Playing Games



Gamification is a popular new trend being used all over.  It’s got applications everywhere: learning, research, fitness, and even in some workplaces.  It can be as simple as recognition for earning the most points.  It can be as complex as state of the art research.  The basic premise is simple: tap into the same thought processes that lead people to spend hours each day playing games (Bunny is probably on level 2000 by now) and use it to promote some desirable behaviour or to produce a useful result.  It’s been shown to be quite effective when done well, so I wondered how I could use it to help the M&Ms with their daily struggles.  If you’re not interested in all the details of how I implemented this for the M&Ms, you can skip to the bottom and read the results to see how it’s working out so far.


Anyone who currently has school age children (and almost everyone who hasn’t) has heard of Minecraft.  For the one person out there who hasn’t, it’s a game where you build things.  The graphics suck (intentionally) and there isn’t really any overall goal to it, but it’s ridiculously addictive.  The M&Ms love it, but Monster in particular has been obsessed with it since we first got it.  I decided to base our game on Minecraft to help them buy into it.

Character Sheets

To start out with, I made each of the M&Ms a character sheet.  To keep it simple, it has a picture of a character (started out with Steve, but since then they’ve decided that they want it to be Herobrine) with a health bar, and inventory slots for emeralds, emerald blocks, diamonds, and diamond blocks.  From there, they can complete quests to earn emeralds, which can be exchanged for diamonds or various rewards.  Diamonds can each be used to purchase 15 minutes of screen time.

The Goals

In the case of the M&Ms, I’m hoping to accomplish a few things:

Screen time

One of the main ones is to limit screen time for the M&Ms, as well as to make them more aware of how much screen time they’re having.  In the past, they’ve been allowed to play Minecraft for up to an hour a day, watch up to 40 minutes of online videos, play on the tablet while we’re driving, and occasionally watch another show.  Each of these limits has been put in when something was getting out of hand.  Most days, they ended up with an hour to an hour and a half of screen time, but occasionally they got a lot more.  Ideally we’d like this under an hour, and closer to half an hour most days, and we’d like them to earn the time that they do get.

To make the transition easier, I’m starting them out by giving them two free diamonds (a half-hour of screen time) for free each day, and they can buy more for one emerald each, to a maximum of four in a day.  As time goes on, I’ll reduce the free ones to one, and then zero, and increase the cost to two and then three emeralds each.


Another big goal is to encourage the M&Ms to take initiative and start their responsibilities without having to be reminded multiple times by Bunny and I to get their daily jobs done.  For this, I created a few daily quests (morning, time to go, homework, and bedtime).  They earn one emerald for completing them, and an extra emerald if I don’t have to give them any extra reminders.  If they don’t complete these daily quests, then their character will lose a health point.  If they finish all their daily quests in a day, they regain two health.  I haven’t decided yet what the result will be if they run out of health, but they haven’t lost a single one yet, so I’m not too worried.

Other Goals

A few other things I’m hoping to accomplish are: To get them to take more responsibility for housekeeping, to gradually increase their daily responsibilities, and to focus their time on learning or practicing various skills.  For the first one, part of their routines includes picking up toys, and I’m going to add optional quests that involve cleaning or tidying.  For the second, I’m gradually adding to their daily routines (cleaning up after breakfast, wiping the table and counter, making their beds, etc.).  For the third one, I’ll be adding quests like “practice typing for 15 minutes” or “15 minutes handwriting lessons” or other similar things.  This part is still a bit nebulous, and still a work in progress (as I imagine the game will always be, as their needs, abilities, and challenges change).

Results So Far

So far I’ve seen mixed results.  Monster is buying into the game much better than Monkey, so I may have to tweak things for Monkey to get him more invested.  I’m not sure how much of it is because of the age difference and how much is that different themes might motivate Monkey better.  I’ll experiment and see whether I can get Monkey more excited about it.  However, as the game was started mostly for Monsters struggles with ADHD, I’m not too worried at this point, and I’m focusing most of my attention on the results that he’s seeing.

