Sunday, September 28, 2014

Skatepark as Organic Learning Environment

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The Ann Arbor Skatepark opened this year. It is a $1 million, 30,000 square foot wonderland of, well, all sorts of things that are great for skateboarders. As described by the City of Ann Arbor website,
Skateboarders will enjoy features such as kidney pools from 5 feet to 9.5 feet deep, a snake run, clover and flow bowls, rock ride and a slappy curb. Landscape features being incorporated into the design include native plants and bioswales and retention areas that exceed standard stormwater requirements.
I can’t really describe how cool this little place is. On a sunny mild Saturday in September, my son joined around 50 kids of all ages (well, not all ages, but every age from 5 to 30, notwithstanding my bruising 5 minute foray) having an absolute blast on skateboards, inline skates and Razor-type scooters.
What struck me was the park as an organic learning environment. The skater ethos and indeed the park's official etiquette and rules emphasize that there is no structure, no competition, and, especially, no coaching by parents. As such, I struggle to build even a flimsy metaphor or analogy to suggest how we might create more effective corporate (or for that matter, youth sports) learning environments. There are many clich├ęs to describe the learning dynamic that we struggle to create in a more deliberately controlled setting. The cliches become beautiful realities in the skate park, without a whiff of irony or cynicism:
  • Forming communities. The vast majority of kids were riding skateboards, with just a few on scooters and inline skates. Three of the better scooter riders found each other, and began travelling as one through the park. They would stop together and confer about how to do a trick or navigate the next feature. Nobody had to formally identify them as the best practitioners of their craft or bring them together so they could learn from one another. They just did it.
  • Raising the bar. A group of four skaters is flying repeatedly over a set of stairs that is part of the park. Clearly, they are among the few that can do that trick, with grabs, ollies, and other variations thrown in. When that trick becomes easy, they set up their own challenge. They lay down a plastic garbage barrel at the top of a ramp and start trying to jump over it on their boards. If these kids were under the direct supervision of a manager, they wouldn’t be allowed to move the garbage can, and they would also be less safe practicing the same difficult trick using an existing park feature (namely, a cement barrier).
  • Informal coaching and mentoring. For a few minutes, I observed the skateboarding of one young man I’ll call the Smooth Skater Wearing a Knit Cap on an 80 Degree Day. He was rolling along by himself all around the park, and I was struck by the fluidity of his skating and his occasional tricks. In my eyes, he was the best skater in the park, but he was by no means a show-off. All of the sudden, Smooth Skater stops next to a kid half his age, and gives him some coaching. Hey, Lil Bro, he seemed to be saying, you need to get more springiness in your knees as you go over the slopes, like this. Smooth Skater provides a quick demonstration of what he means by springiness in the knees, and watches as Lil Bro tries it. Then Smooth Skater shows him how one would apply the springy knees technique on a small slope about 5 feet away. He taps Lil Bro on the chest with the back of his hand and skates away. The whole thing took no more than 15 seconds. Lil Bro starts practicing the springy knee thing, statically at first, then down some easy ramps. It was a beautiful interaction, initiated by someone I’m sure never went to a corporate coaching class and never entered into a formal mentoring agreement, with Lil Bro or anyone else.
  • An environment of trust, where mistakes are OK. Without a delineated path and dozens of kids doing their own thing in a relatively small space, there were collisions, near collisions and other mishaps occurring every few seconds. If one kid bumped into or cut off another, they both got up, someone said “are you OK?” and someone said “sorry, Bro.” They shared a fist bump or a laugh (more often both), and they moved on. You know what I did not see any of, in a full hour of observing the skatepark? Injuries, flaring tempers, hurt feelings, or interventions by authority figures.

How do these things just happen at the skate park, yet they happen only through great effort or divine providence in the large workplace? It is the design of the environment? Is it the bringing together of like-minded people? Is it the passion? Is it the wider culture of this hobby?
I don’t have good answers to these questions, but I'll keep thinking. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

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