By Sylvia Gail Kinard, Esq.
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Like millions around the world, I watched the closing ceremony for the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, with awe and admiration for these young and incredibly gifted athletes. World class athletes, like classical musicians and ballet dancers, have to be discovered early if their talent is to be developed properly. Debbie Phelps, mother of Olympic legend Michael Phelps, tells a story about how her son’s coach intervened to convince him to focus exclusively on swimming. Phelps was 11.
When I was 11, I was introduced to the game of tennis at the Parade Grounds in Brooklyn. That summer, I would walk or ride my bike to the courts to learn the rudiments of the game. I was even allowed to “compete” in the Junior Tennis League. Later, when I attended Erasmus Hall H.S., I could not graduate until I passed a swimming test which required you to dive, swim the length of the pool and retrieve a quarter from the pool floor. While you will never see me at the Olympics, participating in these sports has made me a healthier human being.
Sadly, decreasing opportunities for organized play is increasing obesity rates, creating “adult” health problems and negatively impacting the academic performance of our children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that one out of three children in America is obese or overweight.
One researcher has even established a link between lack of exercise and the increasing rates of autism and ADHD in our nation’s children. Dr. Robert Melillo, of The Brain Balance Center, suggests that “obesity is just as dangerous to the developing brain as inactivity is to the body. Decreased muscle tone, in turn, is directly related to decreased stimulation to the brain, especially to the centers of higher learning and thinking.”
While school-based physical education is widely seen as an important tool in combating the childhood obesity epidemic, that resource has been on attack for years as school boards struggle to balance their budgets.
According to a 2012 study by the University of Georgia, only six states — Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York and Vermont — require the nationally recommended 150 minutes of elementary school-based physical education and physical education for grades K-12. A 2012 audit by the NYC Comptroller’s Office revealed that many of the city’s elementary schools were not holding physical education classes as frequently as required: every day for kindergarten through third grade and three times a week for grades four through six. School administrators cite lack of space and funding as the reasons for declining physical education programs.
Even “free” facilities such as public parks and playgrounds are endangered. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported that only one out of five children in America live within a half-mile (walking distance) of a park or playground. This problem is exacerbated in high-population density neighborhoods that are typical in a city like New York.
Some New York City playgrounds like Glenwood, Fish, Mahoney, Evergreen, Marcus Garvey and Forest Houses have been co-opted by crime and gun violence. Such venues provide little relief to children in cramped, urban dwellings and are often closed during after-school hours and weekends to deter crime. The Department of Health & Human Services reports that the incidence of childhood obesity increases 29% in neighborhoods without playgrounds or parks nearby. This is not to suggest, however, that all has been lost.
Since 1996, one non-profit organization, KABOOM! has raised over $200 million to transform over 2,000 abandoned spaces into kid-friendly playgrounds. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the organization partnered with Long Beach residents to re-build Magnolia Playground. Working with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, it created a permanent play space at Burling Slip at South Street Seaport and in 2008, promoted unstructured play with an Imagination Playground box opening in Brownsville.
Right to Play is another innovative model and pilot project that has been operating in select New York City public schools since 2012. The program was founded by former Olympic gold medalist Johann Olav Koss in Canada and has since spread to over six countries. It provides training to educators and families and serves children in areas as far flung as Thailand, Uganda, Ethiopia, Liberia, Harlem and the Bronx.
Still, one vastly overlooked and underrated resource that we have, is our neighborhood streets. In its seminal report, “Play Matters: NYC Street Renaissance Campaign” KABOOM! suggests that reclaiming New York City streets for play through block parties and street closures can be an important tool for providing city kids with safe places to play. Stickball, tag and double-dutch are games that pay homage to old New York City traditions, but are still a lot of fun.
As we clear snow and look forward eagerly to spring and summer’s warm embrace, it’s a good time to remember that our children will need structured opportunities and safe spaces to play. First Lady Michelle Obama has already thrown down the physical fitness gauntlet, so “Let’s Move.”
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Sylvia Gail Kinard is a lawyer and politician based in Flatbush-Ditmas Park.