The theory is that compulsory schooling brought the concept of leisure time into focus, delineating school time from free time.
That surely was an accelerant, but in New York, where it didn’t take effect until 1874, the struggle over what to do with free time was apparent in the competing 1860 proposals for Central Park.
Olmsted and Vaux, especially the former, both of whom were selected envisioned the park as a respite from city life; a source for the soul’s replenishment, according to Justin Martin in his excellent biography of Olmsted entitled, Genius of Place.
Their bitter rivals, a politician and a banker, envisioned the park as a place of promenades, amusements and sports. For decades after its completion, a few New Yorkers relentlessly pushed to undermine the park with forms of recreation for the frenetic.
Olmsted’s vision won out, in part, due to strong editorial support from two major newspapers including his recent employer, The New York Times, while his rivals pushed their vision of hyper-activity by buying huge advertorials in a third newspaper.
However, across the country, this struggle is still playing out today between those who see the value of unstructured play in nature and those who seek to populate parks instead with amusements, theme parks, playgrounds, athletic fields and festivals.
It is the story possibly of introverts vs. extroverts, reflection vs. “ants in your pants,” stayers vs. boomers, as well as those who value preservation vs. exploitation, see vegetation as green infrastructure vs. purely aesthetic, and seek retain sense of place rather than surrender to mainstream generica.
Gradually, over the last 150 years, the notation of recreation was estranged from nature.
My native state of Idaho made education mandatory in 1887, while still a territory, while North Carolina where I have lived longer than any other state waited until 1907.
My father, who was born on the same ancestral Idaho cattle and horse ranch as I was defied the theories linking sports to leisure.
Born in 1922, a fourth generation Idahoan and rancher, he walked or rode a horse first to a two-room school house his grandparents and parents had forged when they homesteaded.
A year before entering high school he began to walk or ride a horse across the Henry’s Fork the four miles to Ashton, the nearest town. There he played sports both for school and church teams but it was from passion, not for leisure.
From age 15, when his father first experienced heart problems, Dad ran the ranch by himself as well as attending school and playing on four sports teams including baseball, basketball, football and track and field.
On Saturdays, he begin going snow skiing at Bear Gulch just as soon as it opened in 1939, ten miles northeast of Ashton, more than forty years before Grand Targhee would open near there.
By then he was probably driving his parents Whippet sedan or an old truck.
Some rudimentary ski areas had begun to spring up in the western part of the state a few years earlier and Sun Valley had brought national attention to the sport when it opened at the end of 1936.
Still, he had to feed the livestock and milk cows before going skiing on weekends. Dad played church ball well into his forties, water skied into his 60s and snow skied into his 70s when he no longer had to pay for a lift ticket.
He was a testament that sports can be much more than leisure.
Snow skiing by the way dates clear back to 4,000 B.C., about the time of the Pyramids. It was used for work or transportation. Before Olmstead’s creation of Central Park, hoards of California gold rush ‘49ers learned to ski and races were taking place in the 1860s.
That’s about the time that school sports became a tool to help immigrants and poor children learn the so-called “American” values of “cooperation, hard work and respect for authority”, according to Friedman.
She is also the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, which deals with all after school activities.
During the Progressive Era, public school athletic leagues began popping up in New York City followed within seven years by 17 other cities. Friedman explains that “settlement houses and ethnic clubs followed suit.
“Pay-to-play” organizations, such as Pop Warner Football and Little League Baseball began popping up in the East by the late 1920s and 1930s when my dad, out West in rural Idaho, found sports through school and church.
Today, organized sports has become more the province of middle and upper class kids, especially at what is called the travel competition level with parents hoping, in part, that it will improve college applications or possibly their retirement.
However, schools, according to Friedman, gradually began to de-emphasize sports beginning in the 1930s because educators saw the ugly side of competition.
It is a view Friedman thinks became mainstream in the 1960s with the “self-esteem” movement still very much with us today when we see some sports leagues for young children pretend that both teams won the game.
