Parkour: it's cool, sexy and features in Casino Royale. For teens turned off by team sports, it's the way to go, says Crispin Andrews
Railings, walls, trees, benches - no such thing inhibits the young woman's relentless urge to escape from the artificial restrictions of urban society. Oblivious to the bemused bystanders and amazed onlookers, she leaps over dull concrete and races down drab staircases, maintaining her focus with a combination of graceful balance and inner strength. But as PE teacher Gareth White watches this remarkable online demonstration of the art of parkour - the urban freerunning most recently brought to millions in the opening sequences of Casino Royale - he realises that, unlike the woman on his screen, he is in quite a tight spot.
The girl who cuts such an elegant line through the urban greyness is lithe and athletic; in every sense an expert traceur (parkour participant).
Unlike the pupils at Lordswood Boys School in Birmingham to whom he has just agreed to teach the sport for the first time.
"A bunch of unfit, hyperactive teenagers being encouraged to jump off walls by a teacher who knows absolutely nothing about parkour!" he says with more than a hint of irony. Despite the potential health and safety nightmare in which he finds himself, Gareth realises that for youngsters, parkour is cool and sexy; an urban sport that gives participants the chance to pit their physical skills against the environment.
Seen on TV, in adverts, pop videos, even in the latest James Bond movie, it is a relevant part of today's teen culture and more importantly it is what these youngsters want. "Not everyone is interested in team sports and many students will not get involved in physical activity if only traditional options are open to them," he says.
"If I need to come out of my own comfort zone as a PE teacher to engage them, so be it."
Online research is only the start. Gareth soon realises ideas can be adapted and concepts applied from his own experience as a PE teacher and a gym instructor. Balance is just as essential for success in parkour as any other physical activity, as is co-ordinating different parts of the body while in the air and on the ground. Specific parkour skills such as leaping, climbing, flips and of course sprinting are all part of many different sports that Gareth teaches regularly.
Working with the budding young traceurs to recreate in the gymnasium the sort of urban scenarios they might come across requires a bit of imagination. Using boxes, wall-bars, beams, mats, benches, ideal parkour environments can be created.
"The students' knowledge and creativity drives the sessions, so it's my job to make sure they are improving their skills and fitness safely," Gareth explains. As in gymnastics, students act as spotters, checking whether movements - particularly neck and head positions - are correct and safe, while also giving physical support as active participants seek to develop new and exciting movements that stretch the limits of their own physical competency.
"It's much better that they are doing all this in a controlled, developmental environment rather than outside going for things beyond their capability without support or protection."
Unlikely though it may seem, parkour is taking off in schools. In the London borough of Westminster, two secondaries - Quintin Kynaston and St Augustine's - are running afterschool sessions taught by professional athletes who are members of the Urban Freeflow parkour outfit. It's not just parkour that is muscling in on the traditional school sports.
Activities such as indoor rowing, circus skills, tri-golf (a mini version of golf), cheerleading, martial arts fitness, ultimate frisbee and even horseriding now supplement the traditional diet of team and individual sport in most secondary schools.
Recent figures from the Department for Education and Skills show that within school sport partnerships 80 per cent of pupils now do more than two hours of physical activity and the willingness of PE teachers to take on new forms of activity is a major reason that 2006 public service targets of 70 per cent are being exceeded. "It's about designing a programme of activity that meets the needs of all pupils, not just those who are already sporty," says Steve Grainger, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust.
When, for instance, Helene Hennessey, a PE teacher, started teaching yoga at Mandeville Sports College, one group of Year 10s realised that PE doesn't necessarily mean charging around in the freezing cold. For the first time they discover that physical activity can be relaxing too. "It was a bit nerve-racking at first," says Helene, who had been on a yoga teaching course during the summer. "I'd done a bit of yoga in the past so knew some of the moves - but I'd never taught it before so had no real idea what the kids were capable of achieving."
Like Gareth White, Helene discovered that giving students responsibility for the direction of their own learning helped. "By the end of term I was very pregnant and couldn't demonstrate most of the moves even if I wanted to. A more interactive form of learning gradually evolved, where pupils used the movement cards to design their own routines and my teaching focused on fine-tuning and monitoring progress."
Kevin Ford, Mandeville's director of specialism, adds: "Helene is one of those teachers who when she has something new to do, just gets on with it - applying her existing knowledge and bringing in new detail when needed."
Luckily for youngsters all over the UK she is one of many
WHAT IS PARKOUR?
It was developed by a couple of French teenagers in a Parisian suburb, from the "parcours" or obstacle course of physical training much used in the military. It focuses on uninterrupted, efficient forward motion over, under, around and through obstacles (both human-made and natural) in the environment. Such movement may involve running, jumping, climbing and more complex techniques. The goal of parkour is to adapt one's movement to any given obstacle in one's path.
Participants are called traceurs, from the verb "tracer", which normally means "to trace", or "to draw", but also translates as "going fast".
To see parkour in action:
WANT TO TEACH FUNKIER PE?
Ask pupils what they want to do - there's no point designing weird and wonderful activities if the target group aren't interested in what you come up with. Go to the relevant sports association to see what they offer, or www.sportengland.orgindexget_resourcesresource_ul.htm is a good place to start. www.activeplaces.com has extensive information on community sports facilities and the activities going on within them.
Or contact your local county sports partnership or go through the school sports partnership (SSP) to find out what is available locally. Resources such as the Sainsbury's TOP activity pack, although designed for primary out-of-school-hours learning, has many unusual activities that can be adapted for use on the curriculum and with older students. Try SSP contacts to find a primary school with the pack.