  Some were arrogantly playing to the passerby public, and others were cautiously staying out of sight.

The permutations of personality present there that day were infinite.

IV. Who Are You?

In a half hour of play one can speak volumes, reflecting varying degrees of virtue.  Through a half hour, you can reflect on personal creativity, respect, efficiency, temperance, ambition, curiosity, courage, patience, perseverance, honesty, and so on.  And it is this kind of conversation I value the most, for movement is the language of honesty.  Your actions do not lie.

So, next time you step out and seek a challenge, next time you set a jump, ask yourself who you are. 

From Obstacles to Opportunities
Parkour and the City
By Caitlin Pontrella & Jesse Danger

We all have our own map of the city in our head.  For most it remembers where our favorite places are to eat are, where our friends live, where to get coffee, where to hang out, and so on.

Our map, however, remembers where the best places are in the city for an adult to play; Little dots light up across the mental landscape pinpointing locations of sturdy scaffolding and rough concrete barriers, with play-friendly public spaces, and large oak trees with branches that hang low enough for jumping on.   It records every physical challenge we’ve completed and all the ones yet to be.  It knows the difference between public spaces that tolerate and ignore play and those that embrace and encourage movement.

This map is a unique map of textures and temperatures and human activity, of tested and untested public and private relationships, of enjoyment, tolerance, and rejection–and it is a map that could only come to be through Parkour.

What is Parkour you ask?


Parkour is a discipline of movement and self-improvement that teaches one how to overcome any obstacle both efficiently and creatively, using nothing more than the human body.  This playful platform of movement encourages interaction between yourself, others, and your environment.

Traceurs, or individuals who practice Parkour, thus know the city like no other. We study textures, we grip, we feel how sturdy our obstacles are. As we walk through the city we are compelled to interact with it; running, jumping, climbing, crawling, swinging, and balancing. The mere act of walking around becomes an adventure, leading us to look for new challenges, new ways to improve ourselves.  Can I jump from this curb to that one in a single bound?  Can I slip through this scaffolding without touching the bars?  Can I balance along this rail without falling once?

And it is this type of interaction with the city that there needs to be more of–this engaged awareness, this parkour mentality.  It brings new life to both popular public spaces and those leftover and overlooked.  Things that once slowed movement–benches, tables rails, walls–now become elements that enable .  Obstacles become opportunity for growth, imagination, and play.  And suddenly there is no mission impossible, there is no challenge too great.

This playful view of the world, this parkour mindset and approach to life, is something we all once had.  At one point, when we were at our youngest, we didn’t understand the word ‘impossible.’  We believed in ourselves, we took risks, we wrestled for hours with how to get across the playground without touching the ground (it was lava, remember?).  We tested ideas and learned of our limitations.  We became the ultimate problem solvers.

As we grew older, however, we lost that unwavering resolution, that uncapped potential.  We scraped our knees, we broke a bone, our parents panicked at the sight of blood.  We were told that some problems were too hard or impossible and that either we weren’t strong enough or smart enough or old enough.  …That we never would be.

But this isn’t the truth.  This is just the world trying to tell you to grow up, to color inside of the lines, to fit the mold, to play it safe.

So I want to demand an answer: Why is this considered the right thing to do!  Why have we allowed safety to be emphasized to the point of instilling fear, insecurity, and inability in both children and adults?  Not only does this obsession with safety decrease the number of real opportunities to create and engage with your environment, it also severely limits self-exploration of personal (physical+mental) abilities and limitations.

 And if we continue to place emphasis on being overly safe we’ll end up only creating the unsafe–a world where people don’t know how to confront complicated challenges or to cope with uncertainty.

As famous playground designer Paul Friedberg explains, “[Our problem is that] We want the child to be living in a padded box. [But] A child has to have the real world, fraught with challenges to overcome.”


So, there needs to be a return to play.  True, fulfilling, authentic play, where children and adults alike can seek out real challenges, navigate real risks, and begin to honestly understand their physical and mental capabilities. …Play through which they can really grow.

And Parkour is one of those few disciplines that can provide this holistic platform of play while acknowledging this already pervading atmosphere of fear.

Through the medium of games and challenges, Parkour encourages curiosity and experimentation, builds strength and self-confidence,  and of course teaches the value of risk and the importance of facing your fears.


Furthermore, Parkour teaches creative problem solving.  A simple game of hopscotch can be transformed in an exercise in problem-solving when squares start to appear on the sides of walls, under railings, on low ledges.  In practice we learn that techniques that work in one situation may not work in another.  We are forced to explore alternative solutions, other ways over/under/through the obstacles we face, to find a way that we may not even have seen or tried.  And through this process, Parkour teaches us how to adapt to every situation, to think outside the box.

As to those safety concerns, through its practice Parkour ingrains safety.  You learn how to run properly, to jump and land without impact, to move without hurting yourself.  It teaches you not only how to assess the risks associated with any challenge you face, but how to judge it to be within or outside of your abilities.

So, forget buying expensive equipment or building one of those sterile play-structures in your backyard.  Teach your children Parkour, learn it for yourself.  With only a pair of shoes and their imagination, one can learn how to seek out challenges and games alone.


Especially, we would like to emphasize how crucial it is to teach children Parkour as they enter their teenage years.  You see, as children get older they outgrow the playgrounds they know so well.  Most  of those constructed around the country are designed for children under 12 and restrict children older. Even if there aren’t any signs forbidding play, the dirty looks of adults say enough.  ‘You don’t belong here, you’re too old to be playing here.’ Teenagers and adults alike are cast away from the only spaces their communities provide for play.

And, at a time so crucial for defining who they are, society shepherds teenagers and adults away from the playgrounds and into other public spaces, where play is no longer the apparent intention.  Rather, these public spaces and parks offer benches to watch some tourists and enjoy a vendor hot dog, a patch of lawn for a nap or cloud gazing,  windy paths that lead to no where and offer nothing but a view.  (And we wonder why obesity is an issue, hm).

Now, we’re not saying that we’re against benches and ice cream and napping on a nice sunny day, but these provisions alone clearly offer very little in return in terms of human growth.

Adults and teenagers should have as much of a place to play as children. They need to play too!  The same gains we make as children through play will only increase in complexity and magnitude as we age and mature.  Our abilities to assess risk, to problem solve, to cope with uncertainty, can continue to increase and refine themselves ad infinitum.  There is so much growth that can still be gained as we slip in to adulthood.

So Parkour provides that playground, for teens and adults alike.  It provides a world that will never run out of challenges, that has no age limitations and no skill requirements.  And if we teach children while they are young enough, they will never find themselves lost in a world without a playspace of their own.


Obstacles are apart of every day life, whether it is climbing a wall, getting to work on time, or delivering making a presentation in front of a large group.  The lessons we can learn through play and though parkour--to creatively approach problems, to face our fears, to love and respect the people around us and the world we are in--are lessons that can be carried out through the rest of our lives, and are lessons without completion.

So we urge you to, right now, this very day, to start pinning your map with every opportunity for play, for every chance to grow. To always look for opportunities to become better than you are, regardless of whether you are a child or adult.