Our kids do it all the time: run around and play hide-and-seek among the ailes of the department stores we visit (and then fall asleep like our son in the photo). If it is a traditional department store, one of those that could double as a warehouse, they usually become fairly easy to find. At least, we can hear them screaming with joy on the top of their voices. And the ailes are straight so we can see them as they run by. If it is a clothing department, we and they have become tall enough that we can see them running around, since the ailes are lower (with clothes on hangers).
Playing hide-and-seek is fine, but not when it means you keep bumping into people, tearing down merchandise, being loud and generally making a nuisance of yourself. Some stores have play areas but if the kids want to run around, they are hardly sufficient.
If you are in a setting with lots of people, and worse, traffic, you do not want your kids to run around. Or in a straight line, for that matter. That is how they get lost. And how accidents happen - small children have no idea that cars can not stop if they run out in front of them, and if they are playing with each other they forget the environment and want to run out where there are less obstacles - which means the street.
So what do you do? We try to give the kids some excercise so their legs will be less full of running, as you would say in Swedish. It does not take much, it is quite sufficient to walk for a few hundred meters. That takes out the energy overflow and makes them feel just about tired enough to follow you around quietly as you make their siblings try on clothes or shoes.
But if you wanted to do some shopping after lunch, you have just topped up their energy reserves and they have not yet got the carbohydrates into their blood stream, so they are ready for the midday nap. That means they have a lot of energy for running around and playing.
So make sure they understand that you are going to the play area, or the toy department, or the park right after lunch. And after that, you will go get icecream. It is sure to make them less likely to run away, especially if you also explain that there will be no ice cream if they do, and you will be going straight home if they do not behave.
When you are out doing something as a family, you need to put all the stress on the "family" part. It is no longer about you, although it can occasionally forget that as long as your kids are sitting in strollers and are asleep. But when they start to walk, forget it. That is when you have to redesign your plans for the day, in more ways than finding barrier-free entrances.
You have to take all your family members into account, and if you have three kids like we do, they outnumber the parents. That means play before shopping, and then only very quickly as the kids are starting to want to go home and have their lunch nap.
If you think through your trip in advance, you can decrease the risk that your kids will want to run away. They may still get stuck in the toy shelves, or staring at the donuts, but at least they will be easy to find. Even if they run around the entire store playing hide and seek. You have to make sure that they do not bump into anything breakable, or tear down expensive fashion, or something similar.
You want to make sure either that the weather is nice and there is a park you could go to, with sufficient play space to keep your kids occupied; or you want to find a place where they can run around without bumping into other people and disturb them (something that is seriously frowned upon in Japan). An abandoned warehouse would be nice but there are preciously few of those in the city centers. Even if you go to a shopping mall in the suburbs, you may not be let in into the abandoned warehouses. If there are any.
Since gyms for children do not exist in most cities, and are unlikely to be where you want to go even when they do, you need to adjust your planning. Shopping now becomes an an activity you do after the play hour after lunch in stores near parks on sunny days.
If you do plan your days this way, your children become much more likely to keep being interested, and if they do run away you know it is in a place where you can find them relatively easy. Just go look by the doughnuts.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.