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Jason Olson, Deseret News
Justus Fitzsimmons hides during a game of Ghost in the Graveyard. A large group of neighborhood kids often gathers to play night games.

LEHI — It was the hour between dinner and bedtime, and an army of kids had gathered outside Angie and Craig Larson's home.

Their bikes were stacked near the edge of the driveway, and a few dominant personalities began to debate what game they'd play. Meanwhile, 3-year-old Emily Larson zoomed around on her scooter, up and down the sidewalk, while a few boys balanced on skateboards.

Then snap. The group separated.

It was time to play.

The first game was Ghost in the Graveyard. One person hid while others tried to find him. Next was Steal the Flag, with a pair of old dishrags serving as flags for each side.

"You can't tag me," one boy said. "I'm in the street."

"Are you in jail?" a girl asked a teammate.

Angie Larson smiled.

"This happens a lot after dinner," she said.

But in other neighborhoods, some streets apparently remain quiet. Researchers say unstructured, or "free," play is on the decline, with children spending their time in organized, adult-directed activities, or inside watching television or playing video games.

This decline is a worry to child psychologists, play advocates and even the American Academy of Pediatrics, which released a report in 2006 saying play is essential because it "contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth."

For Joan Almon, director of the Alliance for Childhood, the difference between a child who plays and one who doesn't is noticeable. She was once an early childhood educator and said children who don't play can suffer behavioral issues such as hyperactivity or depression.

Play also teaches a child self-discipline, social skills and how to focus on a task, she said.

"It is such a fundamental part of human life," Almon said. "It's the primary way for kids to work out all kinds of things that are bothering them and to discover all the things they know about life. When you take that away, you leave them without some of the key resources in life."

She encourages parents to give their children an old sheet, let them use the cushions off the sofa and build a fort. Parents can also crawl under the kitchen table with their children and let them be the leader in a game of make-believe.

"Some parents have said they don't use play — it's a four-letter word," Almon said. "Once we remind them of how much they loved playing, they get it, and want it for their children."

Joanna Cemore, an assistant professor of childhood education and family studies at Missouri State University, said she believes one of the reasons play has declined is an increase in the use of technologies such as computers and video games.

Studies show American children spend an average of three to four hours a day watching television. At the same time, parents are more worried about the possibility of their child being attacked by a predator, both Almon and Cemore said.

They blame it on the pervasiveness of the media, which features daily reports about accidents and kidnappings from across the country.

"Parents never have a chance to relax," Almon said. "They always have to be on alert for their children."

Meanwhile, it's a busier world, with hundreds of activities competing for a child's time. Cemore believes these activities are good, but they don't allow a child to think creatively on their own, or problem-solve, she said.

Her advice is for parents to find time for their kids to play unsupervised, even if it must be indoors because of safety concerns.

"Maybe while you're making dinner or doing your own night-time ritual, give them time just to play," Cemore said. "Sometimes now, they don't even get the chance. They go from thing to thing, then have dinner and go to bed."

Bonnie Ray Larson, a Cottonwood Heights grandmother, said she used to always send her children outside to play. There were boundaries where they could or could not go, but they spent hours with other neighborhood children, riding bikes, building forts and playing with the horses in a nearby field.

"Now kids are at day care or at grandma's house — they're just not around," Larson said. "It's definitely a whole different era. I wouldn't want to go back and do it over again. It's a big challenge for young people to raise a family."

Maralee Miller of Kaysville said she worries a little about kidnapping and the general safety of her children, but believes her neighborhood is family-friendly and safe. She knows most of her neighbors, and oftentimes, they will gather to socialize and watch the children play.

Miller's children range from 11 years old to 20 months. They will ride bikes, play night games and travel from yard to yard visiting with friends, she said.

"We are a really close neighborhood and my kids can walk outside any time of day and they have friends and their choice of friends," Miller said. "They are so many kids their age."

For Angie Larson, the choice to have her children play is simple: It makes them better people.

"I think it's important they get physical and exert themselves," Larson said. "I think it's important for their health and I think it's important for their mentality."

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