Bring On the Action!

Easy Steps to Introduce Action Sports to Your Community

By Jessica Royer Ocken

If the mention of "skateboarding" makes you instantly suspicious—searching the area for vandalism, on guard for horrific injuries, and sniffing for something illegal in the air—it's time for an update. These days action sports, which include skateboarding, BMX biking, and even freestyle scootering and rollerblading, aren't so extreme. They're pretty mainstream. Just ask the nearest crowd of middle-schoolers you can locate.

"The X Games are 17 years old," noted Justin Travis, program director at Ohio Dreams Action Sports Camp. "So kids who are 17 [and younger] have always known action sports as professional sports—the same way their parents knew baseball and football." Tony Hawk, rad skater dude of the 1980s and '90s, is now a dad and the head of the Tony Hawk Foundation, a charitable organization that helps create skateparks in low-income communities (and he's still a rad skater dude, by the way).

"Skateboarding used to be a rebellious thing," Travis said. But over the years it has grown into a legitimate sport—one that requires skill and focus and continues to grow rapidly—so it's a mistake not to acknowledge it as such.

For one thing, action sports may appeal to a different sort of kid than other sports do and provide opportunities for additional children and teens to find their niche and get involved in your community. "The appeal of action sports is 'I can do this on my own'," Travis said. "For kids with ADHD, high-functioning autism or a learning disability, team sports are difficult. But with action sports they can be very successful because they can grow at their own rate. It's like a freedom of expression," he said.

Travis added that action sports offer a refreshing lack of structure for kids who may live a highly scheduled life. Many are taking lessons and playing organized sports before they've hit kindergarten. "Even my daughter is in preschool, and she's 3," he said. "Today's action sports, a skatepark, is yesterday's kids playing out in the woods," he explained. "Kids are kids. They want to go play in the woods and build forts." But since that's harder to do in today's world, kids are embracing creative, freeform play and challenge on a skateboard, bicycle or scooter.

But what about safety? How can it possibly be safe for kids to hurtle themselves off ramps, down steep inclines, and even over stairs and railings? Those we spoke with for the story encourage the use of helmets and other safety equipment, but the truth is in the numbers. Skateboarding has a lower incidence of accidents than many other much more common sports. The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that ice hockey has a 3.6 percent rate of injury, basketball a 2.57 percent rate, and soccer a 1.42 percent rate. Skateboarding beats them all with a 0.49 percent rate of injury. When injuries do occur, they're often due to irregular riding surfaces, and they also frequently happen within the first week or two of someone learning the sport, according to the Skate Park Association of the United States (SPAUSA).

Both of those variables are manageable when you take charge and get involved with cultivating the sport, so what are you waiting for? Read on for advice (received from the pros) about the best ways to bring the action (sports) to your community.

Gauge Interest

If you're considering action sports for your community, it's likely there's already a contingent of interested parties who've made their presence known. This is exactly what you want. Talk to them. Get them involved from the very beginning of your process. And if you're not sure how to find them, check with bike shops and skateboard shops in the area. Let these people know you're considering a skatepark project and they'll probably show up en masse at your next meeting.

Mike Donelon of the Action Sports Kids (ASK) Foundation, an organization that promotes skateparks as an alternative to the streets and gangs, said local kids have been involved in the design of every one of their eight Long Beach, California-area skateparks. "It's critical to success because it gives [the kids] ownership," he said. But it can also get their hopes up, so he encourages communities to be sure they have a location and money available for the project before the design phase begins.

Ellen Masciocchi, retired project manager with the Montgomery County Department of Parks, Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, oversaw several skatepark projects during her career. She also encourages close collaboration with local users throughout the process. "You want to create facilities that appeal to users and keep them off the streets," she said.

Another way to get a sense of who might show up to use your action sports venue, once you build it, is to offer a few beginning classes or instructional workshops in a gym or on a tennis court, suggested Ben Wixon, director of development-programming and instruction with Skaters for Public Skateparks. This not only generates excitement among those already interested in action sports, it might also expand awareness and grow the group waiting to get involved.