However, an unforeseen side effect was flip flopping sports after WWII from a tool for the masses to one for the privileged or talented.
According to a poll this month by Harvard and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, my dad would also be an outlier today.
The report entitled, Sports And Health In America has been in the news this week but warrants much more than a sound bite. Sports took off during the Progressive Era, not as amusement or recreation but when it became fused with health.
Participation in sports drops off dramatically after age 25. While three in four of us say we played sports when we were younger, only one in four do so as adults and again that strongly associated with higher income.
Even so, because there is some machismo involved, I suspect the ratio may be even lower.
Another survey by the CDC calculated in 2011 that only 18.3% of adults in North Carolina, where I live, met the guideline of 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity weekly and muscle strengthening activity at least twice a week.
Click here for a detailed national and state-by-state breakdown.
Kids aren’t given much time in nature or unstructured play these days, in part, because parents hope their children will become a professional athletes.
Some now even “red-shirt” their kids as early as pre-school in hopes it will later give them a physical advantage over classmates.
In a Boston Globe article entitled, How parents are ruining youth sports, Jay Atkinson cites a study in a sports medicine journal noting that out of the 45 million school age children playing at least one organized sport, as many as 80% will have quit by age 15.
One reason he notes is “the gap between a child’s desire to have fun and the misguided notion among some adults that their kids’ games are a miniature version of grow-up competitions, where the goal is to win.”
This premise that their kids will become professional athletes is held by 26% of parents whose children play high school sports, including 44% of those with a high school education or less and 39% of those whose household income is $50,000 or less.
In his new book Cultural Matrix, Harvard sociologist Dr. Orlando Patterson refers to studies that support what he calls:
“one of the cruelest sociological hoaxes played upon black youth from the beginning of their integration into popular culture at the middle of the twentieth century…”
[This] “the myth that replaced the old “credit to your race” indignity, namely that participation in sports and the popular arts offer significant employment opportunities and mobility out of the ghetto.”
Patterson cites computations that of all the black male high school students currently between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, including those whom he calls “dreamers, the odds of becoming a professional athlete are 1 in 15,764.
He concludes with statistics that their odds of being killed in a traffic accident are three times higher than becoming a professional basketball player and they are 5,238 times more likely at some time in his life of going to prison.
At the end of his article in the Globe, Atkinson, a former athlete who works with children in sports, notes that:
“This summer, encourage your children to go fishing, play mini golf, and invite their pals to shoot hoops in the driveway. Have them visit the library, and loaf around in the backyard chewing on blades of grass. And keep in mind that the interior experience of playing a sport, the beauty and the joy of it, is sovereign territory and belongs to the kids themselves.”
Golf, a sport that many see as in decline now, rises as the sport of choice among Americans at age 50 but experts on NPR notes that two-thirds of golf played in the U.S. is done using motorized carts, required primarily due to their becoming a revenue center for courses.
Golfers who walk the course average 5 miles but when using a cart this falls to a mile or less. Experts suggest an average of 6,000 steps (3 miles) a day to improve health and 10,000 a day to lose weight.
I don’t golf but I average over 7,700 steps a day, some weeks as much as 9,000, in part, by religiously walking more than two miles each morning.
It takes 48 minutes at a fast clip of 4 mph for a 150 lb. woman to burn off a donut (240 calories.) It takes walking an hour and forty-eight minutes to burn off a Big Mac and compensating for eating just one M&M takes walking the length of a football field.
It goes without saying that for me at least walking also makes you far more conscious about what you eat.
Studies show that walking a mile in 15 minutes, which even for me is motivated walking, burns the same amount of calories with far less wear and tear to my knees and hips as jogging that distance in 8.5 minutes.
But exercise and sports have different motivations. About 60% of adults play sports for enjoyment or competition, while 71% exercise for health-related reasons.
The sweet spot for me at my age (almost 67) is to do both. I walk while enjoying nature seven days a week and lift weights twice a week.
I think Olmsted had it right.