Kids' Bodies, Talents Wither on the Vine

Olga Connolly, a five-time Olympian and 1956 gold medal winner in the discus throw, recently retired as education coordinator of the California Conservation Corps

K alos kai Agathos --beautiful and good--the goal of an ancient Athenian upbringing, once served well as the balancing cornerstone of U.S. education. Then, about 40 years ago, some school administrators began to view children as containers to become human Sputniks. More and more math and science were poured into them, while physical education and creative expression were seen as nonessential.

Now, the inherent value of athletics is being simplified into training for the salability of athletic prowess. The business of coaching--in which extraordinarily talented youngsters become willing commodities, drilled and stressed in the name of eventual fame, prestige and cash--thrives. We spectators are dazzled by the sparkle of the young champions when they emerge from the expensive cocoons. Misleading slogans about victory won through pain and defeat that means humiliation have hidden the thousands of young people who were discarded from specialized training and the millions who received no training. Physical education, dance, art and music lead naturally to physical health and self-esteem development and a spirit of camaraderie. Being in step with young natures, these disciplines can be enjoyed through their years. Physical education teachers help develop curricula in which every youth has space to discover his or her capabilities, to master fundamentals that polish those capabilities and to ascertain value as an individual or a teammate.

While heart attacks and obesity drive the middle-aged back to the track and gym, less and less time and space is available for the body-mind-spirit nurture of the young. Corporations allot major resources to keep executives fit, but schools experiment by cutting out even the few minutes of recess.

Those who say that the costs of qualified teachers, equipment, insurance and potential lawsuits make physical education and arts programs unworkable fail to consider that not having it is far more costly. Deteriorating health, bad posture, poor motor coordination, cognitive difficulties, premature engagement in adult partying and sex habits, curiosity about drug and alcohol use, early pregnancies and crime are the extreme consequences of deficient nurturing.

Kids may not know what they are missing. Many admire sport celebrities but do not see athletic striving as meaningful for their own existence. Professionalized sports, including the Olympic Games, have lost the natural connection with self-expression and playfulness as well as their worth for comparing one's skills, speed, strength and agility with those of others. Too many sports figures have become married to wealth and to the imagery of heroism.

City recreation departments cut off physical education and sports programs just when children need them most, as they become teenagers. Is skateboarding the only affordable physical activity left for youth in our communities? Dads watch football on TV and reminisce about the open spaces of their youth. Where the dads learned about risk-taking and courage in the relative safety of those fun-filled mud football games, their kids find fun in leaping over trash cans, conquering flights of stairs, leaping over car hoods or stacks of shopping carts and learning to ignore precautions and healthy fear on parking lots. Mostly, they are falling. Doctors every day see kids banged up or more seriously injured in the variety of acrobatics for which they are not physically conditioned or mentally educated.

Character development? What about looking at our own, adult characters? Is it not the lack of adult character that is robbing the kids of the multifaceted experiences of excellent physical education, which would acquaint them with their physical potential and show them how wondrous the human body is and how gently and diligently it needs to be safeguarded, developed and exercised to carry them in fine health through a lifetime?

Maturing into an adult is a difficult journey. Physical education and art for all can accomplish what high school sports have traditionally done for relatively few: build poise, confidence, teamwork and leadership, erase alienation and whet the kids' appetite also for academic or vocational achievement.

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