With golden leaves spiraling to the ground, a chill in the crispy morning air, and children’s laughter floating on the wind, it is a gorgeous fall day in Medford, New Jersey. My son Kai and I have just parked at Freedom Park, but unlike the other families who descend here on weekends, we are not walking down to the soccer fields. Where we are headed, there are no coaches, parents, drills, or whistles for maintaining order. In fact, children will interact under very little adult supervision. Goals are very different here, but just as important. Score is measured by tricks achieved, fears overcome, courage invoked, and falls that result in giving it another try.
We open the trunk of my dusty Prius and Kai, who is a third grader at Westfield Friends School in Cinnaminson, grabs his red skateboard. There’s a message scrawled on the bottom of the deck in my husband’s handwriting: “To Kai, Happy 9th birthday. Love, Dad.” Together, we walk toward the skatepark in the autumn sunshine. As Kai sets up his skateboard on the lip of the deep concrete bowl inside the skatepark, his usual lack of athletic confidence melts away. He transforms into a little centaur, his light frame merging with the thin wooden board as he glides down the bowl, defies gravity, rises into the air, hovers above the ground, and lands with a loud clack!
My son is a musician, a reader, and a writer, but his passion lies with skateboarding. “Skateboarding is fun because you don’t have to run around,” Kai explained. “There are no coaches to tell you what to do, and there are no rules.” He has always preferred wheels to balls; Neff to Under Armour; Triple Eight helmets to baseball caps; the messiness and chaos of skateboarding to the supervised organization of soccer, flag football or baseball.
Kai has learned the mechanics of deconstructing and rebuilding skateboards. He can remove and adjust wheels, and resurface his deck with new grip tape, which is a complex process that requires accuracy and patience. With skateboarding, he has to manage his own schedule; he’s getting a crash course in time management. For instance, he needs to figure out if, after school, he will skate or do his homework before he gets too tired. Skateboarding also requires him to become more attentive to the natural world; if the skies are blue and sunny, he should seize the opportunity to skate before the volatile fall weather sets in.
People say skateboarding is not a team sport, but Kai prefers to skate with friends. His enthusiasm is catching, and now most of the boys in the neighborhood skate, too. My neighbor, Ruth Hunter, explained why she encourages her son, Lucas, to skate: “It is an athletic sport requiring tremendous skill and agility. It gives boys an additional and alternative avenue to express their desire to be physical and active, and to challenge themselves.” There is no travel skateboard team to challenge these kids or prepare them for the next level, so we are grateful to live in a town that has a skatepark. Ruth, who is an attorney, explained that her family loves going to the skatepark to escape the lure of video games and screens: “We enjoy the skatepark because it gives us an opportunity to spend electronic free time together in the outdoors doing something my 10 year old is very passionate and excited about. My 7 year old daughter also has a great time there, too, as well as all of the friends that we bring.” This fall, my neighbors and I have visited the Medford skatepark a couple times a week.
Although my husband grew up skateboarding, I am new to the sport and feel like an anthropologist studying a new culture; at first, the skatepark looked like the Wild West. However, upon closer inspection, I noticed that the teenagers show the little kids skateboard etiquette. First, wait your turn before dropping into the bowl. Second, talk to each other to find out who is in line and who is just watching. Third, respect one another by watching others attempt their tricks.
Over the last few months at the skatepark, Kai, Lucas, and their friends have gradually conquered their fears. Now, Lucas says that “going down the bowl” and “doing tricks on the smooth surface” are his favorite parts of the skatepark. The first time I took Kai to the skatepark, he wouldn’t get out of the car. The second time, he skated cautiously, and I eyeballed him as we both sized up the skatepark skeptically. He didn’t attempt the bowl until about our fourth visit. After he learned how to drop in on the short side, he fell every time and scurried, embarrassed, out of the bowl. But he also picked himself up and tried again. Soon, he could drop in the bowl without falling down. Over time, his skating became more elegant and clean as he got to know the undulating concrete curves.
After about a month, he worked up the courage to drop in on the high side of the bowl, which is about a five foot drop. Gathering his courage, he set up his skateboard on the lip of the bowl, waited his turn, and then dropped down the ball, gathering momentum to soar to the top of the other side, snapping his skateboard up. It was a momentous day in his young life. Persevering, he learned to catch his skateboard and scurry up the side of the bowl like his old idol, Spiderman, or his new idol, Rob Dyrdek.
Recently, I realized how much Kai is growing because of skateboarding. Teachers have always told me that he needs to improve his communication and better express his opinions, especially around other children; he’s the shy kid in school. So I was surprised when an older skater asked Kai, “Can I go?” In reply, Kai snapped, “No! It’s my turn!” He abruptly dropped into the bowl and flew around like Aladdin showing off on his magic carpet. I was shocked that he had asserted himself, and unsure whether I should reprimand his rudeness.
