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Or - Get your Kids out of the Classroom!
Essays by Joe Hackett, originally published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise

No Child Left Inside   

Studies have shown that less than 8 % of high school students have the opportunity to pursue traditional team sports after graduation; following college, this percentage drops to less that 2%. These numbers support the importance of instilling in our children the necessary knowledge, appreciation and skill sets to easily pursue individually accessible opportunities for outdoor recreation whether biking, hiking, hunting, paddling, golf or angling.
Nationwide, studies show that the younger generation (est. 73 million under 18 years) is losing interest in participating in traditional outdoor experiences.  As hunting (down 12% ) and angling ( down 7% ) license sales continue to decline nationwide, and the average age of participants continues to climb (NY big game hunters now average 51yrs of age); it is vital that outdoor sports proponents and conservation organizations recognize the need to address this important issue soon, there may be no one left to fill our boots. 

The drugs of the ‘turn on-tune out’ ‘60’s and 70’s generation have been replaced with more alluring electronic attractions in the age of computers, iPods, text messaging, X-Box and TiVo, which can record programming from over 500 cable or satellite networks. Currently, it is estimated the average urban youth spends approximately 38.5 hours a week staring at an electronic screen.  By age 12, they can recognize over 1000 corporate logos but cannot identify 5 birds or 5 plants in their own backyard. “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” reports a fourth grader in Richard Louv’s new book, "Last Child in the Woods".

The author explains how the nation’s youth are suffering from a condition he labels as ‘nature deficit disorder’ which he directly links to lack of exposure to nature among today’s wired generation. When did the forests and lakes become so boring that kids had to turn to electronics for their entertainment?  If we don’t take the time and energy to make the outdoor experience fun and exciting for the next generation of kids; the land will have no value to them.  And if it has no value, there will be no need to protect it.  We only appreciate what we understand!

Compounding this trend are societal changes in the composition of families that are increasely moving towards single parent families, where females are the head of the household.  Traditionally, men have had the responsibility of taking the kids camping or fishing and the lack of a male figure in the single parent household often means that the person responsible for introducing kids to the outdoors is no longer around.

As a country, we've never been fatter. Today, it is sobering to note that almost 65 percent of adults in the United States are either overweight or obese. What is even sadder is our children are on pace to be significantly fatter than we are by the time they reach adulthood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the percentage of children ages 6 to 11 who are overweight has increased nearly 300 percent the past 25 years. The numbers are nearly identical for teenagers. It's no secret that kids are gaining weight with the rest of America. The International Journal of Pediatric Obesity reported that if trends continue, nearly half of North and South American children will be overweight by 2010.
As a result, children today have a shorter life expectancy than their parents for the first time in 100 years according to William J. Klish, professor of pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine.

The health implications are scary. For example, Type 2 diabetes was once considered an adult disease.  Klish notes that the percentage of children and adolescents found to have Type 2 diabetes at Texas Children's Hospital has increased to 27 percent in 2002 from less than 1 percent 20 years ago.

Sadly, the number of physical education classes in our schools is steadily declining, despite an array of experts stressing more activity is crucial if children are to achieve a healthy weight. Today, Illinois is the only state that still requires daily physical education classes for students K to 12.  By high school, most children are basically finished with physical education. The result is that grade-school children are now 24 percent more active than high-schoolers.

While traditional sports such as baseball, soccer or football fill a need in the development of a youth, in recent years, the traditional gym class has changed for the better.  Physical education is concerned with fostering physical activities that can be pursued for life. Across the country and as near as the next small town, alternative physical education programs teach non-traditional recreational pursuits as educators realize that practical physical education programs can insure a lifetime of wellness. Physical education instructors have come to realize that once a student departs high school or college, the opportunities to participate in traditional team sports rapidly diminish. With age, business and family responsibilities make it increasingly difficult to gather the requisite number of players for a game of baseball, soccer or football. Yet, it is never too hard to find a partner to hike, bike, paddle or fish with.  This is where the process of life skills and physical activities education becomes important.   

Locally, both Northwood School and North Country School have a heritage of providing excellent programs for the development of recreational skill sets for activities such as rock and ice climbing, canoeing, hiking and skiing.   Incrementally, several local public schools have begun to offer similar life skills education programs in order to permit students to take advantage of the region’s bounty of natural resources. Possibly the most progressive program has been offered at Tupper Lake Central School.  The school’s athletic director, Rick Cowles has successfully pursued over a half million dollars in funding from the Physical Education for Progress (PEP) grants available through The Carol M. White Physical Education Program. Over the years, it’s been easy to find basketballs, baseballs, football and track spikes in Tupper Lake’s phys-ed department.  A lot has changed!    

