Street Surfing: The PE Teacher’s Secret Weapon

Karl Fice-Thomson’s idea of providing surfing lessons to schools in inner cities is often met with skepticism, with many asking "What’s the point?" However, when he introduced "street surfing", a combination of snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing, as part of the Surf Anywhere project, several secondary school PE departments were so impressed by its ability to get even the most inactive children exercising that they started buying up boards by the dozen and introducing it into the curriculum. PE teachers have had no trouble convincing school heads about the positive effects of street surfing, which seems to improve poor behavior and have a particularly remarkable impact on children on the autistic spectrum.

Denise Howard, director of sport at Brookfield school in Derbyshire, admits she was skeptical about street surfing at first but was amazed by its impact. Children who previously disliked PE were enthusiastic about street surfing, and the confidence they gained from doing it well spilled over into their academic work. Howard believes that the impact that sport can have on young people’s behavior is hugely underestimated. For many students, sport carries lots of negatives and often involves high expectations. If a student gets something wrong, they’re made to feel as if they’ve let the entire team down. This has a spiral effect since the more they feel left out, the less chance they have of improving, which ultimately affects their self-esteem and overall conduct.

Street surfing must feel as if it’s been sent from heaven for students who dislike traditional sports. It’s a cool sport, and better still, anyone can do it, even those with poor hand-eye coordination. Six million children worldwide have now been taught how to street surf, and 250,000 have been taught in the UK alone. Fice-Thomson reports that the sport is increasingly used in training top snowboarders and surfers.

Street surfing is highly creative. UK surfing champion Tassy Swallows believes that this may account for its appeal to those on the autistic spectrum. "Clay Marzo, who is one of the best surfers in the world, has Asperger’s," says Swallows. "I think it’s something to do with being able to create your own style, coupled with the fact that you have the chance to forget about everything and everyone else around you."

Surfing, whether on land or in the sea, has long been recognised in the US as benefiting autistic children. Chris Brown, who teaches autistic children to surf in the UK, says it baffles everyone why it should work, but over the last few years, they’ve noticed significant behavioral improvements. Street surfing may provide evidence for why this might be the case, as it appears to throw the sensory overload theory on its head. Brown notes that they’ve managed to get kids who have been excluded back in school and urges Plymouth University to study why street surfing is so effective in helping children on the autistic spectrum and those with behavioral problems.

Fice-Thomson acknowledges that the driving force behind the inception of the Surf Anywhere initiative was the realization that an overwhelming majority of elite British surfers originate from urban areas. However, they soon discovered that youngsters from diverse backgrounds, including those classified as overweight or introverted, embraced street surfing as a standalone sporting activity. Not surprisingly, this unconventional discipline is now the most rapidly advancing board sport globally. Frustratingly, some educators are sometimes critical and dismissive, contending, “While the concept appears admirable, I can assure you that X would never partake. Frankly, they’re averse to donning any sports kit.” Yet, astonishingly, only one child we’ve taught did not enjoy the experience.

Jo Doyle, assistant head and Physical Education director at Newham’s Cumberland School, highlights that numerous students have purchased their own boards immediately after participating in our program. She openly asserts, “I’d be thrilled to acquire a set, too. If you were to inquire about our pupils’ most unforgettable PE memory, I guarantee the majority would cite the day they first encountered street surfing over the likes of netball or other comparable events.”


  • joaquincain

    Joaquin Cain is a 39 year old school teacher and blogger from the United States. He has a passion for education and is always looking for new and innovative ways to help his students learn. He is also a big believer in the power of technology and its ability to help improve education.