004. Caitlin Pontrella: Movement Creative, play, and community

004. Caitlin Pontrella: Movement Creative, play, and community

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Caitlin Pontrella discusses the Movement Creative, explaining its goals and vision beyond simply teaching parkour. She unpacks her thoughts on the concept of play, how it relates to parkour, and the benefits of both play and risk. Caitlin wraps up by sharing her insights into starting new projects and how to involve your community.

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Guest Introduction

Craig: Hello. I’m Craig Constantine.

Caitlin: I’m Caitlin Pontrella.

Craig: This is Parkour, They Said.

Caitlin Pontrella is an architectural designer and illustrator based in New York City. She is co-founder of The Movement Creative, a social enterprise dedicated to improving the lives of others through movement education and design. Caitlin directs The Art of Retreat, an annual education and leadership conference for Parkour, and the North American Women’s Parkour Gathering, an annual gathering [00:00:30] for women practitioners. Welcome, Caitlin.

Caitlin: Hi Craig.

Meet the team: Andrew

Successful movement starts in the mind with a precise focus on reality. Moving successfully means you understand reality and your own ability. The more impressive the movement, the better the mind.

~ Andrew – Conceptual and applied philosophy

What are you working on now?

Craig: Let’s start off by talking about The Movement Creative. I know that one of the things that it does is teach just regular Parkour classes, what most people think when they think of Parkour classes. I know that you also a lot more, so maybe give us a couple of examples of what The Movement Creative is really about.

Caitlin: Sure. We started out very focused on Parkour because that was all of our backgrounds, me and the two other founders, Nikkie and Jesse. [00:01:00] As we kind of grew in our community and really wanted to start getting all the generations moving and teenagers moving, and realizing that Parkour had a bit of a disconnect due to its stigma by the media. We’ve been moving more towards the arena of play and natural movement.

Craig: Give me an example of a project. Something that you’re working on now. You and I before had been talking about movement snacks, I believe it was?

Caitlin: Movement snacks is this [00:01:30] small little project Jesse and I started. It’s basically these little invitations to play that we put into parks, public spaces, or even schools which is where we started that project. An example of a movement snack would be may be maybe there’s a painted line on a curb and some words saying, “Can you balance here without falling off?” Or, next to a bench saying, “How many different ways can you get over me?” [00:02:00] They get tucked away in plain sight and people might come across them as they’re walking. There’s no rules as to who uses it, and it’s in a kind of a question, can you do this? All of these snacks — these really tiny little opportunities to deviate from your every day — they’re always designed to be super accessible.

What we’re trying to do is find new forms and ways we could [00:02:30] invite people to play. That’s the movement snack idea, it’s you’re walking by and you’re invited to balance. You’re invited to climb or to whatever it is… jump. Without those invitations, a lot of people … There’s like a social stigma to play, especially as you get older. It’s the whole idea of, “Quit playing around, get back to work!” These are little phrases that even penetrate our everyday life that affects the way we perceive [00:03:00] movement, perceive ourselves in relation to play. We need to find ways to say, “Hey, actually it’s okay to play, and it’s okay to play here.” That’s what movement snacks are. That’s what our programs are, and we teach people, “Hey, you can find places to play everywhere and the way you want to play.”

Craig: Right. Once they’ve re-discovered that inquisitive mindset, they start to look at their environment differently and then they go back to the way they did as a child.

Caitlin: You playing in public space, at your age, [00:03:30] at my parents age, you give other people permission to play. …yeah, because you’re so old.

Craig: Don’t do that.

Caitlin: Again, it increases like … Julie Angel talks a lot about his. You want to put images forth, normalize through visual experiences.

Craig: Yeah. What each of us … I’m talking to the listener. What each of us is sharing. We’re creating an image of the thing that we’re doing. [00:04:00] If you only share a certain type of image or only tell a certain type of story, or only let a certain type of your personal Parkour be spotted in public, then that’s what you’re creating.

Caitlin: Correct, and that the same thing about all of our public spaces. What do you see people do in our parks? They lay around. They sit on benches. They use recreational fields specifically for their purposes, but there’s nothing supporting play for adults. You don’t see adults often playing in public spaces, so there’s no permission given for it in our [00:04:30] experience of public space. That’s what we’re trying to do through programs. We bring adults into parks, and we’re playing in front of other adults, and by other adults seeing it, it’s giving them permission. Then, they may do it, and they get other adults. It’s hopefully a snowball effect.

What else would you like to share?

