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How do you get 15,000 kids to turn off their electronics?

This program gets kids off devices and into a range of activities that foster a sense of accomplishment.

Kids playing tug-of-war

One kid's week of summer fun could have started out with making a wallet out of duct tape, followed by riding a four wheeler, and then building a fort, all in exchange for "Brag Badges" — collectible dog tags distributed by the Play Unplugged program.

The rest of that kid's vacation schedule could be filled with her choice of more than 150 other real-world activities and games like fishing, watching a ballgame, hunting for bugs, riding a carousel, and drawing with sidewalk chalk.

One thing that's missing: None of these activities happened on screens — and that's the whole point.

The Play Unplugged summer program kicked off in 2012 in Utah with the goal of getting kids off their electronics, and as of the 2015 season, 15,000 children registered. As part of its Youth Advisory Board, State Farm® gives $25,000 grants to small non-profits such as Play Unplugged that address issues important to State Farm and communities across the country.

Why make such an effort?

For one thing, studies show that kids are now gaining weight in summer rather than losing it. Left to their own devices (sometimes literally) during school breaks, many children are binge-watching TV and movies or playing video games — for at least three hours a day, according to a survey of parents by the YMCA and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Other research shows that too much screen-time also has negative effects on children's developing minds — including getting them hooked.

The founders of Play Unplugged, Corbin Gordon and Erik Rowland, are fathers who were troubled by the health consequences of childhood obesity caused by sedentary lifestyles, such as diabetes and heart disease.

How Brag Badges foster community

Their creation fosters community and stimulates small businesses by having local spots sponsor and distribute the Brag Badges to kids who participate. For instance, decorating a cookie with Grandma Tobler at Grandma Tobler's bakery gets a Baker badge. A few of the more than 150 badges include Collector, Day Tripper, Marshmallow Roaster, and Recycler. The badges also increase foot traffic and awareness for the businesses.

Kids keep their collected badges on a lanyard, and log their achievements on a bragging board on the website, which tracks the top badge-holders across all areas' programs.

According to Taylor Knight, one Utah mother of several kids in the program, the Brag Badges alone work as incentive. "There's a story behind all of (their badges) and how they got them." But if good old-fashioned competition doesn't get kids going, families can create their own rewards for earned badges, like money or a family vacation.

Participating children mostly range from 6 to 12 years old, and most of the activities can be done for free, unless supplies are not already at hand and need to be purchased. The ones that can be done around the house like The Ball Catcher, The Hide-and-Go-Seeker, and The Bike Rider are the most commonly awarded badges, according to Erik Rowland.

The local business connection

So far Play Unplugged is active in 15 Utah communities and has branched out to Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada, with interest coming from all parts of the country as well as Canada. For those in areas it hasn't reached yet, a home version can be played using badges parents buy on the website.

"The greatest thing about Play Unplugged is that we know it works," Rowland said. Families "have noticed not only a change in the kids and them getting outside, but there has been a feeling of community ownership and partnership." Members of those communities are now more inclined to visit local businesses and choose those products and services above the competitors.

Rowlands says that parents call and email to share how the program has changed their family and their children.

"We have even heard that parents used to drive by a business for years and they didn't know what that business did, but once they came with their kids to pick up a Brag Badge, they could speak with the owner and that provided them with that sense of community."

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