Flying high, running free

Louie's barber employs a three-pronged bribery approach to getting him to sit still long enough to cut his hair     (Shutterstock)

KIERAN HOWARD: Bribery is fine – as long as it keeps the children quiet

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Playgrounds are a haven of fun for children, whether it be chasing each other around the climbing frames or building castles in the sand pit.

But at the Somerstown Adventure Playground once a week, it’s also home to youngsters jumping up and over wooden steps, and vaulting over decking areas.

It’s not just a place to play any more – it’s an assault course, with places to twist, turn, spin and fly.

Kylie Brackstone, the deputy team leader at the play centre, saw some that some of the children, especially the boys, had started trying to jump and flip off the equipment.

But far from putting a stop to it, she was inspired to get in touch with Fareham-based professional free runner, Mitch Lee. A couple of months down the line, and the 23-year-old is now coaching the children once a week about the sport.

Kylie, 31, lives in Gunwharf Quays and has been working at the playground for the past 18 months.

‘We responded to the kids that use the playground because we thought they would enjoy it, so we got in touch with Mitch to put on some sessions,’ she explains.

Run by Portsmouth City Council, the centre applied for funding for the project through Funds4U, which assists local resident schemes.

Kylie adds: ‘Our committee is run by local residents, so it worked out really well.

‘Any child can come into the centre and play, and in term time we are open in the evenings and Saturday, with longer hours in the holidays. We have four members of staff employed by the council, but we also have volunteers from the committee running a tuck shop.’

One of six council-run adventure playgrounds in the city, it offers indoor and outdoor play for six to 13 year olds (but children under six can go accompanied by an adult). In 2012, they had nearly 17,000 children come through the doors.

‘We have an indoor space where we put on arts and crafts, as well as activities such as pool and table tennis,’ says Kylie.

‘There’s also an area where the kids can build, and upstairs there’s space for them to use scooters and skateboards. Then outside there’s things like the sand pit area and the climbing frame.

‘We have a slide in the middle of the playground too, which starts inside the building. It’s great for the kids, and sometimes I can’t believe I get paid to do such a brilliant job.’

The free running sessions last for eight weeks, with four weeks left of the scheme, and the centre is always trying to find ways to engage the children.

‘We’re starting a new project now where the children are going to build a boat and do all the work on it. They will paint it and put the seats in, and basically we leave it up to them. Although, of course, we will supervise.’

For the staff it’s all about ‘risky’ play, which is not as worrying as it sounds.

Kylie explains: ‘Sometimes parents are nervous about letting their children do things like climb trees or jump off swings, but the adventure playground is about letting them do those things in a controlled environment.

‘We don’t stop them, but we do keep an eye on them.’

Mitch, who has been coaching the children on free running for the past month, has been involved with the sport since he was 15. Now he works as a professional free runner and recently took part in a Nike running campaign.

He first found out about the sport after watching a documentary, Jump London, and a couple of years later saw Jump Britain. A teenage Mitch went along to his first free running session for beginners.

‘I found people meeting up in Southampton,’ explains Mitch, ‘and went along with my older brother. There were about 70 people there and it was really organised. I got my first taste and absolutely loved it.

‘When I was about 15 I was overweight, and when I started free running I was a lot healthier and exercising. In the first three months I lost two stone because I was training all the time.

He adds: ‘I knew I wanted to get better and would have to change my life to do it.’

For Mitch, free running has become his life. He’s the only free runner in the area with a Level Two A.D.A.P.T Full Coach qualification from Parkour UK – the closest at his level is based near Brighton.

‘I just love it,’ he says, ‘and all you need to get started is a pair of trainers.

‘It’s about finding somewhere you an express yourself, and for me, it’s so much fun running, jumping and climbing. It feels like being a kid again, but with more purpose.’

Always into team sports, it felt like free running was something he achieved all on his own.

Mitch explains: ‘It’s self improvement in a way. You might not make a jump, but if you make it the following week you feel great. Even the kids at the playground are saying they want to keep trying and push to higher jumps.’

And he believes the centre is a brilliant place for the kids to learn the basics.

‘The kids are there every night and it’s designed for them to enjoy themselves. I think it’s a really great set-up.

‘The sessions change all the time. I could start with 10 kids and then end up with two, but I can see they are enjoying it. Even when I’m not there, they are using the skills I’ve shown them.’

Mitch adds: ‘If the kids wanted to jump or climb in the playground then I can at least show them how to land properly and do it safely.’

Although some of the boys may want to carry on free running once the sessions finish, it also gives them skills for other team sports.

‘With free running you’re learning how to run, jump or vault something, and those skills can be transferred to other sports,’ he explains.

‘It’s a way of controlling your body and moving that can be really useful. You can use it in team sports and I’m really positive about my experience growing up doing it.’

Mitch adds: ‘It’s similar in a lot of ways to gymnastics, and it’s great to get boys interested in that kind of thing.’

With five more adventure playgrounds in Portsmouth, Mitch would be happy to part of any other free running schemes in the area.

‘I’ve really enjoyed the experience,’ he says.

‘Personally I think free running should be part of the national curriculum. You can use gymnastics equipment in schools to learn how to do it, but just use it in different ways and be creative.’

Call the Somerstown Adventure Playground on (023) 9287 3236 for more information. Or go to mitchlee.pro.

Basic moves

Cat leap – A jump forwards where you catch the top of a ledge with your hands and brace with your feet.

Tick tack – You run and kick off a wall to get extra height or to jump around an obstacle.

Precision – Starting from a static point and jumping to another, without a run up. For example, jumping from one rail to another.