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Loss of Urban Open Space to Kids

Have you noticed lately how some parents, and grandparents, of young children think that their babysitting needs should take precedence over the desires of all other people? These are the types of people who bring their kids to the library (my librarian friend just told me about this practice) then leave for hours to go shopping while the librarians are, by proxy, unpaid babysitters for the kids.

At a recent public hearing about the potential loss of our lovely, historic downtown park to expansion of the city zoo, I became aware that there are two distinct camps of child caregivers. One is the group that feels they are somehow entitled to dump responsibility of their young kids on anyone or anything that is conveniently situated. The second is a smaller group of caregivers who seem engaged with their kids and want to lend support to organizations and activities that provide opportunities for intergenerational interaction.

The first group is vocal in their support of zoo expansion that will bring in large, "exotic" animals. The city is all for the expansion that will decimate acres of Olmsted-designed pastoral parkland, so rare and pristine in our crowded city. The rhetoric being used is that the zoo will provide children with the opportunity to get a thrill by viewing these "exotic species" and will bring parents and grandparents to the zoo in droves - all more than happy to drop the ten-dollar adult admission fee to get a few hours of freedom the kids.

I�ve witnessed these parents sitting on benches and talking with one another while their kids play on the animal-themed carousel, take live pony rides, or dance around to the tunes of the Toe Jam Puppet Band. Very few children seem to be looking at the caged animals.

Zoo attendance is down in recent years and a new zoo director and the mayor think that bringing in new, exotic animals such as snow monkeys, young elephants and tigers will give the kids the jolt they need to beg their caregivers to bring them to zoo more often. I was amazed to hear how this group feels that their needs for zoo-provided babysitting opportunities (those that free them up from actually having to talk or play with kids) is worth ripping up acres of parkland that has been a center of activity for people of all ages for many generations.

At the meeting, older people spoke about their love of taking a walk in the peaceful park. Dog-walkers voiced the same sentiment. Nature-lovers expressed their dismay that elephants will trample complex wooded and wetlands habitat. Sadly, all the voices that expressed needs not directly related to children were overridden by the shrill cries of parents - in favor of newer and bigger animals, an 'enhanced retail experience," more carnival rides, and a new "Disneyesque" education center.

The day after the public meeting, I was driving to work listening to the radio and heard a segment about the newest, glitziest toys for Holidays 2010 including; talking cars with moving lips spouting the recorded voices of movie stars, complex transforming toys, and Stomper-like battery powered mini cars, with real gear shifts, able to move forward at a speed of 5 miles per hour. It's vaguely disturbing to know that now a toddler driving a truck can drive faster than I can run. Quickly, I recognized how similar the promotional rhetoric for these extreme toys sounded like the zoo proponents calling for new exotic animals.

Pandering to every desire of young children is really a disguise for an utter lack of imagination on the part of adults. How long do children play with these toys? If they�re anything like I was, I�d say about a month at most. My parents also caved every year to the advertisers and bought the most popular stuff. Of course, I preferred my brother's hand-me-down box of old chewed up Lincoln Logs. Most plastic toys eventually get tossed aside and are added to the tons of plastic clotting our unsustainable landfills.

The zoo folks pander to the same sensibility but, sadly, they are dealing with living creatures not plastic toys. What happens when kids get tired of the new animals? Does the zoo expand again and add new animals, grabbing even more parkland? Of course it does, because there are no limits in a culture embracing temporary thrills and unimaginative non-interactive experiences.

Children aren't encouraged to learn sustainable and enduring skills and activities that lead to true engagement with the world and, ultimately, to creativity. Kidfotainment experiences mimic true learning experiences in some respects but are, in reality, superficial and fleeting - leaving people with a void that can never be filled - a hunger that results in an insatiable need to consume the newest and the glitziest.

Walking through the park on a beautiful, breezy November day, I saw a mother and her three kids running through the open fields. They rain with their arms outstretched in pure enjoyment of the day, towards a large rock in the center of the park. They all climbed on it and started taking photos of each other. It was nice, and rare, to see a family simply enjoying the experience of being outdoors on a lovely day.

Sadly, the field they ran through will be dredged up and lost to the more vocal parents who feel their kids need a constant quick fix of the new and exotic, and to the city that seeks to exploit their willingness to pay for it. Sadly, older people who no longer have young kids at home, single and childfree couples' needs are being sidelined in the park discussion. We will probably loose our beloved park to the most aggressive citizens among us - the desperate and boring parents running on the treadmill of kidfotainment.

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