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Generic Confusion

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Another explanation for childhood obesity

In an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Philip Howard identifies another source of childhood obesity. It's not that kids today are any different than kids thirty years ago in being able to watch television versus playing outside. It's that it's much more interesting than what they're now allowed to do outside.

One in six children in America is obese, and many of them will face a lifetime of chronic illness. According to the Center for Disease Control, this problem would basically cure itself if children engaged in the informal outdoor activities that used to be normal. But how do we lure children off the sofa? One key attraction is risk.

Risk is fun, at least the moderate risks that were common in prior generations. An informal survey of children by the University of Toronto's Institute of Child Studies found that "merry-go-rounds . . . anecdotally the most hated piece of playground equipment in hospital emergency rooms -- topped the list of most desired bits of playground equipment." Those of us of a certain age can remember sprinting to get the contraption really moving. That was fun. And a lot of exercise.

America unfortunately is going in the opposite direction. There is nothing left in playgrounds that would attract the interest of a child over the age of four.

Mostly pointless anecdote: When I went to a new elementary school in 1981, my fellow students mentioned that the merry-go-round had been removed during reconstruction of the school's playground. Never having heard the term applied to the spinning wheel of doom, I naturally pictured an ornate carousel, like the one seen in Six Flags Great America.

I do remember merry-go-rounds (or should that be merries-go-round? :) ) at some playgrounds growing up, and yes, they did require a lot of running around. They did, that is, unless you could find a willing adult to spin you, always better, because it was faster. I also remember being able to roam my neighborhood freely from a young age, not even saying where I was going. And around twelve, being free to ride bikes several miles to the local pizza place or movie theater. That's a lot of activity. And I want to raise any children with this same philosophy.

The sue-happy American culture of today would deem any injury that happens to a child while out of his parents' direct view as evidence of neglect. They view any injury on the playground as evidence of unsafe environments. In better days past, the first was a terrible tragedy, and the second was just the worst of childhood bumps and sprains. I support the mission of Howard's organization, Common Good, and its legal reforms efforts.