The Barriers to Play - and the Power of Parkour

Did you know that we are most physically active at age 6? It’s all downhill after that, and by age 19 we end up as sedentary as 60-year-olds. Yikes. To add another layer, in America, by the time students approach the end of high school almost TWO THIRDS (61-63.1%) don’t attend physical education classes even once a week—with a majority of those who leave sports during that time often leaving active lifestyles permanently. Is it no wonder obesity today is 4x the rate it was in 1980?


When looking at the major barriers to participation in sports and physical activity, ACCESS is cited most often—economic and physical (among other barriers of community, culture, geography, community, and so forth). But how big are those barriers? And how is parkour different?


Over the last 6 years, participation in youth sports has declined--except, that is, if you are from a wealthy family that can afford the equipment, league fees, travel time, and emotional energy. In 2015, about one in three parents (32%) from households making less than $50,000 a year told researchers that sports cost too much and make it difficult for their child to continue participating. One of Utah State's surveys conducted a year later in 2016 found that the average family spends $2,292 per year on sports (at the elite levels some families spend more than $20,000 per year and more than 10% of their income on youth athletic development).

So where do those kids go when they can’t afford to participate? Certainly not the playground (TLDR: Most municipalities don’t allow people over the age of 12 on a playground unaccompanied by a child. Don’t even THINK about eating a donut.). Cue video games and that couch potato life.

As to adults, gym fees are on the rise, with the monthly gym membership increasing to an average of ~$60. While there are an increasing number of classes and services being made available, their price tag usually limits learning and participation to once a week, and that typically being reserved for the middle+ class. To add insult to injury, intramural adult sports groups, though existent, are often difficult to connect to. Recreation Centers, when available, often cater heavily towards seniors and youth. Is it no wonder that only 15% of lower-income adults play sports (compared to 37%+ of higher income adults…) ?



Parkour requires no specific equipment or facilities, and offers an abundance of free open online resources, community events, and classes. In 2018 alone, PKV ran 13 free events, a free afterschool program, and over 230 free or reduced-cost classes across 14 different sites—and are on track for even more next year. Blogs, instagram, and youtube channels are brimming with thousands of quality tutorials and tips. Communities and for-profit companies worldwide provide scholarships and affordable services to their community and demonstrate an ongoing commitment to the spirit of free sharing that defined the early years of the sport. What more? The majority of this isn’t supported by sponsorship or grant funding, but rather funded out of pocket and against the bottom line.

Compared to sports like gymnastics, football, soccer, which requires specialized instruction, spaces, equipment (and sometimes clothes, classes, and teams)—parkour is provides significantly more affordable opportunity to join and maintain long-term practice.

(Plus.. I didn’t even get to talking here about cost of field permits, which have their own whole host of issues (see what i mean)


Let’s turn our attention now to physical access—

Getting to and from fields and facilities can be a major lift, not just for parents, but adults and seniors as well. First there is the crisis of recreation deserts—underfunded neighborhoods with limited facilities and programs, making it difficult, if not impossible, for some demographics to access programs. Even if one wanted to participate, and had the economic means, sometimes its not even an option.

Especially in rural and suburban communities, participation practically demands car ownership and car availability. (which in turn demands $). Add working hours growing longer, parents across America struggle to get kids to and from recreation programs while meeting their other obligations. Fitting in family, work, and physical activity can become simple too big a juggle when the commute adds hours.

I also want to add that nationwide less than 30% of youth report being able to walk to & from school regularly—now consider that schools are often the only places providing spaces for play in many neighborhoods.

Let’s also briefly turn to seniors, a group that tends to have a lot of vulnerability when it comes to having affordable and accessible services. One of the biggest barriers of aging in place is having the capacity to independently access or utilize transportation options.


The Aspen Institute recommends “Growing access to play spaces… starts with the small — simple, smart moves that hold great promise…” And I agree. Except instead of building half courts and mini fields, how about redesign streetscapes? In cities that are space-starved, parkour provides a solution that doesn’t require millions of dollars and shiny, boring playground equipment that can only be used by a small subset of the population.

And how about shifting perspectives through creative programming?
How about teaching parkour vision?

For those of you who have had a parkour experience, you understand how parkour can be a perspective shifter, and a space-maker.

Practice reveals that there are opportunities to play and challenge yourself pretty much anywhere—from your bedroom to the streets to the beach. Practice radically transforms your environment without ever moving a single screw or board.

You don’t need to go any farther than home.
Your playground is here.
Your playtime is now.



Furthermore, parkour encourages resilient practice / behaviors. More than half of parents reported wanting their kids to play outside more. Why did more than 1/3 of parents report why it’s not happening? (36%): It’s too hot, cold, or rainy. Yikes.

Parkour wants you to embrace the weather as an obstacle—to lean in and celebrate the shifting of the seasons, and the menu of movements that become available in that shifting. In 2019, Parkour Visions will have the majority of its programs either partially or entirely utilizing outdoor spaces, and there are many similar organizations worldwide committed to cultivating outdoor practice year-round, (t)Rain or Shine!

It’s not to say that there isn’t benefit from having clean, dry, indoor spaces to practice, but only that we do not limit our practice there—and in fact celebrate our practice being bigger than the box it’s sometimes placed in.


I could go on to talk about demographics, geography, politics, technology, culture, and more. There are so many factors that contribute to non-participation. This short post is by no means even an acceptable review of even a fraction of the information out there on the subject. And, truthfully, I never intended to even write this much. This post started out as a two line comment about one of the above statistics and then snowballed.

But I will say this bit more:

In a 2015 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation free play has been shown to produce higher levels of physical activity than organized sports—seeing that 43% of organized sports practice was found spent being inactive. Not to mention, there is an disturbing absence of sport opportunities for the moderately interested athlete—with 40% of high schools not offering intramural sports (RWJF 2012). If you don’t push forward into elite athletics (complete with price tag+time commitments), often times there are no options for you.


Parkour is the champion of free play

Unlike conventional sports, where they have to be performed and practiced in specific places, with specific equipment, and often times with specific people, where you might be cut from a team or aged out, where fees might set you back a couple hundred, where lack of time can stop you getting an hour of activity in…

Parkour can be done any time, any where, with what little you have on your person. People practice in the snow and sleet, in bare feet, at all strange hours of the night and day. Movement takes many forms—and the diversity is embraced. There are opportunities to compete and there are opportunities to play without boundaries. There is room to invent, integrate and improvise.

You also have the rare ability to grow up in a community, to be 9, 29, 59—and still apart of the same social ecosystem. This is so incredibly rare in any other sport. Typically when you grow up, you out grow your sports group. Yet in parkour there are communities, both analogue and digital, that grow and support the 16 to the 66 year old—and spaces where all the generations co-exist. Why is this important? It’s been reported that having a supportive community environment is a major factor in adopting a sustainable active lifestyle. Though the parkour community has ways it still needs to grow, it does generally speaking have an incredibly welcoming community that is aging up together.

Anyways… I have diverged enough.

I am trying to say is that Parkour is a powerful alternative to conventional sports. It offers a legitimate way over, under, and through the barriers of participation that so many people face. And, above all, It offers a fresh perspective on what the phrase athlete-for-life means, presenting a much needed, inspiring vision for what a long life in play could look like.

- Caitlin Pontrella