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Digital dreams? 12 low-tech gift ideas might be better for children

Thursday, December 13, 2012 | 7:31 p.m. CST; updated 7:49 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 13, 2012
Ethan Ray, 3, catches a ball that his mother, Kelly Ray, tosses to him, as his sister, Olivia Ray, 5, watches in their home Wednesday. Kelly Ray said she and her husband don't allow the children to watch a lot of television. Instead, they prefer the children to play with toys to encourage an active lifestyle.

COLUMBIA — Getting kids away from their digital gadgets can be difficult. It can be hard to say no to "just 10 more minutes" of a favorite game.

Columbia parent Kelly Ray knows this challenge. 

"Can we take it? Can we take it?" her children pester, wanting to bring the family's Kindle Fire everywhere they go. 

Olivia, 5, and Ethan, 3, like to play "Angry Birds." Just in case you're one of the handful of people on the planet who haven't heard of it, it's a game in which players catapult birds at structures containing egg-stealing pigs. Ethan has been asking for the "Star Wars" version. 

Most children spend about five to seven hours a day in front of a screen playing video games, watching TV or on the computer, according to MedlinePlus, a service of the National Institutes of Health. They should be spending no more than two, the service's website says.

Ray limits her son, Ethan, to two hours of TV watching each week, but if it were up to him, he would watch his favorite shows, "Animal Mechanicals" and "Octonauts," for hours on end. 

Ethan is not unusual. In 2009, TV watching among children ages 2 to 11 was higher than ever before. Children spent an average of 25 hours a week in front of the TV or with gaming consoles, according to The Nielsen Co. 

Ray, who taught first- through fifth-graders from 1998 to 2000, attributes the increase to advances in technology. Digital gadgets are more available now than ever, she noted.

Jennifer Hays, a first-grade teacher in Columbia, hears her students talking about their digital gadgets, though they aren't allowed to bring them to class. They do look forward to recess, she said.

"It is a must, because they are pent up," she said. "They need to be outside running and using muscles other than their fingers."

Recess also contributes positively to learning, she has observed.

Extended amounts of time in front of a screen can increase a child's risk of becoming obese, which can lead to diabetes and make it harder for them to fall asleep at night. It can also increase the chance that a child will develop anxiety or depression, according to MedlinePlus. 

But it is hard to be the parent that says no to the digital kid. Do you want your child to be the only one without the newest, hottest game? 

Ray, who considers her family to be pretty low-tech, limits the amount of time her children can be in front of a screen each day so they'll be more well-rounded. She is getting Olivia and Ethan a scooter and a tricycle for Christmas to encourage them to play outside. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that young people get a least one hour of physical activity daily, but more time in front of a screen leaves less time for physical activity.

To help parents fight the temptation to buy their kids the newest digital gadget, here are some gift ideas to help get kids outside and active:

1. Fort-building kit: Buy your kids a kit from a store like Walmart, or create your own kit with sheets, flashlights, suction cups and rope and let your child's imagination take care of the rest. 

2. The hula hoop: The old standard hula hoop is now available with glitter or sounds. There's even a collapsible hula hoop for easy transportation. Weighted hula hoops can be a good addition to a workout, according to the Mayo Clinic. If your kid is already an expert at hula hooping, challenge him or her to more difficult moves around the neck, feet or wrist. 

3. Trampoline: According to livestrong.com, a 60-pound child will burn about 50 calories for every half hour jumping on a trampoline, and calories burned will increase as weight increases.  (You may want to sneak out there too. Adults burn anywhere from 80-100 calories per half hour.) Target, Sears and Toys R Us sell full-sized trampolines and enclosures. If space or age is a worry, mini trampolines — some with handrails — can be found as well.  

4. Sports equipment: Think basketball hoop, soccer ball or a softball or baseball mitt. 

5. Card games and board games: Both card games and board games are good ways to get the family together and teach the kids about strategy, rules, fairness and how to win or lose graciously. Familyeducation.com recommends classic games like Chinese Checkers, Scrabble and Chutes and Ladders. As for card games, get fancy with Uno, Apples to Apples or Cranium Zigity or use a normal deck of playing cards for Old Maid, Go Fish or Crazy Eights.   

6. Bubbles: Yes, bubbles. There are bubble machines, bubble wands, bubble rockets and colored bubbles. This no-spill bubble machine was rated one of the top new toys for 2012 by parenting.com. 

7. Outdoor gear: Get your children excited about outdoor family activities like hiking, camping, fishing and wildlife-watching with new hiking boots, a sleeping bag, a fishing pole or a set of binoculars. There's even a Spider-Man fishing kit for kids.

8. Wheels: Bikes, scooters, in-line skates and skateboards get your kids outside and moving. If you child isn't quite big enough for a full-sized bike, try a balance bike first. In-line skating will not only help your child with balance and coordination, but it burns calories and increases blood circulation as well, according to livestrong.com. Don't forget a helmet.

9. Sleds: The beginning of December seemed like spring, but temperatures are slowly dropping, and snow can be expected, according to the Old Farmers Almanac. Prepare your kids to spend the day outside with a new sled. A few times up the hill and they will get their exercise for the day.

10. Sidewalk chalk: Chalk is inexpensive, easy to use and clean up and encourages creativity. Suggest games like Hopscotch, Tic-Tac-Toe or Snail's Pace

11. Pogo sticks and ball hoppers: When your kids start bouncing off the walls inside, send them outside, to the basement or to the garage to bounce on a pogo stick or ball hopper. Both activities can be counting practice as children keep track of how many times they can bounce. 

12. Nerf or water guns: If you are OK with gifts resembling weapons, Nerf guns and water guns are a great way to get kids out running around with each other. 

There is another gift that cannot be found in stores: friends and family. If children have friends in the neighborhood who like to play outside or parents who will go outside with them, they are more likely to be active. 

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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