A few weeks ago, during a visit to Seattle, we were standing on line for our turn to ride the Great Wheel at sunset when my son nudged me.
“Check it out, mom,” he said, pointing down the pier to two men and a woman who were atop a low-slung nearby building. As we watched, one of them leaped, lightly as a cat, from one rooftop to the next, a distance of perhaps 7 or 8 feet, landing upright. I gasped in horror, but my son was captivated.
“That’s parkour!” he said. “EPIC.”
Up until then, if I was aware at all of parkour — a fast-growing sport where practitioners navigate their way through urban obstacle courses by running, jumping and climbing — it was from an old episode of The Office. You know the one — Michael, Dwight and Andy try it out, but mainly just wind up careening off the side of the Scranton Business Park while yelling “PARKOUR” at the top of their lungs.
But once Ben got fixated on it, I figured it was time to learn more. He started with an on-site after-school program, but wanted even more of a challenge, so we ventured to Forge Parkour, in outer southeast Portland, to check it out.
First impressions: Forge is a clear example of the boutique workout studio culture that’s supplanting old-school gyms all over Portland, and it’s not just for kids, though it is exceedingly kid-friendly. The physical space is lovely, full of light and natural wood and built-in obstacles for kids and grown-ups alike to learn to safely navigate, from jumps of all sizes to ramps to run up and mats to practice rolling on.
Their website implies that it’s best for anyone to begin by taking their four-class intro package before letting loose on the open gym hours. The friendly folks at the front desk confirmed that that’s preferred, but not required — so if you’re only interested in the $15/hour drop-ins, that’s fine, and much of the equipment will be intuitive, particularly to kids who are used to playground equipment.
There are special times set aside for “family open gym,” aimed at ages 3 to 6, when parents can try out the obstacles with preschoolers; open gym is for ages 6 and up, though some sessions are reserved for ages 13 and older.
That said, an intro series is well worth the price tag — we bought the four-class intro to parkour pack for $65.
I’m always looking for ways to keep my kids moving and active, especially in the rainy winter months in Portland, and this is one of the best ways I’ve found to do so. After every hour-long session, Ben has been sweaty and panting, but also exhilarated.
Different classes have focused on different skills — how to jump with precision and land on your feet, say, or how to navigate the bars. Each class begins with a stretching and movement session, to get the kids limbered up, and then segues to obstacles. Patient instructors demonstrate the ideal and manage to offer meaningful and individual feedback to each kid as they move through a series of progressively more challenging obstacles. The instructors also keep the classes moving along, and set clear expectations for the kids — “We’ll try this two more times apiece, and then move on.”
I especially appreciate that parkour is a very mind-body connected activity for kids. My son really needs to concentrate on what’s being asked of him — specific hand placement on the vault, or forward rolling on your shoulder. It’s also great for balance challenges and core muscles — to stick the landing or stand up from a roll without using your arms, you’ve got to have a strong midsection.
Do note that this isn’t easy. I’ve heard more than one kid vocalize how hard a particular obstacle or moveset is, and instructors always matter-of-factly acknowledge it. It’s good to create a space where kids feel safe acknowledging that they feel challenged, and great that it’s an activity where success won’t come easily, and they’ll have to work for it. Even for extra-agile kids, there’s always a progressively harder obstacle to conquer.
And while the sport isn’t without risks, gyms like this are the safest possible places to learn the needed skills. Instructors can easily correct bad form that could lead to injury, and there are thick padded mats everywhere to break any falls. Much safer than our basement, where Ben has taken to practicing jumping onto the armrest of our beat-up sofa, with only a thin IKEA tumbling mat beneath.
Parents who aren’t participating and smaller siblings can watch all the action from a second floor overlook, where there are also books, puzzles and games for kids, and a miniature-sized obstacle course for new walkers.
From there, I could easily observe Ben’s fist-pumps when he successfully navigated a particularly challenging jump from one platform to the next, and revel in the glances that he snuck up at me, to make sure I’d seen his latest feat of derring-do.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised, too, that Ben’s interest has only grown as he’s moved through open gyms and class series. The gym setting seems to foster a camaraderie — during open gym, he’ll usually hook up with kids his own age, even if they’ve never met before — and they’ll pace each other. And even though he’s only been going for a month or two, he’s already noticeably lighter on his feet — not, perhaps, ready to leap between Seattle buildings with a single bound, but certainly much better than one Michael Scott, regional manager of Dunder Mifflin.
If you go: Forge Parkour, 311 SE 97th Ave. forgeparkour.com.
Other Parkour-friendly Spaces in Portland
REVOLUTION PARKOUR Great for westsiders, this Beaverton facility offers camps and classes for homeschoolers, in addition to a full complement of all-ages classes. 5651 SW Arctic Dr., plus locations in Tualatin and Gresham.
Perennial favorite THE PLAYGROUND GYM offers indoor and outdoor parkour classes for ages 5 to 13, at both their locations on NE Grand and N Lombard.
THE MOVEMENT PARK This brand new parkour spot opened in Hillsboro in late 2018, and is super-welcoming to kids. 2240 NE Griffin Oaks St., Ste. 1000.