Ditch the screens, play with the flock

We are in favor of play. Physical play. The kind where kids run until their hearts race. The kind where they challenge themselves and have fun with friends. The kind where they learn to navigate social relationships as well as navigating obstacle courses.

These days, that’s a radical statement.

The American Academy of Pediatrics along with the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity discourage any screen time for children under the age of 2 and recommend less than two hours a day of educational programming for older children.

It’s not happening.

The average American household has more televisions (2.73) than people (2.55) and a television is on eight hours a day. Nearly a third of American children live in a household where a TV is on all or most of the time. For babies younger than one year old, 29 percent watch a screen for an average of 90 minutes a day; 23 percent have a TV in their bedroom. By the time they’re 2, that number jumps to 64 percent watching for two hours a day; 36 percent have a TV in their bedroom. The screen-time keeps increasing with a child’s age.

Study after study has shown the link between this screen time and obesity.

We’ve been concerned for years about the obesity epidemic among our youth. According to the state’s Department of Health, more than a third — 33.8 percent — of public school students are overweight or obese, with 17.6 percent considered obese.

The costs are enormous. According to a report released in 2012 by Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller, obesity-related health-care costs for young people were estimated at $327 million in 2011 and were rising. The costs increase with age, and were estimated at $11.8 billion for all New Yorkers in 2011.

Such costs are unsustainable. And, beyond the tally in dollars and cents, are the costs in a child’s sense of self-worth.

Nationwide, childhood obesity has tripled since 1980 and the trend shows no sign of abating as the habits learned in youth are often carried out through a lifetime.

New York sets minimal requirements for physical education in schools: 120 minutes per calendar week. And yet, schools we cover have failed to meet even these meager requirements.

Earlier this month, our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, wrote about the Guilderland schools’ philosophy on physical education — it’s a wise one, letting children hone their skills as they challenge themselves to learn new ones. Our photographer Michael Koff captured the essence of an adventure course where one student literally depended on others as she climbed net rigging belayed — that is, held secure — by classmates.

Koff took a series of pictures, posted on our website, of sixth-grader Ella Tuxbury looking nervous as she climbed a tall ladder to a platform far above the gym floor. “When students are nervous, teachers sometimes encourage them to climb to the spot where they think they cannot go any further, and then take one more step,” said Regan Johnson who oversees athletics for the district.

Tuxbury took one more step and then another and another; she made it to the platform — and took a victorious leap. Belayed by her teacher, she had a soft landing.

Such lessons can last a lifetime.

We commend programs like these while realizing they are but brief interludes in a student’s busy day.

This brings us to the central subject of our editorial — a school playground. Voorheesville has had a splendid one for a quarter of a century. We well remember how the school and community came together to build it. We know how proud the parents were to have a part in contributing. It reminded us of an old-fashioned barn-raising — many in a community coming together to build something that one alone could not.

We know, too, how it made at least one child who had dreaded going to school eager to go. And we believe it improved learning for countless other students. Many, many studies have shown the correlation between physical exercise and academic learning.

One of our favorites is John Ratey’s, of Harvard Medical School, published in 2013. “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” assembles findings from biomedical, educational, and neuroscientific research, correlating exercise with a wide range of brain-related benefits, such as reducing stress and anxiety; improving attention; fighting off unhealthy addictions such as to nicotine, caffeine, or alcohol; and reducing cognitive decline in old age.

Ratey writes that, across the country, only 6 percent of schools offer physical education five days a week; in New York State, the requirement for fourth through 12th graders is “not less than three times a week,” but, again, many schools are not meeting even that minimum.

At the same time, Ratey states, kids spend 5.5 hours a day in front of a screen, whether a cell phone, computer, iPad, or television.

How precisely does exercise help the brain? Ratey writes that exercise triggers the production of more receptors for insulin — having more receptors means better use of blood glucose and stronger cells; the receptors stay there, which means the newfound efficiency gets built in.

In mice and humans, exercise causes the brain to produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor, known as BDNF, which Ratey terms “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Exercise encourages brain cells to grow synapses, forming the connections the brain needs to learn.

Kids climb and cavort at the Voorheesville playground not just at recess but after school and on the weekends. They don’t know they are producing a brain-derived neurotrophic factor; they just know they are having fun. The playground is also a gathering place for those outside of the school to meet and play.

It took a current student though, Ellie Chismark, to point out to her principal that the playground was missing important parts. Beyond that, wood had splintered and the structures no longer met the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A committee was formed, headed by Ellie’s mother, Jaime Chismark, which wisely included not just parents and the school principal but a custodian and physical and occupational therapists as well. The plan for the new playground will be revealed at this Friday’s talent show.

The cost is estimated at $200,000 — all of it to be raised through donations. And, like its predecessor 25 years ago, it is to be assembled by volunteers.

We urge those in the community to follow the lead of Atlas Copco and donate to the project. If you don’t have money to spare, donate your time and talents. A playground is good for an entire community.

We have just one caveat — and it’s an important one. After the first playground was built, concerns were raised about the nearby power lines and the effects of electromagnetic fields. Concerned parents packed a school meeting.

The school worked with Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, and the company agreed to bury one line and relocate another. The playground had already been built when the concerns were raised; it was impossible to move it. But why should a new playground be built now in the same place?

A potential link between cancer and electromagnetic fields has been controversial since the first playground was built in Voorheesville. As the American Cancer Society writes on its website, “It’s not clear exactly how electromagnetic fields, a form of low-energy, non-ionizing radiation, could increase cancer risk. Plus, because we are all exposed to different amounts of these fields at different times, the issue has been difficult to study.”

The cancer society does say that, when findings from studies of possible links between radiation from magnetic fields and childhood leukemia are combined, there is “small increase in risk” for children at the highest exposure levels.

Also the International Agency for Research on Cancer found “limited evidence” for childhood leukemia alone when considering cancer risk from ELF (extremely low frequency) magnetic and electric fields.

Of course computer screens and televisions along with any appliances using electricity give off ELF radiation. Kids are already absorbing so much from these sources, why add the extra from power lines if the playground can just as easily be built elsewhere on school grounds?

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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