Craig: I want to keep digging into this idea about creating implicit, maybe even explicit, movement snacks kind of signs, but implicit permission for people to play. A very common theme, everybody has heard this is you say, “Well, we’re going to try and get people to …” Let’s say [00:05:00] work out on a bench here, “How many ways can you find to get over this bench?” Then, somebody immediately goes, “But there’s a risk of danger there.” How do we balance that perception of risk? Do we balance that perception of risk, or do we try to dispel that perception?

Caitlin: I think a lot of people exaggerate the risk in their head. Again, a lot of — if we go Parkour specific — there are already these preconceived notions of what Parkour is. [00:05:30] But even with play and jumping around, any sort of rough-housing, there’s always this kind of aversion. Across the board in how I talk to city officials and groups looking to implement something for play or Parkour, even in the form of programs, the concerns are always security and safety of the participants or of the assets of the park, the infrastructure of the park, or even fear of legal repercussion.

[00:06:00] However, I think that humans are fairly… have a very strong sense of self preservation. A lot people are fairly cautious as it is to begin with their movement. I think that if we are constantly taking risk out of our play spaces and out of our parks in entirety, you’re only going to get boring spaces. Risk gives you choice, and it gives you opportunity to explore and challenge yourself. [00:06:30] Risk is a choice, and you have to learn how to negotiate acceptable and unacceptable risks in our lives. Play is a very safe space to learn how to do that. Like I said, if you remove it …

Craig: Right. You’re taking the value out of the movement.

Caitlin: Exactly. As I said, you get left with boring public spaces, boring playgrounds like the out-of-the-box systems that you see popping up everywhere. Yeah, how many times have I been to a playground, you see there’s a giant, colorful [00:07:00] play structure thing and none of the kids are on it. They’re actually over there playing with the dirt and stone, whatever it is, or the metal they found laying around about, because there’s nothing …

Craig: Yeah. The designers of that play space that we’re talking about, they removed the creativity that was necessary in order to play. Then the kids, who are inherently creative and inherently seeking to fulfill that urge to be creative, they don’t go at the place space. They go at the picnic table.

Caitlin: Yeah, exactly, because there’s more of an open ended question there to answer, something [00:07:30] creative, something worth exploring. You’re not being told what to do or how to do it.

Craig: Obviously we’re talking about western culture here, because that where we are. In our culture along the way the normalcy of play just went away. If you are an adult and you’re out balancing on a railing, that’s abnormal and you’re going to get sideways looks and glances. How do we get that back? How do we move people back to seeing humans balancing on a railing and just thinking [00:08:00] that’s normal?

Caitlin: Right, absolutely. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with these kind of invitations. I think that people need to re-discover play for themselves if they’re going to be tolerant of play coming from other people. Because again there’s such a strong disconnection for so many people from what their bodies can actually do, because their experience is going to work, sitting down all day. They don’t actually understand what the human body is capable of, or rather what their human body … It’s not an exception to be able [00:08:30] to balance. It’s not exception to be able to jump. Everyone should be able to balance and jump and climb.

Craig: That’s your birthright. That’s the way your body works.

Caitlin: Exactly. It’s the universal human language, movement. I think that the most important thing that needs to happen is creating these very low risk, very high accessible, like high accessibility opportunities and invitations to play, to move in your public spaces that starts to normalize play again. [00:09:00] Break the social normals. Especially like I said because for a lot of people I know– this is changing with the emergence of social media and these playful tech companies that are popping up and talking about having better, more playful fun oriented cultures. A lot of people still have a cubicle-life experience or are stuck behind a computer, and there’s not a lot of room for creativity or play or any of these things. It’s so absent [00:09:30] from every other aspect of your life that it’s hard to allow it from other people.

What does your practice mean to you?

Craig: Inside Parkour there’s something called Parkour vision. People who– Caitlin’s nodding. People who do Parkour, are like “yeah, yeah, I know what that is.” I call it Obstacle Attraction Disorder. Everybody does this. You’re simply drawn to railings and walls and obstacles, and they sort of have this inherent beauty that you see because you spot the inherent movement opportunities that are there. But, along the way, [00:10:00] I had to learn that. In the beginning, I had no idea what to do anywhere, anytime, because I didn’t have my own builtin permission to play. People who don’t do Parkour, this Parkour vision is really central.

Caitlin: Absolutely. I think that Parkour vision, and I wish again that we had a different term so that we can pull more people to [crosstalk 00:10:21].

Craig: Right, when you say the p-word, people go, “I’m too old for that.”

