by Paul Kashmann
So far off
How did we get
so far off track?
Over the past several
decades youth participation in organized sports has continued to grow at
ever-increasing levels. A University of Michigan study shows at least 35
million youngsters ages 5-18 enrolled in a variety of sporting leagues. During
this same time period, childhood obesity has risen to epidemic proportions.
In a similar case of disconnect, as the U.S. and much of the rest of the
world has moved from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, the promise
of technological advance translating into great things for the human race seems
to have fallen more than a bit short.
A June 2013 survey
estimates we now have 310,866,000 residents in the United States. Those folks
own 327,577,529 cell phones and 223,810,000 personal computers, not to mention
a vast variety of game systems: MP3 players and the like.
As well as
around-the-clock distraction, those computers, pads, pods and phones now
provide 24/7 mobile access to every piece of information catalogued since man
crawled out of the primordial ooze, yet we are still struggling to find cures
for the diseases that ravage our bodies; war and other human-on-human abuses
run rampant across the globe; and our use of planetary resources continues to
foul and deplete the environment to the point where the very survival of
humankind is now a question that demands immediate attention.
While there have been
holdouts, the trend in recent years in most education circles has been to focus
with laser-like intensity on devoting ever-increasing resources to the study of
science and math, forcing money-starved school districts to reduce or eliminate
offerings in physical education, arts and music. This focus, and the
results-driven testing that has gone hand in hand, are geared toward producing
more college graduates with a better shot at getting a job. This may lead to
more kids getting into and out of college, but as yet shows no connection to
them developing into happy, fulfilled human beings.
As a matter of fact,
American children and adults alike – regardless of the level of
educational accomplishment or technological resources at hand – are
finding it necessary to consume prescription medication on a daily basis in
record numbers, just to deal with the normal stresses of day-to-day life. Joy,
compassion and connection to the Earth and our fellow humans seem better bred
by those parts of the curriculum that have been set aside as extraneous.
It would appear we are not
only missing the boat, but are being swept away by a nasty current that is
taking us to a place we really don’t want to go.
What to do?
For a starter, open your
mind to another path. Pick up a copy of Richard Louv’s
Last Child in the Woods. Louv eschews electronica mania and over-regulated child’s
play, explaining in great detail the damage being done to our young ones by a
syndrome he describes as “nature deficit disorder.”
Louv states that while there are certainly good things
children may garner in high tech classrooms and on neatly manicured sporting
fields, they pale in comparison with the lessons to be learned by guided or
unguided exploration in the wild, or just outside in the park. He adopts a “No
Child Left Inside” ethic, urging parents and schools to ease the focus on
technology, and get kids back into nature.
I was made aware of Louv’s book – his seventh – a couple of months
back when I interviewed Michael Bouchard, a landscape architect who is managing
several projects devoted to revitalizing large sections of the South Platte
River. Explaining the thought behind a nature center planned for part of
Johnson Habitat Park, Bouchard told me, “It goes back to Louv’s
book – with all the technology that has distracted them, kids have become separated from the natural world. Our goal
is to get them back into nature and get their hands dirty.” The book supports
the idea that we can’t expect our children to care about a planetary
environment with which they are not very familiar.
Louv asserts that so much of the education delivered
to children today is a “two-dimensional” stack of disconnected facts. He
compares that to what is learned through creative play, involving such tasks as
building a treehouse, or a simple log crossing of a
stream. Mathematical realities unfold of how far apart the steps must be to
make access to a treehouse possible, what angle the
roof must take to disperse rainwater, and how thick a log must be to hold
certain weights at a given length of span. The benefits accrue equally to urban
kids finding magic in the unsculpted “chaos” of a
vacant lot or backyard hideaway.
And he speaks eloquently
of the joy all ages invariably report after a day spent in the great outdoors,
emphasizing the spiritual healing inherent in nature play.
Which brings me to a
subject we have examined several times on these pages in recent months –
Mayor Hancock’s decision to trade a 9-acre slice of Denver parkland in
the Hentzell Park open space for an office building owned by
Denver Public Schools. The swap would allow DPS to build an elementary
in southeast Denver, and the city to create a resource center for
domestic violence in the vicinity of the Golden Triangle.
After looking at the
proposed transaction for many months, I have come to the conclusion that the
proposed transaction is illegal and ill-advised, and
should not happen. For several reasons.
Our city charter states
clearly that any sale of Denver parkland must be approved by a vote of the people.
Nobody – not even the mayor or Denver Public Schools – has
disagreed with that fact. The land in question has been used as a park for many
years, has been maintained as such by Denver’s Department of Parks and
Recreation (DPR) and bears signage indicating it as a park. While “designated”
as parkland by DPR, by virtue of the fact that the department has failed
through its own administrative inaction to formally “dedicate” dozens of
Denver’s parks, the Hentzell Park deal can be
approved simply through administrative action by the manager of DPR, and
department head Lauri Dannemiller
has done just that.
For the mayor to utilize
a technicality to prevent the intention of the charter from being carried out,
and for the public to exercise its lawful will is disturbing. We are surprised
to see the city so insistent in pursuing this course. We believe the mayor to
be a good man with his city’s best interests at heart. We also believe him to
be tragically off base in this case. We hope he will change his course, and
hope the courts – in whose hands the matter now rests – will feel
Legalities aside, if a
case still needs to be made to preserve the open space, one needs to look no
further than Last
Child in the Woods. I will not
argue that classroom space is not needed in southeast Denver. I will insist
there are better places to build that space. While Denver has an impressive
coterie of well-trimmed parks serving our urban population, the amount of wild
open space is dwindling, impossible to replace and should be protected.
DPS is spending $12
million to retrofit Byers Middle School, 120 S. Pearl St., for the latest
branch of Denver School of Science and Technology and is building new
classrooms all across our city. Let the district make a commitment to another
form of education by preserving a patch of open space that has benefits to
offer students they simply won’t get in a brick-and-mortar building.
We’ll give the final word
to Louv, “Prize the natural spaces and shorelines
most of all, because once they’re gone, with rare exceptions they’re gone
forever. In our bones we need the natural curves of hills, the scent of
chaparral, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wildness. We require these
patches of nature for our mental health and our spiritual resilience. Future
generations, regardless of whatever recreation or sport is in vogue, will need
nature all the more.”