Scott Rothschild, director of professional development for the American Camp Association for New York and New Jersey, has also worked for several years now with a group of kids in Marlboro, N.J., who want to bring a skatepark to their town. It's been a long, slow struggle, but one of the things they've done along the way is offer an intro-to-skateboarding lesson to the younger kids in town (ages 5 to 10). Part of the class was on a hockey rink that wasn't being used, and they also demonstrated a few moves out on a grassy hill. "The kids brought their own equipment, and we just did the basics," Rothschild recalled, "safety, how to turn, how to do an ollie [a basic skateboarding trick that involves popping the board into the air], and a 360."

He also suggests that offering action sports as a component of local summer camp programming is a good way to introduce the concept to your community.

Provide a Venue

Much of what has given skateboarding and other action sports their scary safety reputation is the fact that they're sometimes practiced in the streets—especially when there's no other venue available as an alternative. "Thirty-eight kids were killed on skateboards in 2008," said ASK's Donelon. "And they were all on the street." In 2006 one child was killed after suffering a head injury at a skatepark, "but considering that 10 million kids a year ride in a skatepark, the safety statistics are overwhelming," he said.

Donelon added that once a skatepark is installed, illegal skateboarding decreases in the area by 80 to 90 percent. "Many cities have anxiety about kids skating in public places," he said. "[A skatepark] won't stop that completely, but the reduction is unbelievable."

And if you're still not completely sold on the expense of creating a permanent skatepark, you can even ease into a venue. Rothschild has recommended smaller kits of collapsible skateboarding elements to several of the camps he consults with for the American Camp Association. "The temporary [setups] are good because they can be put away in the winter, and if it's a rainy day, you can set the ramps up in an indoor gym." They're very easy to use and move around, but they're also strong and durable, he said. "Some camps have had them for two or three years and they're still doing great."

Once you are ready for a permanent facility, move forward carefully. Masciocchi said that "working with a professional skatepark design/build firm is critical to the success of facilities."

Other factors to consider include the amount of space you have available and whether your town would most benefit from one larger action sports venue or several smaller ones. With Masciocchi as project manager, Silver Spring, Md,, built the Woodside Skatespot, which is just smaller than 5,000 square feet, within Woodside Urban Park. It was the only space available and had originally been intended for another recreational use, Masciocchi explained. But, after a very popular private skatepark in the area had to close, the Commission received many requests to provide a skateboarding venue in downtown Silver Spring.

Despite the fact that the location was chosen out of necessity, Masciocchi and the skaters in Silver Spring have been pleased with the result. "These smaller skate areas known as 'skatespots' are an option for urban areas with limited space for growth," she said. "Constructing a larger number of smaller parks also helps to distribute skate areas throughout a community."

She explained that many of those who will use an action sports venue are middle-schoolers who can't drive, and she believes they should be the target population considered when planning a community action sports facility. "Older skaters have more options to drive to larger facilities," she said. "In my experience, meetings held to obtain skater input can be dominated by older skaters," she added. "It's important to hear from the middle-school-age group because they can be the bulk of your users."

When planning your venue, it's also important to consider how it will be used. Skateboarders are the poster children for action sports, but once you've built a skatepark, good luck keeping out the BMX bikes, rollerblades and scooters. Unless you have a fantastic budget and can build a separate facility for the BMXers, it's probably best to build a park that can handle all types of wheeled vehicles. This means harder concrete and tougher metal copings, Wixon said. And it's also important to consider the size and spacing of the elements involved, Travis added. "When you build, there are three sizes of ramps and transitions. Smaller and tighter are better for skateboards, and sweeping transitions are better for bikes. If you use something in the middle, what most people do, then everyone can use it."

This is another situation where hiring action-sports-experienced pros to help you will be a huge asset, as they can work with you (and the action sports crowd in your community—don't forget them!) to determine the best size and layout for your facility, as well as the number and types of elements you should include.

A final factor to consider as you're putting your venue in place is the rules you're going to post and how (or whether) you're going to enforce them. "Safety is a liability issue," Wixon said. "If you say helmets are required and someone gets hurt without one, the city can be sued," he pointed out. Wixon and the other pros consulted for this story do believe helmets are important, and when Wixon's working with beginners he suggests knee and elbow pads as well. However, he also noted the importance of learning to fall safely, the same way students are taught in sports like gymnastics or martial arts.