Caitlin: I know, I know. Exactly. It turns them off. They have this idea of extreme athletic endeavor. [00:10:30] Maybe, “Play vision?” There’s some other way I’m sure we can describe it. Basically, I think it’s probably the most valuable thing anyone can learn from Parkour, which is why I think that people should try Parkour no matter what they’re coming from. Architects, city planners, [00:10:47] even people running companies. This is going to change the way you see your world. This is no longer a sidewalk. This is my stage. This is no longer scaffolding. These are pull-up bars. This is a jungle gym. This is no longer [00:11:00] a bench where I’m going to sit. This is my playground.

Craig: Right. I go into New York City. I’m like, “Look at all this scaffolding.”

Caitlin: For most people their experience of New York City, and I hear this so many times when people come visit me is there’s this oppressiveness to the city. Everything is paved and everything is … There’s rules and pedestrians walk on the sidewalk and the cars go here, and the buildings go there. Public, private, this, that. Everyone in its place.

Craig: Delineated and explicit.

Caitlin: Gridded out, right. [00:11:30] Then, everything is policed. All of that leaves this sense of oppression. If you don’t have this vision, and like what this vision enables is you walk out into and see and realize no, this isn’t somewhere I’m forced to be! This is a place of extreme opportunity. This is a playground. This is like the ultimate place to live, the most joyful place to live! The most freeing place to live because I can now … everything here is a tool for me to explore and improve myself, [00:12:00] and that is so powerful. When you start to see your world as something more in line as like a tool and an obstacle to interact with, play with, you’re going to take that lesson and look at other obstacles in your life. Your relationships, your job, your work, your health even. All these things are going to be so strongly ultimately affected by this tiny little change of yourself and your city.

Craig: Change your perspective.

Caitlin: Exactly. [00:12:30] Across the board. That’s what we’re trying to do at The Movement Creative even is: How can we take this really powerful idea, experience in Parkour and bring it to a larger group of people as a part of play because that’s what play could do. This is our look at play.

Craig: A couple of the previous interviews, I’ve been talking about balance and sort of digging into flow state and finding what some traditions call the infinite moment. [00:13:00] One way to access that is through balance. I also think, this is my personal opinion, I also think you can access that same idea through Parkour vision. When you encounter a new space and you have that little momentary pause, and you’re looking at that space in a new light, that almost seems to make time slow down. I think you can also get into flow state that way by seeing the novelty in how you would interact with a space.

Caitlin: Absolutely. I think it also give you a deeper appreciation for [00:13:30] the spaces that you’re in. I’ve talked to so many people who when they experience Parkour vision, or they start to see it and take their first Parkour class and they go out. The whole world is kind of new to them. Where like before– and a lot of times people tune out when you walk. I’m in New York City, so people tune out when they walk around. They’re on their phones. You stop paying attention to the small details around you because they’ve always been irrelevant, but realizing that there’s nothing irrelevant about your environment. [00:14:00] This isn’t just a curb. This isn’t just a barrier keeping me out of here. Before where they were just elements in your background that create the scenery, they’re now again pieces of your playground. People talk about having these really powerful, almost spiritual kind of experiences in public spaces and in everyday spaces right after they start learning how to do Parkour because [00:14:30] they realize all these things that they’ve been missing out on.

Craig: Right. They’ve been enabled. They were enabled to originally and someway along the way they lost that. Then, they’ve been enabled again and that’s a very powerful feeling.

Caitlin: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly what … Having met so many people who had this experience, you just want to keep giving that experience to more people. That’s what these invitations are through our programming, through our design. How can we keep inviting more people to open their eyes to [00:15:00] re-engage with movement, re-engage with play, and to start seeing their world as a much more richer place to live than what they might have otherwise perceived it to be. You can rise above the oppression of New York City and realize it’s a playground. That’s powerful. That’s going to change the way you interact with your world and your life.

As kids, we all had Parkour vision. We jumped on the couches, and we climbed our countertops. Everything was our playground. Right? [00:15:30] As we grew up, you get deeper into school, academics become competitive. You’re dissuaded from play and moved into competitive sports.

Craig: Right. There are only so many hours, so why don’t you do something that leads to a scholarship?

Caitlin: Exactly. To get into college. Then, when you’re in college, you’re competing for the best grades to get the best job. Then, after college you’re competing to get married faster than your peers, and have a kid, have a house, and there’s all this … Everything in your life is so systematic and it’s [00:16:00] about achieving something.

Craig: Anytime you want to do something different, you have to explain that. It’s automatically assumed that you’re going to be on the track.

Caitlin: Why would you do that if it’s not going to help you get to that thing that everyone wants obviously, because everyone wants it. I say sarcastically.

Craig: When you get back into playing as an adult, you re-discover what you set on a shelf 20, 30 years ago.

