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The family that plays together stays together?

That may be truer than you think. In a number of studies of family life and dynamics, family vacations surface as both the source of clearest memories and as one of the building blocks of strong families. Family time spent together in fun, unusual or challenging experiences - whether just down the road, across the country or around the world - is a cornerstone in building strong, mutually committed and lasting family relationships."What's most important," says Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, "is doing things together - it doesn't really matter what." But he suggests planning activities where there's a "reasonable likelihood of pleasant interaction." A 10-mile hike with a 3-year-old and 5-year-old is not a good idea, for example.

"Allow plenty of time to hang out together," he advises, "but don't try to do so much that you're causing stress rather than eliminating it."

Family researchers have found that two elements tend to characterize activities that are the most life-influencing and most readily recalled:

1. Events that took place outdoors, and

2. Events that occurred in the company of loved ones.

Dianne Smith, now completing a doctorate in family studies at Brigham Young University, says several factors are important. "Any situation that extracts you from your ordinary routine will elicit more interdependence among the participants, building unity by creating more commonalities than differences."

Family vacations are important because they do just that. "The word vacation comes from the root vacate, which means to empty. A vacation is like that. You don't see laundry, you don't see dishes, you don't see walls that need painting, a lawn that needs mowing. You can empty your mind of all that usual business."

That's why camping trips work especially well, she says. "The division of labor is not the same. No one expects there to be a job chart on the fridge."

A change of scenery can also allow a comfort zone that encourages trying new things: a 9-year-old may cook a meal, a 4-year-old may tend the dog, the family may try new activities, such as in-line skating or horseback riding.

A vacation can also free up time and emotional reserves so parents, children and spouses can interact in new, more relaxed and involving ways, says Smith.

It's no surprise that summer is the most popular time for family vacations. A survey by the Gallup Organization for accountants on call, found that approximately 39 percent of Americans say they like to vacation in the summer. That was followed by winter, chosen by 25 percent; fall, selected by 18 percent; and spring, named by 17 percent.

Carey Simmon, co-author of "Frommer's California With Kids," says that the extra light in the summer makes possible lots of fun activities - whether you're at home or away. Her family takes bike rides after dinner or plans a late picnic dinner. Another favorite activity is getting up to watch the sun rise and then going out for breakfast.

It is attitude as much as activity that determines a successful family outing, says Harold Smith, chairman of the department of recreation management and young leadership at BYU and husband of Dianne. The Smiths cite some of their own experiences that were memorable and family-building, yet didn't require a lot of expense or effort: cooking hot dogs over the living room fireplace, pitching tents in the backyard, camping out on the way to Grandma's.

"There are those who say you can't have a recreation or a leisure experience because you can't afford it," says Harold Smith. "And that absolutely is not true. The experience is more an attitude than an economic factor."

Trips to Disneyland, ocean cruises and cross-country caravans can be nice, but they are not essential in providing the family a chance to interact together in relaxing ways.

Just as important as getting away, says Dianne Smith, is to be more playful in everyday interactions.

Creative play creates fertile imaginations, and imaginative children show higher levels of aptitude in both academic and social arenas, she says.

And, she adds, an attitude of playfulness - the supportive, humorous or creative approach - can be applied in the home to everything from discipline to marital dynamics, strengthening relationships and sustaining a pleasant environment.

Just as you plan your family finances, you should plan your family fun, suggest the National Recreation and Parks Association in a booklet entitled "Life. Be In It."

A Family Fun Plan can range anywhere from a simple "what do we want to do next Saturday?" to a detailed day-by-day activity list or a plan for a once-a-summer special outing, says NRPA.

The organization suggests having regular fun-planning sessions. Let each family member suggest activities and ideas. After all ideas have been considered, take a family vote. And once your plan goes into action, give everyone a share in the responsibility for it. Nothing builds individual self-esteem and a sense of belonging like making a personal contribution, no matter how small.

Family outings - large or small - are more than simply a break from daily routine, advise the Smiths. "They can mean a chance to build - or rebuild - the most important personal relationships in the world: The ones inside your front door."