Now, students monitor fitness in a state of the art, ‘Cardio Room’ where they can chart performance through a program of technology and  reporting provided by heart rate monitors and fitness evaluation systems. ‘Gym’ equipment now consists of canoes and kayaks, mountain bikes, snowshoes, nordic skis and in line skates.  They also have maps and compasses for orienteering, flyfishing rods and curling stones for use at the school’s ice arena. Tupper Lake graduates now leave with the skills, training and knowledge to pursue positive outdoor recreational opportunities in their own backyard.  And the Adirondack park, encompassing over six million acres, is a pretty impressive backyard.

The Outdoor Life

Following up on last week’s column, which detailed the current generation’s growing detachment from the land; I would like to offer some further insights. The cyberage has changed the face of childhood as we knew it. Too many children in today’s society are attaining their knowledge of the outside world from television, videos or the computer, rather than from direct contact in the outdoors.

Although Adirondack residents are somewhat insulated from the problem, due to our proximity to an abundance of natural resources in the park, we are not immune.  Kids will be kids, and if electronic devices are the cool toys of the era. They will subscribe to the latest trend.  Big business will see to it. You have to understand the economics. There’s a lot more money to be made if kids require the latest X-Box, video game, flat screen- television or other electronic entertainment device. While a simple walk in the woods may be quaint, entertaining and healthy; there’s little money in it.

Take a look at the advertising trends during the Saturday morning cartoon hours. You’ll find plenty of information on the latest electronic gadgets, but precious little advertising time is devoted to promoting unstructured, outdoor play.

Unstructured play benefits a child’s health

It was most interesting to read a recently released report from the American Academy of pediatrics that details the need children have for old- fashioned playtime. The report found that too much emphasis is placed on structured activities.  With Moms carting the kids to one scheduled event after another, there is little time left for random recreation. “Numerous studies have shown that unstructured play has many benefits. It can foster creativity, problem solving and analytical skills and help kids to develop healthy relationships” the study reports.

Free wheeling, fun time in an outdoor environment breeds confidence, nimble bodies, broader more expansive minds,  sharper senses and a more concrete comprehension of one’s place on Earth. While most Adirondackers thoroughly understand the fun and enjoyable benefits of outdoor life, it is interesting to note the therapeutic aspects of the outdoor environment.

Historically, the tuberculosis cure industry was founded on the curative properties of the cold, clean, fresh balsam scented air.  Cure porches, an architectural amenity designed to allow tuberculosis patients maximum exposure to the outdoors, are still evident throughout Saranac Lake village. However what has often been overlooked are the physcological, spiritual, physical and social benefits of the outdoors lifestyle. These aspects are considered dimensions of overall health and are readily identifiable as a beneift of the outdoor lifestyle. “The wilderness is a place where a man can become lost and yet find himself in the process” stated the noted psychoanalyst Sigmond Freud, during a visit to the Adirondacks in the 1890’s.

Indeed, time spent in the outdoors is the basis for a growing “wilderness-based therapy” industry being conducted in the park. Currently, at least four programs utilize the Adirondacks for such “Outward Bound” type adventures while over a dozen colleges implement similar programs as a component of their freshman orientations.

Time for play equals knowledge

Time spent in the woods offers both solitude and silence. It provides an abundance of stimuli that can lead to conversation, contemplation or meditation. Indeed “recreation” , when broken down, means to recreate- one’s mind, body, spirit or relationship.

Kids placed in nature develop a “naturalist intelligence” as Harvard professor Howard Gardener explained when he added it to the list of accepted intelligence quotients, ( linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily- kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal).

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests kids have an innate need for outdoor play and activity. It’s a part of our composition and constitution. The “Biophelia Hypothesis”, although controversial, suggests that we are still  hunter- gatherers and that biologically we have not changed much. There remains something within us that requires the natural form.  It is believed that we need nature in ways we still don’t fully understand.

In her book, The Sense of Wonder Rachael Carson writes that in the heart of every child is an inborn sense of wonder waiting to be guided to it’s full potential. Whether this sense of wonder thrives or shrivels depends on each child finding the “companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him he joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” It may just be the curiosity every child has for nature, or the knowledge that you can acquire from a walk through the wilderness. Whatever the means of exposure, it creates a new light in a child's eyes.  Exposure to the outdoors is one of the most valuable things a kid can carry with them for the rest of their lives. The benefits of an outdoor life are essentially limited only to the imagination of the user.  However, it is quite obvious that they are far reaching and life long.  

