A Skatepark is the Best Kind of Classroom

Scott GallagherUncategorized

A focused view of skateboarder's feet on the ramp

Share this Post

In our last blog post, Katy talked about the challenges of growing up and how we can help kids take risks. The example she gave was about how ordering something from the deli counter can be terribly intimidating, but at some point you have to step up and do it. But of course, the point is not that we want our kids to be really good at ordering oven-roasted turkey. It’s not about the turkey. It’s about the stepping up. It’s not about the specific content, more the habit of mind. As parents, we want our kids to have healthy habits, healthy ways of being in the world. And as parents when we are at our best, we can model those ways of being. But beyond what we can do as parents, there are environments that can help develop healthy ways of being, or habits of mind. And specifically, one of the things that is crucial to being a healthy adult is a willingness to put yourself out there, to take risks.

I grew up skateboarding, and recently when I brought my nephew to a skatepark, I was reminded of what a great learning environment a skatepark is. On any given day, you can find kids of all ages and skill levels at the skatepark. Some are practically semi-professional, some have no clue what they’re doing. But skill level has no bearing on anyone’s right to be there. Everyone gets the same opportunity to take their turn, giving it their best shot. And other than the requirement to wear a helmet, there are no rules at the skatepark. There is however, an etiquette, or unwritten code of conduct, which you learn quickly through subtle social cues. And if you don’t learn from the subtle cues, you might learn more directly from someone who really wants you to know. For the more seasoned skaters, it’s good to bring the newbies into the fold. When everyone’s in the know, it makes for a better experience all around. 

At the skatepark, there is no formal hierarchy or power structure. There are older kids and more experienced skaters, but they’re not authority figures. They’re more the elders of the community. There are many environments that operate this way, where there’s all kinds of learning happening, but no formal hierarchy or power structure, where most instruction is informal. The gym and YMCA come to mind as well as any kind of club, from kayaking to knitting to beekeeping, from chess to robotics. 

At the skatepark, you will see little moments of informal instruction when a more seasoned skater offers some advice or coaching to a beginner. It will look a lot like sharing. There will be cheers when someone pulls off a really difficult trick. But there will be the same cheers when a beginner pulls off a trick she’s never done before, even if it’s the most basic. 

At the skatepark, if you want to learn something, you have to step up, just like at Katy’s deli counter. It can be pretty intimidating. But here, your parents can’t show you how. Instead you have an entire community offering advice and cheering you on. At the skatepark, everyone is welcome; the spirit of learning is communal and collaborative. In this spirit, taking risks is encouraged. The risk of falling, breaking something, and “worst” of all, the risk of looking like you don’t know what you’re doing. The culture of risk-taking becomes the way of being at the skatepark, just like at the robotics club, and beekeepers club, and knitting club, etc.

This should be the goal for school. For too long, systems employed in schools have actually worked against this spirit of encouragement and risk-taking. School should be a place where kids can start wherever they are. Schools should cultivate a communal, collaborative spirit where kids urge one another to try new things. As I said earlier, ordering turkey at the deli is not about the turkey. It’s not about the tricks you can do. It’s about the stepping up. We want schools to be a place where kids want to take risks, where they want to step up, because they know that regardless of how successful they are, we’ll be encouraging and cheering them on.

[Photo Credit: pikrepo,CC0 Public Domain]