The results on screen time have been exactly what I hoped for.  Monster carefully considers before deciding to buy a diamond whether he really wants to or not, and I think we’re averaging a total screen time somewhere around 45 minutes per day since we started the game.

As far as initiative goes, the results have been good, but not quite what I’d hoped for.  I can tell that Monster wants to earn the extra emerald for his daily quests, but often has difficulty staying on track.  For the time-to-go quest, the results have been spectacular, but not so much for the other three daily quests.  I’m going to look into ways to build reminders into the environment to help him get back on track.

Unintended Results

I haven’t noticed any negative results to the game at all.  Even the things I thought might be a problem haven’t.  I thought they might get upset when they run out of screen time, but this hasn’t happened (because they have the option to buy more, they haven’t actually hit the “hard limit” yet).

I have noticed two things that I hadn’t counted on though, both of which I’m very happy about.  The first is reading.  In the past, Monster has typically played on the tablet in the car if we’re driving for any length of time.  Since we started the game, he hasn’t wanted to use a diamond in the car even once.  Instead, he started reading a book the last time we drove somewhere.  I can’t remember the last time that he sat down on his own and read a book of his own volition.

The second is what he talks about.  When Monster was younger, before he played Minecraft, he would talk non-stop about nature, animals, plants, and science.  He loved watching documentaries and learning about all sorts of cool things.  Since he started playing Minecraft, he would talk non-stop about Minecraft (and occasionally Lego).  This morning, on the walk to school, Monster didn’t once mention Minecraft.  He talked about the ice, and then about bugs, and then about fish, and dolphins, whales, sharks.  He was asking questions about how dolphins hunt fish and talking about the documentaries he used to watch as if he’d just remembered they existed.

I don’t know if or how long the reading will continue, and I’m not completely certain that the suddenly renewed interest in nature is because of the game, but I hope they both continue.

If you want a copy of the character sheet I made to try it out, feel free to leave a comment and I can email it to you.  If you have any suggestions about things to add, remove, or change about the game, let me know.  I’m always looking to improve it.

Getting back into it.

I’ve been a bit silent here lately, mostly because I’ve been a bit under the weather but partly I’ve been considering where I want this blog to go.  I’m starting to feel better, so I’m going to try to get back into posting regularly.  However, I’m going to change the focus of the blog a bit from where it’s been heading for the last little while.  I don’t want to spend as much time talking about what we’re doing as a family, rather I’d like to spend more time talking about parenting issues, techniques and strategies in our lives, as well as a bit of science.

The Most Important Thing

I’ve been a parent for 8 [edit: 8.5] years now, and come to the conclusion that there’s on thing above all others that determines my effectiveness as a parent.  How much sleep the M&Ms have had, what they’ve had to eat, whether they’re struggling with something, or whether they’ve just woken up on the wrong side of the bed all play into how the day goes, but they all pale in comparison to how much sleep I’ve gotten.



Every single time that I’ve had a “bad day” with the M&Ms, without fail, I haven’t gotten a good sleep the night before.  I’ve never once, as far as I can remember, had a rough day with the M&Ms after waking up feeling well rested.  The effect that sleep has on my mood and patience, and in turn the effect that my mood and patience have on my interactions with the M&Ms is incredible.

When I haven’t gotten enough sleep, I’m short on patience and irritable.  If we’re behind schedule getting out the door to go to school in the morning, and I’m more likely to be short with the M&Ms, to chastise them for every little distraction.  I’ll yell when, for the 127th time, Monster starts playing with toys instead of eating his breakfast.  When Monkey complains that he doesn’t want to brush his teeth, I’ll just say “we’ve got to get it done” and carry on.  This inevitably results in stress for Monster, which makes him more distractible, which results in more crankiness on my part.  It results in Monkey having a tantrum, and us wasting another five or ten minutes before we actually get his teeth brushed.  Now because he’s taken so long to get his teeth brushed, he doesn’t have any time to play before it’s time to go, which can lead to another tantrum.  It can start a downward spiral which lasts the rest of the day:  Things aren’t going according to plan, so I get crankier, which drives things further from plan.