This incident made me realize that the skatepark is a liminal space between childhood and adulthood that provides skateboarders with the breathing room to grow up. Liminality, which comes from the Latin word for threshold, refers to anthropologist Victor Turner’s theory about the rite of passage. For instance, Hogwarts School functions as a liminal space where Harry Potter grows into adulthood, and so does the arena of The Hunger Games as Katniss Everdeen transforms from a girl into a leader. Liminal space exists between and among other places. Similarly, the skatepark hovers on the margins of Freedom Park. Here, kids can figure out how to negotiate the complex politics of childhood away from the constant surveillance of supervising adults.
Michel Foucault described the panopticon as a police state in which everyone feels like they are being observed, so they comply with how the people in power tell them to behave. Similarly, children are constantly observed by parents, teachers, coaches, and authority figures, so they behave according to adult expectations. But the skatepark is outside this panopticon of adult authority and surveillance. It’s up to the kids to police each other, and it’s in their best interest to make sure everyone observes the rules so that the skate park stays open. They realize that it’s a privilege.
This issue of privilege is at the heart of the skatepark controversy. The township officials who oversee the skatepark lock it when they see the skaters treating the skatepark as a right, rather than a privilege, by refusing to wear helmets or remove their trash. In an email response to my questions about why the skatepark is frequently and randomly locked, Beth Portocalis, Medford’s Director of Parks, wrote, “The Skatepark is a privilege rather than a right, so ALL users should respect the rules and do the simple things such as disposing of their trash & bottles in the trash cans that we have conveniently placed at the main entrance.” Beth Portocalis is right that the skatepark is sometimes littered with empty water bottles, but the trash can is frequently missing from the skatepark area. This past Saturday, a group of Girl Scouts who were cleaning up litter from Freedom Park for a service project were help at the skatepark because the gates were locked. Determined, the tenacious Brownies commanded the trespassing skateboarders to pass them trash through the space between the locked gates. Again, children here exercise problem-solving skills.
On several visits to the skatepark with the Hunter family, we have found the skatepark inexplicably closed. Ruth said, “I felt very frustrated because I put the time and energy into bringing the entire family plus friends to the skate Park only to find it closed. This was valuable time that my family could have been doing something else, or that I could have stayed home and gotten work done as I am self employed and work from home. Plus, I was then presented with the frustrating dilemma: do we go home or show the kids to jump the fence, which is surely in violation of skate park rules?” Ruth’s dilemma was shared with the other families who had made the effort to visit the skatepark, and many frustrated children were skating, despite the locked gates.
If news stories, emails, and Facebook posts are any indication, it seems like there is an “us” versus “them” mentality that divides the township employees who generously donate their time to maintain the park from the teenage skateboarders who hang out there frequently. However, when it comes to skating, the teenagers are surprisingly cautious around smaller kids. They know they skate much faster, with more power and force, than the lighter little kids, so they are careful to make sure the bowl is clear before they drop in. If there are a lot of little kids near the bowl, the teenagers stay on the other side of the skatepark, doing tricks off the steps or ramps.
Once, when Kai fell and busted his knee open, I carried him over to the bench to clean up his bloody wound. The teenagers crowded around to make sure Kai was alright. Another time, Kai got frustrated with his friends’ little sisters, who were running through the bowl, and he lifted his skateboard above his head menacingly. The teenagers warned, “Hey little dude. That’s not cool.” He put the board down. In this place where children govern themselves, you might expect chaos to reign, like in Lord of the Flies or Neverland, but the skateboarders maintain a delightfully messy order.
In this atmosphere, Kai is not only learning to skate, but he’s learning to become more assertive, to communicate with kids of different ages and abilities, and to take care of his own body and protect it. He’s learning his limits, and when the conditions are right to break those limits. He’s learning to dismantle and rebuild not just his skateboard, but his identity as an individual.
I would argue that the skatepark can even prepare children for college by requiring them to think independently. As a writing instructor at Bucks County Community College, I teach students who are on their own for the first time. They’re fledglings who are learning to fly after years of intense scrutiny and supervision by adults. When they arrive at college, they often lack confidence, street-savvy, and communication skills. They are adorably naïve, and afraid to exercise their own opinions. If we can provide a place for older children, tweens and teens to learn these skills at a younger age – prior to freshman year of college – we will be doing our children a great service and providing them with a training ground for college preparation.
By the time we leave the skatepark, Kai will be covered in dust and gravel, his hair will be matted with sweat from his helmet, his feet will stink like rotting cheese, and he may be bleeding from one or more body parts. Do I sometimes wish he – we – could be more traditional? Do I look longingly at the innocence of the soccer fields – soft, plush, supervised, no helmets required - and wish that my son preferred ball sports to wheels and boards? Sometimes. But I love my children unconditionally, and that means supporting them as they pursue their passions.
In Medford, the skatepark has been demonized and politicized, but rarely defended; some would love to see the skatepark’s gates chained permanently and its lovely concrete bowl bulldozed, but I say that the skatepark is the only place in Medford where kids can be themselves – away from the strict regimen of schedules, organized sports and helicopter parenting. Does that make the skatepark subversive? Maybe, but it may be the best place in Freedom Park for children to learn the meaning of freedom.