Bringing the child back to the wild

Returning to a topic that I have frequently covered, I again revisit the concept of “No Child Left Inside”.  Never before in the history of our nation have we encountered a generation of youth that is so completely detached from the natural world. As technology continues to progress at warp speed, the prospects of returning our ‘virtual generation’ to their roots becomes ever more difficult.

In the book, Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv labels the child-nature estrangement as “nature deficit disorder” and details a pressing need to unplug today’s “wired generation”.

As USA Today reported in a recent article on the topic, “The fundamental nature of childhood has changed in a single generation. The unstructured childhood has all but vanished and today, childhood is spent mostly indoors.”

While this may not hold true for the majority of America’s rural youth, it is becoming increasing apparent in most other areas of our society.  This should be cause alarm and action. How did it get this way; especially in a nation that has always taken pride in it’s connection to the land?  This connection is a key component of our history, our traditions and of who we are as a people.  Remember America the Beautiful?

Our ancestors conquered the wilderness; they tamed the west and settled the land.  For untold generations, our connection to nature was an unspoken truth and for many it has been the main and sometimes, the only means of entertainment. Thus, it is startling that within the timeframe of a single generation, our country is well on the way to losing it’s age old relationship with the land.

How did we come so far so fast? Parents of the current generation were brought up with an absolute connection to the land. It was on TV, with Daniel Boone, Andy Griffith Show, the American Sportsman and a host of westerns that  brought it into our living rooms. In the late ‘60’s and throughout the ‘70’s there was a true back-to-the-land movement.  We had the backpacking boom and a burgeoning environmental movement that made us aware of the need to protect nature. In our schools, the fresh concept of ‘outdoor education’ utilized the  outdoor environment to enhance the standard curriculum. It was an exciting time as colleges pumped out teachers who embraced the concept of outdoor education and brought it to numerous school districts.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of these 1970’s graduates turned educators are already several years into their retirement and there were few replacements. Today, the concept of outdoor education is no longer at the forefront of school administrator’s worries, as budget woes and standardized test scores have taken precedent over time spent outdoors. It was a more innocent era where simple recreation was achieved in back lots and open fields with pickup baseball, kick ball or tree houses and forts in the woods. The outdoor playground was our reality, for often there was simply nothing else. Unstructured outdoor play became an essential component of a traditional childhood.  It was fact of life, random recreation was there for the taking, inexpensive, unsupervised and free of most side effects beyond the occasional bruised knee, scratched arm or sore behind.

In the decades since that time, technology has advanced at a rapid pace while human populations shifted to growing urban areas.  As a result, first hand contact with nature itself, declined.  Without efforts to the contrary, even memories of our contact with the lands will be essentially lost to memory.

Disturbing statistics

Thirty years ago, the average kid spent 4 to 5 hours a day playing in the outdoors and double this on weekends.  According to a recent study by the National Sporting Goods Association, the number of young people age 7-17 who biked in 2004 was down over 20 % from 1994.  Angling participation rates have fallen 10.4% in the same decade and for the youngest bracket, age 7-11, rates have declined by over 25%.  Participation in hunting has plummeted by over 25% in the same timeframe.

As a socety, we’ve spawned a lot of couch potatoes and the problem isn’t just at home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in high schools, where scheduling permits more choices, participation in phys ed courses has fallen from 41.6% in 1991 to 28.4% today.  The average teen spends less than 16 minutes per week in an aerobic activity. It is no wonder that this shift towards a sedentary, indoor lifestyle is reflected in children’s health.  In the 1960’s, only 4% of children were considered overweight.  Today, it is estimated that over 16% of our youth have trouble squeezing into their knickers. The International Journal of Pediatric Obesity reports that if this trend continues, “nearly half of all North American children will be overweight by 2010.” As a nation, we’ve never been fatter!  Almost 65% of adults are overweight or obese and the percentage of children aged 6-11 who are overweight has increased nearly 300% in the last 25 years. The health care implications of these trends are staggering. It’s a proven fact that if kids are to be physically active, their parents must be a key ingredient in the equation.

For the first time in over 100 years, children of today will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Compounding the matter is the dramatic rise in ‘virtual entertainment’ and the corresponding threats to outdoor play.  Today, the average kid spends 5.5 hours a day with an electronic device of some sort.

