Skate Away

Remember when going to the park involved kids playing on swings, slides, jungle gyms, see-saws and merry-go-rounds? These types of playgrounds will probably never go out of style, but, there are some new parks in town, with ramps, half-pipes, grindrails and bowls providing the allure and attraction to a new generation of thrill-seeking kids.

Skate parks are a popular outing in South Florida. In today's society of sedentary, overweight kids addicted to video games and computers, the exercise benefits are obvious. But skate parks also offer kids a controlled environment, smoother surfaces and a variety of apparatus on which to learn and practice in-line skating and skateboarding skills. They give kids the chance to enjoy the activity in a group, while improving skills at their own pace and meeting other kids who may share tips and advice about the sport.

"In-line skating and skateboarding may be more individualized than traditional team sports, but they are a great way to build confidence and self-esteem in kids, since they are up against themselves and learn at their own pace," says Greg Hinds, director of Adventure Sport Learning Center in Miami. "Plus, there's a real sense of camaraderie among these kids, and they are very supportive of one another."  More Info  
Skate parks attract kids of all ages - from preschool to high school and beyond. Many of the outdoor skate parks are in larger county or regional parks, where families can combine a trip to the ramps with other activities that might appeal more to parents or younger children. Since a trip to the skate park is usually more an outing for the kids than parents, bringing along a friend for your child to skate with can add to the fun and help him feel more comfortable.

Melanie Pistiner of Davie takes her 8-year-old son, Jake, to skate parks during early morning hours, before the older kids start their day. "The kids have more room to maneuver, less likelihood of collision and more opportunity to practice," she says. She recommends that parents of all younger or less experienced skaters dodge the more crowded midafternoon and evening sessions, with the older kids, larger crowds and louder music.

There is some question about the minimum age children should be before they are allowed to participate in this activity. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that "the age at which children are ready to use in-line skates or skateboards safely is not known with certainty because a combination of factors are involved: physical factors (foot size and body strength); skill factors (general athletic ability and large-muscle coordination); and behavioral factors (vigilance in watching the surface for debris and defects, sufficient attention to traffic, judgment). Although most 7- and 8-year-olds can acquire the skills needed to in-line skate, some children may acquire these skills earlier or later. Judgment and ability to avoid obstacles, including bicyclists, pedestrians and other skaters, are needed."

Many parents' biggest concerns about in-line skating and skateboarding involve injuries. Though parents should expect kids to get banged up a little, Matt Cantor, skateboarder and owner of Control Skatepark in Miami, compares the activity to football. "Every time you line up (in football), there's a guarantee that someone is going to jump on you and the possibility of injury. Every skater or skateboarder is guaranteed to fall at one point or another, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will be injured." All parks require parents to sign a liability waiver, as skating is inherently an activity that can cause injury.

Hinds says the most important tip he can give parents is that they demand their child wear a helmet at all times when skating or skateboarding. "Kids are going to fall and get scraped or bruised, but not wearing a helmet is a whole different issue," he says. Shannon Lotito, facility manager of Tim Huxhold Skatepark in Boca Raton takes this one step further, reminding parents and skaters that helmets should fit correctly and must be strapped while skating.

While some parks require only helmets, others insist upon full padding, which means elbow, knee and wrist pads, in addition to helmets. This is a good indicator that there are a number of younger children attending.

Police officer Bob Voss, co-owner of Boardz-n-Bladez in Sunrise, says that pads should be required for all beginners to help prevent skin abrasions and injuries that can discourage a child from continuing. But some skate park operators feel that protective gear can give kids a false sense of security, motivating them to throw their bodies around more freely and creating more opportunity for injury. The bottom line is that kids need to abide by the individual skate park's safety requirements - and parents need to enforce their own safety requirements as well. Parents of beginners will also want to find out whether the park has lower ramps and practice areas.

As with most physical activities, kids can learn skills more quickly with lessons, which are offered at the majority of parks. Some instructors suggest that parents not watch a lesson, as kids may feel more pressure and are more likely to become frustrated. Lessons aren't essential, but they may reduce the level of anxiety for parents and the initial frustration for kids. Instructional videos are helpful as well.

Before attempting any size ramp, parents should also assess their child's ability to balance on skates or a skateboard. One of the first things a child should learn is the proper way to fall. Tucking and rolling will dissipate the forward momentum and spread out the impact.

Levels of supervision vary from park to park. Staff members may be behind counters or out on the course to oversee skaters and maintain control. Parents of younger, less experienced skaters generally remain at the skate park to keep a closer watch on their child. However, once kids are older and more advanced in their skills, parents frequently sign them in and return a few hours later to pick them up. It's important to do what makes both you and your child comfortable.

Many parks have viewing areas, where parents and spectators can sit to watch the skaters, read a book or even watch television to pass the time. Areas may be indoors and air-conditioned, behind windows to reduce the noise level, outdoors, totally separated and away from the action or within feet of the ramps, skaters and kids.

With so many parks to choose from, it can be an adventure to find out which ones are best for you and your kids.

Susan Frasca is the editorial assistant for South Florida Parenting and a mother of two, including one avid skater.

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