How to get Utah kids to 'Play Unplugged' this summer
Sarah Pugsley's family has been trying to live unplugged for three years with limited television, computer time and video games.
But this summer, she and her six children have had the help of Play Unplugged, a program that began in Heber City last summer and is spreading to other communities and states.
It's a program in which kids earn brag badges colorful plastic medallions about the size of a dog tag for doing activities that don't involve screens.
When a child finishes an activity, he or she goes with a parent to a sponsoring community business to pick up a brag badge, which can be worn on a lanyard with other badges.
The Pugsleys, who live in the East Millcreek neighborhood south of Salt Lake City, have read books and chalked sidewalks, but Pugsley's favorite activity was visiting a cemetery. Each child had to find a headstone with his or her name or birthday and trace it onto paper.
"It's such a great way for when they're bored," Pugsley said. "It's like a scavenger hunt."
Erik Rowland, a single father whose children are 5, 10 and 12, created Play Unplugged last summer. Rowland is a member of the Heber City Council.
His goal was to encourage children to spend their summers going on hikes and creating sidewalk chalk masterpieces instead of sitting in front of a screen.
"Technology is an important part of our lives, but it shouldn't be the center of our lives," Rowland said.
Play Unplugged has programs in eight locations besides Heber City this summer, including Cache Valley, Granite School District, Spanish Fork, Price, Vernal, Cedar City, Millard County and Mandeville, La. Each program has its own website, all linked from weplayunplugged.com.
The programs were all started by people who learned of Play Unplugged as they passed through Heber City last year, Rowland said. Next year, communities in Idaho, Arizona, Colorado and Texas will have programs as well.
Sponsoring businesses or organizations choose the activity they want to encourage. For example, Slim and Knobby's Bike Shop in Heber City gives a badge to children after they go mountain biking.
Some businesses also offer a gift, such as a bag of popcorn or a cinnamon roll, along with a badge.
Last summer, Heber City merchants and other sponsors such as the City Council passed out about 64,000 badges, Rowland said.
Each community typically has 40 to 50 sponsors and activities, ranging from reading a book to baking cookies to going camping.
Rowland said he got the idea after the tragic Sandy Hook attack on schoolchildren in 2012. A troubled and armed young man killed 20 children and six adults in a Connecticut school.
Rowland found research that links childhood violence to long periods of time with "violent technology" watching television and movies or playing video games.
His goal became to get kids away from the screens. But he realized that "just saying no" wasn't going to work.
"I went to my son and said, 'Don't play video games anymore.' Terrible response," Rowland said. "He said, 'Dad, that's a terrible idea. Why are you taking them away?' "
So Rowland began looking for incentives to get kids to go outside on their own.
"How do we get kids to reconnect with the community, reconnect with their friends in a real-world environment?" he said. His answer became Play Unplugged.
Michelle Lehnardt, a mother of six from East Millcreek, said the activities teach kids how to be happy without technology.
"We have a computer, we have a TV, I have an iPhone," Lehnardt said. "We love those things. But we find so much more happiness in pounding nails into the wood pile and ... going into the mountains and it's so easy to lose sight of those things."
Lehnardt brought the program to Granite School District, arranging to have lanyards passed out to children before the school year ended.
Her family has been trying to live with limited technology for a few years; her daughter gets frustrated when Lehnardt spends too much time on her cellphone.
"We're not saying, 'Throw away your iPhone, iPad, laptop,' " Lehnardt said. "We're just saying, 'Use them appropriately.' "
Play Unplugged, she said, makes it easier for kids and families to spend time together without technology by providing a convenient list of family-friendly activities.
"The key is not saying, 'No, no, no,' all the time," she said. "The key is showing people that there are alternatives. There's a lot more that we can do than sit in front of the screen."
Rowland said the program has economic benefits, as well.
Businesses and other sponsors pay $500 for the first 500 badges and 50 cents for each badge beyond that. And in return, they see more traffic.
"What we didn't realize was that was exactly what businesses are trying to do, get people to get through their doors," Rowland said.
Laura Lewon owns The Dog-Eared Page in Holladay, a bookstore that opened in March 2013.
The response to the Play Unplugged group in the Granite district has been "overwhelming," she said. Children read a book and make a short written report about it when they come to collect their badges.
While Lewon said it's not yet helping her bottom line she's hasn't seen an increase in sales her traffic has doubled.
How to Play Unplugged
Families can hook up with a Play Unplugged program by finding the nearest one, all of which are listed at weplayunplugged.com. There is no need to register or pay a fee, but families may be asked to pay $2 for each child's lanyard. The programs run from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Businesses, nonprofits and other organizations can learn about becoming a sponsor on the website.