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How to Get Kids to Play Outdoors

The Solutions:

  • Kid-customize the backyard. Nancy McCallick, a 45-year-old mom of two in Wimberley, TX, has made an art of the child-enchanting backyard. Her kids' play space currently holds a tree house, a catapult, and a potato cannon (all homemade), and the family is building a giant chess set and an outdoor dartboard. If local ordinances and lack of space prevent you from doing the same, devise other kid-centered projects that will keep your children busy for days, weeks, or even months: Devote a portion of your garden to hardy plants they can tend, or build a birdhouse or squirrel feeder.
  • Challenge children. Give kids tasks to do outdoors that offer them responsibility or allow them to showcase their strengths. Kathy Rosati, 34, a mom of four boys in Grosse Pointe, MI, says her older children enjoy going on errands that make them feel independent and useful. "I send my 11-year-old and 9-year-old with a shopping list to the small market a couple of blocks away," she says. "They don't usually get to travel so far alone, so they love that." And I find that any kind of dare is a guaranteed way to capture my kids' interest. Challenging your child to see how many laps she can run around the yard in five minutes, or find seven different species of leaves, may also provide incentive to remove her rear from the sofa.

Barrier: "There isn't anyone out there to play with!"

That's my sons' biggest complaint about going outdoors: Often, no other kids are around. But if parents can wrangle an outdoor playmate or two, eventually a legion of kids will abandon their PlayStations for the yard.

The Solutions:

  • Set an outside schedule. "Some other parents from my block and I designated outdoor play hours several afternoons a week," says Cathleen Jameson, a 41-year-old mother of two in Lansing, MI. "Now if it's 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, my kids head right outside because they know there will be other kids there, too." The children, whose ages range from 7 to 14, can play anywhere within several preapproved yards.
  • Think locally. These days, kids who live on the same block don't necessarily attend the same school, which means that they may simply never meet one another. To break the ice, Micki LeSueur, 39, a Chicago mother of three, signs her children up for summer camp at a nearby park. "That way, they make friends who live within a couple of blocks of us," she says. Activities at the library and local bookstores or day camps at nearby YMCAs and schools may also be ways to meet neighborhood kids.

Barrier: "We're too busy!"

Sure, families are more overbooked than ever before, but kids still need downtime — and parents may have to find it for them.

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