No child should have to spend her days begging or working the streets to support her low-income family. Nor should he be denied access to education. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Australian Oliver Percovich discovered in 2007 when he took to the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan on his skateboard. Surrounded by poverty-stricken children captivated by his skateboarding skills, Percovich was inspired to empower the lives of children in countries ravaged by war. To make this goal a reality, he created Skateistan, a non-political, inclusive NGO that uses skateboarding as a tool to empower* youth.
As soon as Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich dropped his board in Kabul in 2007, he was surrounded by the eager faces of children of all ages who wanted to be shown how to skate. Stretching out the three boards he and a former girlfriend/aidworker had brought with them, “Ollie” began dedicating himself to the creation of a small non-profit skate school in Afghanistan.
A group of Afghan friends (aged 18-22) who were naturals at skateboarding shared the three boards and quickly progressed in their new favourite sport—and so skateboarding hit Afghanistan. The success with the first students prompted Ollie to think bigger: by bringing more boards back to Kabul and establishing an indoor skateboarding venue, the program would be able to teach many more youth, and also be able to provide older girls with a private facility to continue skateboarding.
On October 29, 2009, Skateistan completed construction of an all-inclusive skatepark and educational facility on 5428 square meters of land donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee. The indoor skatepark was graciously built by IOU Ramps.
Skateistan has emerged as Afghanistan’s first skateboarding school, and is dedicated to teaching both male and female students. The non-profit skateboarding charity has constructed the two largest indoor sport facilities in Afghanistan, and hosts the largest female sporting organization (composed of female skateboarders). Skateistan believes that when youth come together to skateboard and play, they forge bonds that transcend social barriers. Furthermore, through creative education classes the youth are enabled to explore issues that are important to them.
For those still wondering how skateboarding can lead to youth empowerment:
Youth come for skateboarding, and stay for education. This program offers regular, structured weekly skateboarding instruction alongside an educational arts-based curriculum. In the skate park, children of all backgrounds find a valuable platform for self-expression, creativity, goal setting and personal development. In the classroom, students use fine arts and multimedia to explore geography, world cultures, history, human rights, environmental studies, hygiene, storytelling and more. Lessons focus on giving youth tools to express themselves, think critically and solve problems in their local and global communities. Special community events and international multimedia and art exchanges with peers around the globe expand the students’ personal worlds. Accessible to all levels of literacy and education, classes provide a forum for youth to develop friendships that overcome deep social barriers.
All of that sounded nice, but as I continued reading, I wanted specific examples. What exactly are children learning? What specific skills are they being taught? In what ways are they expressing themselves creatively? I needn’t have worried. There are numerous examples, including a 10-week nutrition and hygiene course:
In September, after several months of attending weekly skateboarding classes alongside taking part in various art projects, students at Skateistan Mazar began their first complete semester unit. Alongside their peers in Phnom Penh and Kabul, students in Mazar will be focusing the next several months on nutrition and sanitation.
The 10-week curriculum covers food-related topics from across the board, ranging from food groups to planting seeds, hand washing to the history of food. After each weekly one-hour skateboarding session, students then come to the classroom to participate in interactive lessons that teach them about good nutrition, health, food safety, sanitation, and more.
After learning about germs, how they spread, and how to prevent food contamination, students spent two weeks learning about food groups, the components of a healthy meal, and how various local foods benefit their bodies. Once students developed an understanding of healthy food, the time came to grow their own. The students learned about what plants need in order to grow, and set about imagining, drawing, and planning their dream garden. Everyone then got a chance to plant their own seed. The seedlings are just now sprouting, and in several weeks, they will be big enough to be transplanted to a larger recycled-container garden of the students’ design.
A woodworking course for Afghan students:
Among the traditional Afghan arts, wood carving has its own place. The students at Skateistan believe that a nation stays alive if their culture is alive. Therefore, in this semester the students worked on wood carving as a way of sustaining some of their Afghan culture. The technique used was to draw a design on plywood and then cut it out with a special saw. The design which has been cut out is then glued onto another piece of plywood and coloured to add more detail.
Their carvings include Afghan famous figures such as Ahmad Shah Durani, the first Emir of Afghanistan, skateboarding, landscapes, and birds.
At first the students found it difficult to cut out the designs, however because of their keen interest in the craft, they gradually made some impressive carvings. One of our curriculum goals is to help these children discover their own identity through the creative process. By allowing the students to produce artworks, they are given the opportunity to understand their individual differences and talents.
And lessons in world geography and regional history:
After finishing the 11th semester on colours, Skateistan Kabul started the new semester on mapping. This semester included different activities, games, fun, online learning, drawing, spray painting the walls of Skateistan, and many more things that we can’t say in one or two pages.
During the first six weeks of the mapping semester, the students were introduced to the power of maps and mapping by studying a globe and a map of the world. The students studied all the elements that make up a world map – understanding the many oceans, defining country borders, identifying how many countries exist in the world, and how many famous mountains and rivers are in the world. The students were also shown pictures of the world’s nicest and most famous places.
Then came the map of Afghanistan, where the students learned the history and geography of their country. Did you know that Afghanistan has existed for five thousand years?
The students also learned about the minerals, rivers, and mountains of Afghanistan, its nicest places, and most famous royalty. Then, the students were allowed to paint a map of Afghanistan on the wall of Skateistan with spray paint!
After that, the students studied a map of Kabul. They learned about directions, and how they can find a place in Kabul even if they don not know anything about it. The activities were fun and involved many games, in one the students went into pairs and would ask one and other how to travel to and from locations across the city, “How can I get to Skateistan from Shahr-e-Naw?”. Using the map of Kabul the students would then give detailed directions allowing the other to arrive safely at their desired location. The students then looked at Google maps online, which enabled them to see Kabul from a birds eye view. From this viewpoint they made personalised street maps of their city and even painted Skateistan from above!
Afterwards, the students made map legends out of paper, cartons and sticks. The legends included different symbols for schools, rivers, mountains, streets, safe and unsafe places, mosques, and more. The symbols were then pressed onto boards. During the activity, the students learned about which places are more secure for walking and playing, and which places are unsafe, and also how to decide which route is the most secure to get to a destination.
These examples demonstrate that in addition to being a nice idea with a great hook, Skateistan is an organization that lives up to its mission statement.
All images courtesy of British photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson.
Hat tip My Modern Metropolis.
*For those unfamiliar with the term ’empowerment’, see here.