"We developed some rules for our Extreme Sports Park with help from the skaters and bicyclists who use it," said Jilayne Jordan, parks communications specialist with Clark County Public Information & Outreach in Washington state. These guidelines outline the type of atmosphere and culture the city and the action sports community would like to see at the facility, but Jordan added that the rules are not part of the city or county code, so they're just suggestions, not legally enforceable. Perhaps, then, the most important rule on the list is the second one: This park is unsupervised. Use at your own risk.

But don't let that make you nervous. A skatepark is a great thing for your community and your park district. Donelon said that in his experience, skateparks are used by the most diverse group of people of any facility in the park system. "There are very few issues in skateparks," he said. "They build a camaraderie among kids from all different backgrounds and make the park shine."

Line Up Mentors

Once you've got the venue and the group of kids ready to use it, you're almost there. The good news is that skateboarders and BMXers will never stand for an overly elaborate, organized structure of lessons and teams and tournaments. That's not what action sports culture is about. "You'll push them away if you over-program," Wixon said. "If you try to Little League it, you'll lose them quick."

Action sports are not a sports program in the same way a soccer or baseball league is a program, he said. And these differences can be a great boon for park districts and cities because once you build the venue and lay out the ground rules, you're mostly done. But the emphasis is on mostly.

"Anytime you build a facility and put in the investment, you don't want it to turn into Lord of the Flies," Wixon said. Although there's a fantastic element of self-taught creativity within action sports, as well as a communal, learn-from-each other spirit, "you can't expect kids to [completely] govern and police themselves," he added. "Skateboarding's most dangerous time is the first two weeks, when beginners are learning the fundamentals," he explained. "They don't know how to fall, and they don't know their ability level."

Really what's needed is an ever-so-slightly formalized mentoring program that can help the new kids get acclimated and familiar with the way a skatepark works, offer some key safety tips, and show them some basic moves and tricks (if they want to learn) before setting them free to grow and flourish at their own pace and in their own way. Having an adult or college-aged kid onsite makes parents feel more comfortable, too, noted Ohio Dreams' Travis.

But the hardest part of this scenario is finding the right mentors for the job. They have to be qualified skaters, Wixon said. They must have skills, and they must be authentically part of the action sports culture. Unfortunately, you won't just be able to get the director of recreation a skateboard and send him out there to do the job. Finding people who have those qualifications and also have the time and dedication to do this is a challenge. Local skateboard and bicycle shops may again be a good place to troll for possibilities, and you're not looking for someone available 40 hours a week. A few after-school hours on weekdays and perhaps a Saturday afternoon session is probably plenty.

"Maybe it's just someone on Saturdays from noon to 4," Travis said. "Just someone who kind of oversees things a little bit. You can't just build it and disappear," he said. "That's when you have problems—that's what gives action sports a bad name."

Create a Culture

Once you've set things in motion, you can stand back and be amazed at the tricks the kids in your community can do. Find ways to support what they're doing, treat action sports as an athletic activity like all the others available in town, and encourage their efforts. The skatepark can become a new hub of positive activity within the community.

As the action sports crowd in town gains more skills, they may be up for a new challenge, so you might consider organizing a tour of other skateparks in the area, offering an action sports camp, or inviting in a skate pro for a special demonstration or workshop. Skatepark cleanup days are another option for getting the community involved in taking care of the facility, suggested Donelon. Kids can help repaint the elements, if needed, and clear away trash.

In Vancouver, Wash., Bad Monkey Bikes, the local skate and BMX shop, sponsors a competition at the Extreme Sports Park each year, which is a fundraiser to help generate the money needed to build the second phase of the park. The park has also hosted the Northwest Old School BMX Show, and a park district community center offers summer skateboard lessons at the park. "Ideally, we would like to provide a good mix of both programmed and unprogrammed uses at this facility," Jordan said.

When all is said and done, having an action sports venue of some kind is really no more unusual than having a basketball court these days, says Travis. And it may require a lot less programming and maintenance. He noted that Ohio Dreams Action Sports Camp is out in the middle of Amish country in rural Ohio, but the community six miles away, which has only three traffic lights, also has a concrete skatepark. And every suburb on the way into Columbus has one, too. "It's catching on," he said.

So why not have your community catch on as well? Although some people contend that skateboarding and other action sports are just a passing fad, "I don't think something that's been around for 40 years can really be called a fad anymore," Jordan said. "It's vital that cities and counties provide recreational opportunities for everyone—and that includes teenagers and young adults."

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