Beyond skate parks – transforming communities with teens

There is no doubt that the teen years are ones of dramatic change for young people and those around them. It is perhaps for this reason that teens are often seen as awkward accessories to our communities – ones who must to be occupied with skateparks or part-time jobs until they mature. However, the innovative and energetic nature of teenagers is often exactly what needs to be at the centre of our communities.

Photo by Peter Pearson

Columnist Jack Knox recently spoke to this point in an article about Earth Day. He challenged his own assumptions about ‘misspent youth’ by citing the students at Reynolds Secondary School who grow Swiss Chard (who would have thought that teens eat chard!?); run an organic salad bar; and raised $84,000 for cancer. This is just one local example, but the positive potential of teenage energy is more broadly recognized as well. Brain science supports the notion that teens are innovative and creative people with the potential to bring fresh perspectives to building ideal communities. David Suzuki explores this in a fascinating discussion on Surviving the Teenage Brain.

So how do we harness this brainpower of teens in our communities? Here are five ways to get started…

1. Be welcoming and positive
See teens as key players in your neighourhood, community and school. Talk to them about their ideas and ambitions, keeping an open mind. If they do something that seems risky or a little incomprehensible, seek to understand their thinking. As adults, our knowledge of risk and critical thought can limit our thinking. Teenagers allow us to see things in new, entrepreneurial ways.

 2. Include teens in community planning
Community planning processes can benefit immensely from the fresh perspectives and energy that teens have to offer. In turn, this kind of hands-on experience is ideal for the way that teens learn – in social, experiential settings where risk taking is a must. Teens may gain lifelong leadership and planning skills. Acting as partners, teens can be put in the position of using their skills to teach adults, who may be limited by their more cautious thinking. Two resources to check out are the Youthscape Guidebook and Co-Management: A Practical Guide.

3. Connect schools to communities
Connecting schools to communities allows teens the opportunity to step beyond the confined walls of the classroom. It often allows more room to put teens in positions of leadership and to learn in a hands-on manner. It provides experience that may help them find employment. In return, it allows older community members to be inclusive and develop a deeper understanding of this age group of citizens. Explore ways that this can happen through my previous post Breaking out of the Ivory Tower: Schools and Universities building bridges to local communities.

4. Support youth friendly transit
In many settings, youth are limited by their lack of mobility. Concerns over lack of public transit routes, infrequency of public transit, cost or safety concerns may leave them isolated and unable to fully engage in our communities. The website kidsonthemove.ca contains the results of a research project that created a set of guidelines for land use planners to help overcome some of these obstacles.

5. Support recreation
Despite the title of this post, skate parks are great. Other contexts for connecting teens with their community include libraries, swimming pools, drop-in centres, community centres, climbing walls, music and dance venues, art studios, sports fields, community gardens, and parks. These spaces provide physical exercise, opportunities for safe risk-taking, and contexts for social learning. The Ontario Partnership for Active and Engaged Youth has recognized the importance of this by introducing the Playworks Youth Friendly Community Awards.

How is your community putting teens in a central role?

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2 responses to “Beyond skate parks – transforming communities with teens

  1. Great post and food for thought. I don’t think we’re doing enough in this capacity.

  2. Great for youth’s aspiration to promote environment quality and community engagement. Our national UK-run community programme promotes exactly the same objectives that may be of interest to your blog users: http://www.communityspacechallenge.org!

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