They can’t escape it! Electronic screen and devices have infested our existence, whether it is the big screen in the living room, a hand-held, video game, a computer or a cell phone.  Even our automobiles have flip down screens. 
“Tune in, tune out” may have been a battle cry of the ‘60’s generation, but the current one has embraced the concept more fully than any previous. Never before has a society been so well connected and simultaneously so detached.  Our children have been rapidly transported to a two dimensional world, where sound and sight are the only senses  stimulated.  For many, the virtual existence is safer.   

But kids cannot touch, taste, feel or smell a video screen.  It doesn’t blow your hair back, taste bad or bring you an adrenaline rush; but in some ways, it really does stink. Through this process, we have allowed our children to be electronically desensitized and often, due to a lack of boundaries on the internet, we have permitted their innocence to be ravaged.

What’s happening in a kid’s world today?

As our society has made a rapid transformation from a rural culture to an increasingly urban existence in many regions of the country, suburban development has quietly consumed the last bits of forested lands and empty lots.
Further compounding matters has been the establishment of gated communities with covenant restrictions that limit the range of children’s travels and outdoor activities.  At the same time, liability issues have closed school grounds to after hour activities.  It’s difficult to have an adventure when increasingly, there’s no place to go.

Louv reports in his book, that the “roaming radius” that kids are permitted to travel from home has shrunk to one ninth of the range it was 20 years ago. Contributing factors include the rise in single parent households where females are primarily the head of the household.  The growth of the double income family has also been a factor, as it has limited time for adults to be available for outdoor play. “Because of the changes in families in an increasingly urban population”, details a report to Congress on outdoor sports participation, “There is now at least one generation of youth who have not been introduced to hunting, shooting or angling sports skills at home.” We all know, it takes a hunter to make a hunter.  The vast majority of sportsman got involved in their pursuit because somebody, usually a family member, once took the time to introduce them to the sport.

In his book, Louv theorizes that our efforts to protect our kids from the “bogeyman factor” have caused more harm than good. In stressing safety, we have in fact, widened the divide between children and the outdoors.  Increasingly, our society has embraced a ‘fear factor’.  We have been conditioned to live in fear. We get it from the media which has sensationalized child abductions and has overzealously pursued reports of sex offenders who fail to register.  We are exposed to Amber Alerts, Missing Kids on milk cartons and a barrage of news stories about the latest pedophile on the loose. Stories about pedophile priests have even eliminated our most sacred sanctuary, the church and further reduced childhood innocence.

Movies such as the "Blair Witch Project" amplify a fear of the woods and the omnipresent threat of terrorism instills an innate fear in the next generation.  What color is the threat matrix today?  If such troubles lurk around every corner, who would dare leave the home.

Classroom are likewise filled with bad news. Global warming and the threat of extreme weather patterns have combined with other examples of environmental degradation to create a “subtle form of disassociation” that further widens the nature-child divide. Children who live without any opportunity for direct contact with nature are more apt to believe what they read or hear. They learn to associate nature with fear or apocalypse rather than with joy or wonder. 

To many, traveling outside the home is no longer entertaining, it’s downright scary out there. Considering the availability of over 500 television channels, TiVo, endless DVD’s and videos, it is no wonder that kids find it easier, more comfortable and more familiar to spend time indoors.  Online, they have access to unlimited instant information, instant messaging and places like Face Book and My Space where they can even find instant friends.

With role playing websites and video games like The Sims, kids can create their own virtual realities which can transport them away from their current one, to a place that is safer, less stressful, more entertaining and more easily accessed than climbing a mountain or paddling a river. Sadly, such behavior is becoming more the norm than the exception for many kids.

Chase your kids out the door!

When I was young, we didn’t have ‘vidiots’ who sat around all day with an X-Box, computer or big screen TV. We only had two channels that were black and white and came in rather fuzzy.  As I recall, there weren’t a lot of overweight kids either.  We were too active!

In today’s society, obesity among America's children and teens is at an epidemic level, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.  Among children and teens ages 6 to 19, more than 9 million, or 16 percent, are overweight.  This is triple the proportion reported in 1980.

Any Adirondack youngster who does not have the skills and knowledge to enjoy the out of doors has a great handicap.  If they cannot utilize the local environment to enjoy a positive recreational experience, they are being deprived of a life full of fantastic opportunities.  Why do you think tourists flock to the park?  It’s not to play video games or watch TV!

Published with permission of the author, Joe Hackett.

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