Caitlin: Exactly. That’s like when you find Parkour. Some people find obstacle course racing or Capoeira or this playfulness. They realize that [00:16:30] there’s this thing about play that’s very different than all these other aspects of our lives. When you’re competing or your trying to be the best or trying to achieve something, like winning is about winning. You want to be number one. You want to be better than everyone else. However, in play winning is about belonging. It’s about continuing to play. It’s about keeping the question open, exploring more, collaborating, asking, “How can we do it different?” You’re not trying to beat someone.

Craig: We’ve all learned this going on. Now, [00:17:00] let’s make it hard. Now, you have to go over the bar and then …

Caitlin: Exactly. You’re trying to grow together versus try to be better than one another. That’s very different in terms of mindset outlook. Imagine getting that mindset of play, experiencing that play mindset again, which is this Parkour vision, this play mindset. Right? Bringing that back into other aspects of your life. Realizing that I don’t have to compete to win. I can win by belonging. I can win by exploring. I can win by … There’s other [00:17:30]

Craig: There’s certainly other places that pays great dividends. There’s a deep aspect to how your mind works. We all know that a lot of times you sleep on something and in the morning you have the idea that solves the problem, but that goes even deeper. When you play, you’re being creative in a continuous process.

Caitlin: Yeah, it’s a very rich social and cultural exchange.

Craig: If you can bring that back into your work and the way that you drive and the way that you walk and all the things you do normally, you could be operating at that [00:18:00] deeper, that more rich level the whole time.

Caitlin: It also changes your value system. When you’re playing to belong, when you’re playing and facing things as challenges for yourself. Imagine if you were making decisions about your future, not pivoting from a place where you’re saying, “I need to be better than this person.” Or, “I need to be the best, on the top.” Whatever is it. That’s what winning is. Rather you’re coming from a place, “How can I grow myself?” Without thinking about the other people in the room. What’s best for me? What’s most [00:18:30] interesting? What if we all followed our creative whim versus trying to beat out Joe over there?

What else would you like to share?

Mentioned in this section:
Peter Kageyama, Love Where You Live
The Walk Your City project

Craig: Everybody talks about, I want more people to come out and train Parkour with me. I want more adults. I want more kids. I want more girls to show up– all these things. I think the gateway to that is by encouraging and inviting more people to simply play.

Caitlin: Absolutely.

Craig: There are a couple of examples of that. That you can make up scavenger hunts and get people to try and do that. There’s a really good one, I think it’s from …

Caitlin: Greenville, [00:19:00] South Carolina. Yeah. There is this project called Mice on Main. I believe it was a high school student came up with this idea cast a bunch of mice that are like maybe a foot big.

Craig: The size of softball. Right?

Caitlin: Yeah. Not very big at all. He put them all up and down the main street of the town. One was up high on a light fixture, and one was down low. They’re all over. Right? People go to this town now and they walk around, and they go hunting for these mice because they know they’re there. All the shops [00:19:30] tell people, “Did you find the mice on main?” What you see is people walking around laughing, in these fits of joyous surprise. You know when someone has found one. I heard about this from an author named Peter Kageyama. He writes this book called Love Where You Live. It’s a really great book about activating your community through play. You have people squatting down, getting on their toes, taking pictures. This [00:20:00] is a really small way that people are starting to use their bodies even. Think about how you can take that idea and use that in your town. What are the cute little, cool features that make your town uniquely yours? How can you create a project that marks them out and has people hunting around for them?

Craig: Right. Literally invites them to interact with it, interact with their world.

Caitlin: That’s like going back to the idea of how people sometimes see walking as work. How can you re-associate movement with positive feelings? For a lot of [00:20:30] people they don’t have positive feelings towards movement. If I walk around a city and I’m laughing, and I’m having fun, I’m probably for one of the rare times associating movement with this walking with joy and laughter and play. Kind of makes me want to do it more. That was a very tiny project, low budget, and it has a huge impact. I think there’s lots of little things like that through art, through music, even through signage.

There is another project. That [00:21:00] a student put up a bunch of signs telling people how … Like, it’s seven minutes to walk here, and 10 minutes to walk there.

Craig: Right. Five blocks to this.

Caitlin: Exactly. More people started walking.

Craig: Just stuck them. No permission. Then, people started following the signs, and eventually somebody said, “Why are these signs here? Let’s take them down.” Then, there was social outcry, because, “No, we like our signs!”

