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For more children, less time for outdoor play

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"It works great," he says. "They're out riding their bikes, skateboarding, playing on the swings, and going to friends' houses. We believe there's great value in kids being bored. Boredom spawns imaginative play. I've seen it work with my kids time and again, whether they pick up a book, turn their bed into a fort, or visualize our dogs as dragons they must defend themselves against."

Whatever kind of summer families prefer, parents face a challenge in keeping children busy. "There is more pressure for today's parent to create activities and schedules," says Anne Gold, who works at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., and is the mother of two teenage sons. She remembers filling her own days as a child, spending time "lying on our backs finding shapes in clouds," taking nature walks, catching lightning bugs, and gazing at stars.

Children's friendships have also changed. Hyman recalls going outside and just knocking on friends' doors. Now people are often not home, and her children's friends live far away. That requires time on the road.

"Every get-together has to be scheduled and planned," says Karrie Heartlein of Galesburg, Ill. "Who will drive? How long will you be gone? What should you bring? Will a parent be there? It seems almost too much work sometimes, and so contrary to my growing up, when I would just yell in the door, 'Hey, Mom! I'm going to Sara's!' "

Some long-ago summer experiences can shock today's youth. As a child in Stoneham, Mass., in the 1950s and '60s, Neil Gussman rode his bike to Boston when he was 8. "When I told my kids that I rode to Boston one day, they could not conceive of doing something like that," says Mr. Gussman of Lancaster, Pa. "I think they suspected my mother of neglect." Noting that his four children are attending camps this year, he says, "My kids and I grew up on different planets."

For working parents, summers present particular challenges. To give them more time at home, some companies are beginning to offer "summer friendly" work hours. An emerging program, informally known as accumulated time, pays employees 80 percent of their salary all year, then allows them to take a chunk of time off in the summer to be with their children.

"It's important that they have some hang-around time with their families," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York. "It's important for kids to just sit outside and read a book, or for a preschooler to watch a bug crawl from here to there without having to rush off to somewhere else."

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