How I Gamified my Kids’ Physical & Mental Health (so that I could spend more quality time with them)


Covid has been tough for parents but even tougher for kids. Everyday interactions that we took for granted have disappeared. Even the most imaginative and creative parents eventually acquiesced to the ‘mother’s little helper‘ of the digital age – the electronic device.

The mental strain of Covid on children is well documented. Extra murals and regular play dates with friends have been replaced by Netflix binges and online gaming with friends. For children, the house became a prison and parents the wardens. The inmates grew increasingly reluctant to leave the confines of their bedrooms and, as wardens, my wife and I found it increasingly difficult to get our kids outside for a daily dose of Vitamin D. Exercise in any form was shunned and their fitness gear got less use than the indicators on a BMW.

Too much sugar and too little sunshine is a lethal combination. We could see the sedentary slide, both physical and mental, but seemed powerless to halt the Covid-induced inertia that had gripped our family.

I was also starting to feel more and more disconnected from my daughters who were resolute in their refusal to leave the house for any excursion. To be fair, even once lockdown conditions were relaxed, options were limited – new movie releases were infrequent and there are only so many times you can do the ‘Leap of Faith’ at Bounce).

Fortunately, three factors combined to effect a change:

  1. The first was my daughters’ discovery of Paul’s Homemade Ice Cream – the undisputed cream of the frozen confectionary crop.
  2. The second was my move to Vitality Group – the masters of behavioural science, fitness gamification and the corrective nudge.
  3. The third is that I am a devious bastard – and Covid lockdowns provided plenty of idle time to hatch cunning plans.
Paul’s Homemade Ice-Cream – the undisputed cream of the frozen confectionary crop.

These three factors provided the ingredients for a perfect brainstorm: I could spend more time with my daughters by gamifying their fitness activities and rewarding them with Paul’s Ice-Cream if they achieved a weekly fitness goal – 400 Points for one scoop; 700 points for two scoops (and bonus points if they do fitness events with dad).

This is how it worked…

  • 150 points for a hockey match or karate practice
  • 200 points for swimming (extra mural)
  • 50 points for 5 out-and-back driveway laps (just under one kilometre – we have a long driveway!)
  • 50 bonus points for 10 out-and-back driveway laps with dad
  • 50 points per five minutes of cycling around the neighbourhood (with dad)
  • My wife also does a long morning walk on the weekend so they would get points if they joined her.
  • A maximum points cap of 300 per day.

This is what happened…

Initially there were some serious negotiations and legal challenges to the points scoring system. I met every argument with “Don’t moan at me, this is how Vitality does it” or “If you don’t like it, email*.”

* I have no idea if that is his real email but it will be pretty funny if one of them does eventually email him in a fit of pique.

The allure of Paul’s Homemade Ice-Cream is stronger than any electronic device.

The allure of Paul’s Ice Cream proved stronger than any electronic enticement. Screen time ends at 6pm in our household (although this often proves to be a loosely defined target rather than a hard stop). However, with the best ice cream in Mzansi at stake, I would frequently finish my last meeting of the day, emerge from the sanctity of my home office and immediately get seconded into a driveway march or some speedwork in the street as I tried to keep up with an energetic peddler intent on earning an extra scoop of ice cream.

The interesting thing is that my daughters always chose to earn their points individually with dad, never together, which provided some great one-on-one time. Although conversation was usually sparse on the speedy cycling legs, the driveway walks (with sporadic bouts of running) provided rich conversation about our respective days, interests and aspirations. Siri and Spotify combined to provide a musical soundtrack to these excursions as we educated each other on our refined musical tastes.

My youngest daughter has become a fan of the Bangles. We play ‘Manic Monday’ every Monday on the drive to school and ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ is also on high rotation. During one of our walks, she insisted that every time a Bangle belted out the chorus we actually had to “walk like an Egyptian.” We were having great fun giving Tutankhamen a good run (or should that be walk) for his money when she blurted out in delight, “Dad, we’re total dorks!”

A short while into her first cycle in many moons, my reluctantly exercising eldest daughter exclaimed, “This is fantastic dad, why didn’t we do this sooner?“ During driveway walks, she has diligently set about giving me a musical re-education. You might be wondering how a father in his mid-40s keeps an open mind whilst listening to the discordant sounds and wrathful lyrics that appeal to the ears of a budding teenager. I try to keep an open mind by travelling back in time to my formative musical years which were sandwiched between Axl Rose welcoming me to the jungle and smelling Kurt Cobain’s teen spirit.

It is sometimes hard work to get my daughters into their running shoes but they are always much happier afterwards. The shift in mood is tangible, post exercise family dinners are a pleasure and our household volatility index has returned to pre-Covid levels.

To date, we’ve achieved an almost perfect record of at least one scoop a week. The only downside is that I seldom experience relaxed Friday afternoons anymore because the twilight hours at the end of the working week are usually spent in frantic last minute exercise binges to meet a scoop threshold.

You can earn your ice-cream and eat it! The cherry on top is the excellent service from Janet and Jeffries at our local Morningside branch,

But everything else is positive. The double play win-win scenario is not only do I get to spend quality time with my daughters during the week while they earn their ice-cream, I also get to spend quality time with them while they eat their ice-cream. I guess that whilst you can’t have your cake and eat it, you can earn your ice-cream and eat it!

A virtuous circle.

A couple of months in and the “Burn calories – Eat ice cream – Accrue calories” virtuous cycle is working brilliantly. However, I know I will need to mix things up in future to prevent the icecaps from melting. I’ve already added a “perfect month incentive” which includes an end-of-month waffle plus toppings bonus if the goal is achieved every week of that month. My eldest is entering the fashionista stage of her life and wants a pair of Converse shoes (a lot more expensive than ice cream). I may need to enlist help from one of the actuaries at Vitality to calculate a sneaker earning algorithm.

My youngest enjoys her “perfect month” waffle bonus (as you can see dad earned his perfect month reward too).

I guess this is an iterative and evolving process. Right now I am already looking ahead wondering how many fitness points for a matric dance dress, if it’s viable to have an incentivised curfew time and whether I can get a “This is how many fitness points you need to date my daughter” expansion plan past my wife*.

* I have actually run a marathon with my father-in-law (but that was not a condition of marriage).

The bottom line is that no matter how much money I end up paying, this is a rewards program that keeps on giving: I get to spend more time with my girls, they are physically and mentally healthier and I get to eat the best ice-cream in town every week – and that is truly priceless!

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8 Replies to “How I Gamified my Kids’ Physical & Mental Health (so that I could spend more quality time with them)”

  1. Stuart, this is a brilliant use of lean and agile principles to put people and interactions first, while also incrementally delivering value to everyone involved. The fact that your daughters have found value in both the means and the ends is huge. Great job my friend!

  2. Absolutely priceless blog Stuart, and it’s good to know that after all these years, you are still a devious so and so and come up with a cunning plan. You can reward yourself with an extra castle.

  3. You earned two scoops my friend! Our thinking levels are the same, I couldn’t watch my Grade 4’s slumped into nothingness anymore so we started fun running around the school once a week. They have proudly done their first parkrun last weekend! And start each day with lots more smiles and enthusiasm! Be proud of your girls, you are a great dad🙌🏻😊❤️

  4. Great article – love the application May have to introduce something like this with our kids. New parenting app to track?

  5. Love this article, and may borrow the idea of rewarding myself with a scoop of ice cream if I manage to get out the door for a run more often!

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