Caitlin: Yes, exactly. I think that’s turned into project called Walk Your City, if you’re interested. Really small things can get people just moving in a way that will have them happy and moving. If you get people happy and moving, they will look for more opportunities to be happy and moving, [00:21:30] which will bring them to you.

Craig: Right. To your Parkour class.

Caitlin: Hopefully, or to other things.

Craig: To take the class that you created for over-40s, or they play handball or …

Caitlin: Honestly, it doesn’t have to come to you, because at the end of the day, what we all want is to see more of us moving and using our bodies and sharing in this universal language. Right? Even if it ends up just encouraging more people to move, you’re accomplishing the greater goal ultimately. Right? Why else do you want people at Parkour? It’s to have them celebrate being human through movement.

What else would you like to share?

Mentioned in this section:
Peter Kageyama, Love Where You Live

Craig: Continuing [00:22:00] talking to people who are running some sort of community or a Parkour group, or they’re coaching or teaching. A lot of people have ideas, “I would like to …” It’s a good idea. They want to put some scaffolding in the park, or they want to pay to help fix the bench or something. How do those people go from having an idea to actually getting that done? I bring this up because you work for the New York City Parks Department.

Caitlin: Parks Department. Yes. I think the first step whenever you have a great idea for a project you want to bring to life, [00:22:30] is to find partners. There are so many people in your community, outside of your immediate community, who are so interested in improving the place where you live. Try to get the word out. Go to community board meetings. That’s really popular in New York. Find other active arts groups.

Craig: In my local community there’s a regular monthly meeting of citizens at the library.

Caitlin: Yes, exactly, exactly. Find those groups and bring your ideas there and get feedback. Start the process [00:23:00] and make it … Show them that it’s not just … Especially if you’re coming from the position of Parkour. This is not just about Parkour. This is about everyone in the community, and this will benefit everyone in the community, and you care about everyone in the community. That’s really important.

Find some people to onboard with you, to experiment with you, to brainstorm and then take it to the next step. Find people in government. A lot of communities have advocates trying to engage their community, the [00:23:30] people, the citizens living in it, and present your ideas. Honestly the best thing you can do is have as many partners. Build support before you bring it before people.

Craig: The more that you can come out at the first iteration with ideas and solutions as opposed to, “I think we should have X. Gimme! Let’s do that.” Then, the person you’re talking to says, “How are we going to do that?” The more you can work up the idea and have solution for the idea.

Caitlin: Yeah. You can have your pie-in-the-sky [00:24:00] idea, but also make sure you have a couple of more budget-friendly reasonable, “I could do it tomorrow by running to Home Depot with 500 bucks.” Sometimes it just–

Craig: I think call that garden hose solution.

Caitlin: Yep, that was it.

Craig: It’s like, we hae a park, and the park should have a water features to it because the kids want to play in it, but we don’t have any money. The neighbor who lives nextdoor bought two garden hoses and ran them across and tied them to a tree, and look, it’s a play water park!

Caitlin: Yes, exactly. That’s another thing from Peter’s book, and I think it’s a brilliant way of approaching a problem [00:24:30] and testing out an idea in your community without your community having to have full buy in yet. Come with ideas big and small on the spectrum. Don’t be afraid to pitch something smaller to get it done and make a proof of concept before you go for the home-run.

Craig: Right, and to demonstrate that you can follow through, and that you’re really committed to the community and not just popping up.

Caitlin: That you’re a part of the community. Exactly. You’re not just using them to get your agenda pushed.

Three words to describe your practice?

Craig: And of course the final question: Three words to describe your practice?

Caitlin: I submitted this [00:25:00] answer to your website a few months ago. I wrote that my practice is sustainable, playful and collaborative, and it definitely is. More than that now it’s definitely become about, what we talked earlier, inviting others to join me. Where I’ve gotten so much that I’ve needed out of my practice, my practice is now about getting other people to join in. Whether it’s from even just saying, “Hey, can I join you in that challenge?” Or, “Want to try this?” To [00:25:30] the movement snacks where they’re–

Craig: You’re going to facilitate the community to join you. Even figuratively join you when you’re not actually there.

Caitlin: That’s really what my practice today is about. It’s about getting others to come out and play.

Craig: Thank you very much, Caitlin.

Caitlin: Yeah, thank you.

What are you working on now?

At any time I have at least a dozen or so projects I am actively engaged in–from playground design and architectural work to program & event organization. During the 2016 summer, some key projects include:

– Art of Retreat event organization
– Womens Ntl Gathering organization
– Design & construction of several playgrounds in NYC
– Movement Game Library curation
– Research for my book!

In my personal practice though, I am working on mindfulness in my movement, including exploring movement as a tool for meditation.