Back when my children were babies (sunhats on head, pails and shovels in hand) I'd drum up glorious images of summers to come. My kids would skip home from school once that final bell rang, ready for three months of fun in the sun. I'd greet them in the backyard with a badminton set and a pitcher of lemonade. They'd play, I'd pour. That's it.

I never considered that my vacationing charges might reach for video-game joysticks over badminton racquets. Or that they'd want to spend their lazy, hazy days surfing the net not the waves. It didn't cross my mind that once those babies turned into kids (Braves hats on head, remote controls and computer mice in hand), my blissful imagery of carefree romping in the summer sun would give way to the SpongeBob Sizzling Summer Marathon on Nickelodeon.

Couch potato syndrome is all over the modern child populationNow, many summers and melted parental fantasies later I understand that I'm not alone in my plight; that the summertime couch potato syndrome is all over the modern child population like guilt on Jewish mothers. In fact, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan reports that kids today spend half the time playing outdoors that kids did two decades ago.

Unfortunately, there is mounting concern over this generational shift from the backyard to the couch. A recent broad-scale study featured in the American Journal of Public Health reports that summertime inactivity among children has them packing on the pounds at twice the rate as during the school-year, while a plethora of other research links inactivity among modern kids with increased incidence of childhood depression and anxiety and traditionally adult health problems like cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol.

Experts also warn that the demise of traditional outdoor play could hinder children's development. "Outdoor experience isn't just something nice for kids to have," writes Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods, "They have to have it."

Neuroscientists tap interaction with the natural world as a primary player in children's sensory development. Ditto for physical development, as running around outside is critical in refining children's large and small motor skills and achieving "full brain activation".

So how can we ensure our kids remain happy, healthy and active during their lengthy school siesta? We begin with strict rules and limitations regarding screen time (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours daily of television, video games and computers combined), and follow up with plenty of opportunity for child-oriented fun in the sun.

The following list of high-interest, low-maintenance, affordable outdoor activities (some of which families can do together and others of which kids can conquer on their own) promise to help keep your crew off the couch - and out the door - all summer long.

Sporty Kids

  • Play Backyard Volleyball. Use a clothesline as a net (make sure it's higher than the tallest child's head) and a lightweight beach ball or balloon as a volleyball.
  • Make a Baseball Splash. Fill a bucket with water balloons. Have kids take turns pitching and batting - and getting drenched.
  • Have a Hula Hop. Spread hula hoops around the backyard, varying the distance between them; challenge children to jump from one to the next.

Sweaty Kids

  • Play Water Limbo. Use water from a garden hose instead of a stick; players bend, crawl or slither under the stream to avoid getting wet. Driest kid wins.

  • Build a Water Slide. Secure plastic sheeting (available at hardware stores) with garden stakes in a grassy inclined area; turn on the sprinkler and let kids slide away. (Feet-first sliding only, adult supervision required.)

  • Play Splash Tag. In a cool variation of the old standby, the player who's "it" uses a squirt a spray bottle or throw a wet sponge to soak his targets; once drenched, that player becomes the new "it".

Artsy Kids

  • Make a Backyard Mural. Soak an old sheet and hang it on a clothesline or fence. Put out various tempera paints and applicators — sponges, paintbrushes, squirt bottles - and let kids go at it.

  • Create Natural Window Decor. Go on a nature hike and pick some pretty summer flowers. Have children arrange them on contact paper (sticky-side up) and seal the deal with a second piece of contact paper (sticky-side down). Trim the edges, punch a hole, and hang it in the window with ribbon.

  • Build Sandcastles. A couple of bags of sand from the hardware store are all it takes to make a bona fide backyard beach. Throw in some plastic pails and shovels and let the creative construction begin.

Exploratory Kids

  • Search for Buried Treasures. As long as you've got a pile of sand in the backyard, bury some inexpensive goodies (or even a bunch of pennies) in it and let kids dig for the loot.

  • Go Geo-Caching. This amazingly cool family activity is an outdoor treasure hunt in which the participants use a GPS receiver (or GPS-activated cell phone) to hide and seek containers (called "geocaches") hidden all over the world. Find details at
  • Have an A-Z Scavenger Hunt. Write the letters of the alphabet in a column on a piece of paper. Take an urban hike and search out items that begin with each letter.

Eco Kids

  • Plant a Butterfly Garden. Summer is the ideal time for this beautiful family project. There are great resources available online which show you how to design and plant a butterfly garden.
  • Make Bird Feeders. Plaster a couple of pinecones with peanut butter. Roll them in bird seed and hang them from a tree branch with yarn or ribbon.
  • Tap Your Resources. Books like The Earth Book for Kids by Linda Schwartz offer oodles of kid-friendly, environmentally-conscious activity ideas.

Menschlich Kids

  • Have a Car Wash. Kids will love getting wet and sudsy, and they can donate the profits to a cause of their choice.
  • Dog Walk. Have children lend a hand to an elderly neighbor or frazzled new mom by taking her favorite four-legged friend on a walk.
  • Open a Refreshment Stand. Help kids set up shop with some lemonade and cookies so they can provide sweaty passers-by with cool, sweet treats.