Kids bored during summer vacation? Here's an idea that's catching on

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SALT LAKE CITY— School will be out soon. What will your children do when classes end? Boredom during summer vacation is a challenge for many parents, but there’s a program in many Utah cities that’s designed to solve that problem.

Just ask 12-year-old Callie Johnson.

Last summer, she and her brothers Luke and Zach were very busy.

“We went fishing, and we collected some coins and we did a lot of services," she said. "We visited police departments and hospitals," among other things.

Around her neck and around the necks of thousands of other school children are so-called “brag badges." They resemble military dog tags and each one contains brightly colored artwork illustrating various summertime activities.

This is part of a program called “Play Unplugged” created by a couple of Utah dads, who hoped their children would stay active during summer vacations.

“Two to three years ago we were concerned that our kids were going to spend all summer long doing nothing but playing video games, watching TV and becoming disconnected from the real world outside,” said "Play Unplugged" co-founder Corbin Gordon of Heber City. “So we had this idea where if we could come up with 101 activities that they could do, we could encourage them to get out there.”

The activities include anything: feeding ducks at a pond; hiking; camping; water fights; building forts in the backyard; rock climbing; and even baking cookies. Indoors or out it doesn’t matter, as long as the children are active.

Erik Rowland, another co-founder of the program, said the idea is catching on. Last year, he says, nine Utah communities had the program in place.

Two to three years ago we were concerned that our kids were going to spend all summer long doing nothing but playing video games, watching TV and becoming disconnected from the real world outside.

–Corbin Gordon, "Play Unplugged" co-founder

“We estimate this year Play Unplugged will be in about 18 communities," he said. "We expect to give out anywhere between a half-million badges-plus, this year alone.”

That’s a half-million children, who are not sitting around bored.

So how do children earn the badges? The business community in each participating town is key. Stores, banks, restaurants, even police departments buy the badges, and then come up with a game or other enticement for the children.

Susan Taylor, longtime owner of Susan’s Hair Design in Spanish Fork, participated in Play Unplugged last summer. She bought 500 brag badges with a special design and the words “Crazy Hair” on them.

“Crazy hair is perfect for a hair salon,” she said. “Kids had to do a crazy hairdo. I didn’t care if it was just a spike.”

She gave away all 500 badges last year, and she is buying 500 again this summer.

A few blocks away from the hair salon is Rock Canyon Bank, a small community bank that opened a year ago. Manager Genie Vest thought the “Play Unplugged” program was good way to get some exposure for the bank, so children were urged to take photos of sunsets and bring them in to earn their badges. The photos were hung on a wall inside the bank.

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“We had foot traffic coming in and believe it or not we had savings accounts opened because of it,” Vest said. “The kids could come in make a deposit, see their sunset picture on the board; it was great.”

Turns out the program has been a win-win. The children do play more outside, and when they go to the various sponsoring businesses for their badges, their parents take them. And the parents often spend money in those stores. For a small business, an increase in foot traffic is a big deal.

“Very much so,” says Taylor. “In fact I think it's promoted most of the businesses, (on Main Street in Spanish Fork). I've talked to other business owners and they said, oh, yeah, I'm doing it again.”

One of the State Farm offices in Spanish Fork also got in on the act and bought 1,000 badges. And why would children want to go to an insurance office? Marketing manager Brendan Holmes said they had a paper airplane tossing contest.

“We had one person keep the kids occupied and help them build their airplane, while someone else was talking to the parents finding out what their insurance was, if they were looking to get a quote or anything like that, “ he said.

“Small towns don’t have a lot of options from a marketing standpoint,” Corbin Gordon said. “And when you say I'm going to have 600-1,000 people walking through my door that I get to talk to, shake hands with, market to? A lot of times people say I didn't know that business was there, and so we've been able to bring the community together, which is really fun and has a huge impact on the business that participate.”

Julie Johnson says her family will take part again this year. A no-brainer, she said, since Callie, Luke and Zach do all the planning.

“They would get up every morning and circle what we needed to do, and then they'd make lists of how to get it and then we'd go do them," Julie Johnson said.

The “Play Unplugged” program is in place in several dozen cities throughout Utah, as well as in a few towns in Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming. The program runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and there’s still time for communities to sign up.

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Keith McCord


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