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May 2015 • Online Edition

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No Child Left Behind? No Child Left Inside! | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

So far off track.

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 book, The 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 school in southeast Denver, and the city to create a resource center for victims of 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 likewise.

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.”

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