The Nation's Pulse

Whatever Happened to the Inner Child?

New Mexico lawmakers are considering a go-outside-and-play tax.

By 2.12.08

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Dave Simon, director of New Mexico State Parks, says, "Kids need more 'green time' and less 'screen time.'"

His allies, including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Alliance of New Mexico, aim to make that happen with a plan in the New Mexico legislature called -- no joke -- No Child Left Inside. The bill would create the "healthy kids outdoor fund" for outdoor learning programs, to be paid for with a new surcharge on televisions, video games, and other things that keep kids inside.

It's the latest in cross pollinated activism: environmentalists teaming up with professional health scolds for their common benefit. According to Richard Louv, chairman of the Children & Nature Network, the "rapid increase in childhood obesity" is leading "many health-care leaders to worry that the current generation of children may be the first since World War II to die at an earlier age than their parents. Getting kids outdoors more, riding bikes, running, swimming -- and, especially, experiencing nature directly -- could serve as an antidote to much of what ails the young."

All it will take is a small surcharge to turn that all around. The coalition claims this bill will single handedly "increase student standardized test scores and grade point averages, reduce discipline problems, improve attendance rates, build citizenry skills and resource stewardship ethics, improve conflict resolution and problem-solving skills, and increase teacher job satisfaction."

It will also end the Iraq war and vanquish the common cold.

FIRST OFF, anyone who tells you that a tax increase will be just great for the good citizens of New Mexico has probably been wandering in the desert a bit too long. The data on New Mexico's tax burden tell an interesting story: New Mexicans have been struggling to keep their taxes low. Although the state ranks below the national average in terms of state and local tax burdens, many of its taxes are quite burdensome for the southwest region.

Neighboring Texas has no statewide income tax, while Colorado has a lower personal income tax and sales tax rates. The state also imposes a devastating form of Gross Receipts Tax on services to make it less attractive than Arizona. Overall, its tax policy has often put it at a competitive disadvantage to states surrounding it, and this new 1 percent add-on tax to video products will add capriciousness to that reputation.

Fiscal arguments aside, what about the concerns about kids' health and their appreciation of the great outdoors? Interestingly, physical education teachers have had demonstrated success by using indoor play as a reliable way to fight obesity in schools across the country, using the same tools that the No Child Left Insiders want to tax.

That's right, the popular Dance Dance Revolution and even Nintendo Wii games have been incorporated into P.E. classrooms to promote physical activity. The American Academy of Pediatrics conducted a study of this phenomenon published in the journal Pediatrics, with some fascinating findings.

Researchers examined the energy expenditure by children in a number of situations and found that Dance Revolution encouraged an increase of 382 calories more per hour over their Resting Energy Expenditure (i.e., sitting on a couch, watching television). The effect was even more profound in overweight participants. The study concluded that "activity-promoting video games can increase screen-associated energy expenditure dramatically."

Brandeis University even offers a class in Dance Revolution touting it as, "aerobic in nature." According to the school, playing the game "can burn as many calories as a Stairmaster or jogging."

RATHER THAN FIGHTING video games, wouldn't it be a better idea for schools to use them to encourage kids to keep the weight off while doing what they already want to do? The great outdoors is never going to be everybody's bag, after all.

One thing Director Simon neglected to mention is that a lot of that "green time" that he's promoting will actually turn out to be "screen time." A good deal of positive learning about the outdoors will consist of that old standby for when the coach was having a bad day: sitting in a classroom and watching movies.

That might be great for environmental awareness, which explains why the green groups are so interested in promoting this issue, but it will do precious for childhood obesity. According to a UK-based study of similar programs, they tend to change kids' attitudes, not their outdoor behavior.

There's the real purpose behind the No Child Left Inside initiative. It's not "for the children"; it's for the activists.

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