In contrast, when I’ve gotten enough sleep, I can respond reasonably and earlier in helpful ways.  I’ll gently remind Monster with the first and second distractions, and then hang around to keep an eye on him for a bit.  Monster’s not as stressed, and he’s less likely to get distracted again in 2 minutes. I’ll nicely remind Monkey that if he wants to have any time to play before we leave for school that he needs to get his teeth brushed quickly.  This heads off the tantrum about teeth brushing, and he actually gets time to play before we go, and we avoid another tantrum when it’s time to leave.  All of this makes the whole morning run smoother, which means I get a bit of time to relax as well, which helps my mood for the rest of the day.

The Takeaway

The takeaway from this is my New Year’s resolution, and a suggestion.  My goal for this year (and I know it’s a couple of weeks late, but the start of the year is arbitrary anyways) is to make sure I get more sleep.  When I don’t have any demands on my time, I tend to sleep about 7 to 7.5 hours a night, so I’ll aim for that.  I have to get up to get the kids ready by 6:45 am, so as long as I have lights out by 11:45 pm, I should be good.  So far this year I haven’t been hitting this goal very well, so I guess I still need to work on it.  There’s always one more thing I want to get done before bed though…

My suggestion to you: If you find yourself constantly struggling with your children, try going to be half an hour earlier for a week, and see how it goes.  Let me know what you think in the comments!

Photo Tour of Christmas Morning

I’ve got a bunch more pictures of Christmas day than I did for Christmas Eve.


The stockings were placed on the couch with care.  We may have gone a bit overboard on the stocking stuffers?


Santa must have showed up in the night.  One of my favorite gifts that we gave the kids are the two bins at the bottom right.  The top one is filled with massive quantities of homemade Play-Doh, and the bottom one is filled with massive quantities of homemade Kinetic Sand.


But never mind presents, there was Minecraft to play!  You’d barely even know it was Christmas by how calm they were.


On Christmas Eve, he got some Transformer toys (some assembly required), and we had to build these before we could even start on the new pile of presents.


BEST GIFT EVER!!!!  This was his absolutely adorable reaction to almost every present he opened.


Slime is one of the most exciting things ever.  Reminds me of this photo of him.


Can never have too much chocolate.


A present from Monkey.  About a week after I took Monkey to buy this, Bunny said that she needed a new bath robe.


My new Nerf gun.  Shoots little balls at 100 feet per second.

Christmas Eve Dinner

After the wonderful brunch, we went to visit some friends for the first-of-two calorically-overloaded ham-and-turkey dinners.  It turns out that I only took one picture for the evening, but at least it’s a cute one. It’s so cute that if you don’t like and share this on Facebook, you’re probably heartless.  And then the terrorists win.  You don’t want the terrorists to win, do you?


Christmas Eve Brunch

Our Christmas festivities began when we had my family and some of the M&Ms’ friends over for brunch on Christmas Eve.  (No, we didn’t have brunch in the evening, that would be silly.  If you’re one of those people who thinks Christmas Eve is only the evening, then we had brunch in the morning before Christmas Eve.)

We started this off with something that has quickly become a Christmas tradition in our family: Silly String.  Last year, Bunny and I bought each of the M&Ms a can of it for fun and they haven’t stopped talking about it since.  This year, the thing they most hoped for was more silly string, so we decided to turn it up to 11.  With about 25 cans of “Crazy Streamers” from the dollar store; parents, children, aunts, uncles and even a grandma got in on it.  The tree was redecorated.  As were: people, floors, walls, shelves, and even ceiling.

This is me winning the Silly String fight (Thanks Kelsey for taking and sending me the video!)












Redecorated tree



This was followed up with enough food to feed an army: pancakes and waffles (or crispier pancakes, depending who you ask), berries, whipped cream, turkey bacon, bacon, and cinnamon buns for dessert.


Everyone sitting around enjoying some food to recover after the Silly String fight.