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.

Christmas Week

So last week, I said I’d have an exciting announcement for you.  Unfortunately, this will have to be postponed until further notice.


Not much excitement on Monday.  We took the M&Ms swimming, built some Lego, and that’s about it.


I mentioned last week that we were “getting” Bunny’s present from Monster on Tuesday and that’s what I told Bunny as well, but it wasn’t entirely accurate.  I spoke to Monster last week while we were shopping, and suggested that him and I could clean out Bunny’s car for her as a present.   So, Tuesday morning came and I told Bunny that I was taking Monster out shopping.  For three hours we worked on the car: vacuuming, scrubbing, Windexing, and taking it to the car wash.  Monster was a trooper, he did most of the vacuuming: back seat, front seat, floors, and trunk; while I did most of the scrubbing.  He was a bit worried when he realized that we were going to be driving with Bunny later in the day, because it would spoil the surprise.  I explained that there was no helping it, but that she would be surprised today instead, and he got excited and wanted to stash a card in the car for her to find when we got in.

When we finished, and came back in, Bunny was a bit frustrated that we’d left her for so long.  But later, when she finally realized what we had been doing, she just about cried.  Her own words, posted on Facebook that evening:

Today Devin told me he was taking [Monster] “shopping” for my Christmas gift and I started to get *concerned* when they had been gone for several hours and I hadn’t heard from them. This afternoon we were all getting in the car to go swimming and [Monster] had this incredibly mischievous look on his face and I was convinced that he must have done something “bad” and was waiting for me to figure it out. It turns out that he and Devin and had actually spend the entire morning cleaning and detailing my car inside and out!!!! I almost started bawling I was so touched!!! For an 8 year old to spend half a day of his precious Christmas holidays cleaning my car?! There are no words…

Love you Bunny!


We had some of the M&Ms’ friends over and built gingerbread houses.  Monkey and I built one, while Monster and Bunny built the other.  

Note the Christmas Tree stuck to the roof.  Also note that for every candy that made it onto the house, at least one went into Monkey’s mouth.


Later on, we went to visit Grandma and to see Candycane Lane.  Both the M&Ms were excited to see all the different lights, and hardly complained about the cold at all.  Monkey held my hand for pretty much the whole walk (about 18 city blocks total).

Thursday through Saturday

Christmas fun was had, gifts were opened, friends and family was visited, and much joy was had by all.  I’ll post the details with pictures in a separate post soon.

Week in review


Monster came home and got started on his flash cards straight away, with hardly any prompting.  He didn’t want any M&Ms as rewards, and managed to stay focused with no reward at all.  I only gave him two reminders throughout the whole thing, I’m so proud of him, and how well he’s doing.

Story time was fun and affectionate with both of the M&Ms: Monkey was extremely cuddly on Monday evening, and ended up falling asleep cuddled up to me after story time.  Monster, on the other hand, wanted to play a game that the children call “Stinky Steamroller” (invented and named by Monkey), which involves Monster rolling over me claiming to be a “clean steamroller”, and then when he’s crushing me claiming to be a “stinky steamroller” (or other undesirable type of steamroller), and me throwing him towards the wall on his bed.  This is about as close to cuddling as Monster gets.


I took Monkey Christmas shopping this afternoon (he gets out of school at 11:30, while Monster isn’t out until after 3) to find presents for Monster and Bunny.  Monster was easy, we wandered around until Monkey saw something he thought would be fun for him to play with, and bought that for Monster (a marshmallow blowgun).  Bunny was a bit more difficult, as 1. she doesn’t want anything, and 2. Monkey just wants to buy kids toys for her anyways.  We ended up finding something as we were on the way out of the mall to go get lunch.

After school was Monster’s turn to go shopping.  Monkey was again easy to shop for, we just hit up the Lego section of Walmart, and picked something affordable that Monkey would like.  Took a while to decide what he wanted to get for Bunny, and we won’t be able to get it until next Tuesday.

(Note to self, next year make sure Monster isn’t reading my blog before posting Christmas gifts to the M&Ms.)


As I posted before, this was Monster’s school Christmas event, which we decided not to go to in order to avoid exposing the children to the conflict with my ex-wife.  After asking Monster what he’d like to do instead, we decided to have hot dogs for supper and go out for black-light mini-golfing and a mirror maze.  As a bonus, Grandma got to tag along.  Afterwards we got Booster Juice and cinnamon buns for desert, before going to bed.  (Mini-golfing was so much fun that they went again with their mother on Saturday).


We went to the zoo after school.  Normally when we go to the zoo, we spend the whole time at one of the climbing structures there, and the M&Ms play on it for the whole time.  This time, we spent the whole time on the skating pond, throwing snowballs at each other (we were the only ones on the rink).  Monkey skated for about 10 minutes, before my arms got too tired, and then ran around in his boots, while Monster was in his boots the whole time.  Great fun was had by all (with the possible exception of Bunny, who doesn’t like getting snowballs thrown at her) until too much snow was in too many boots and it was time to get going.


Friday was the school Christmas party for both of the M&Ms, and pyjama day for both as well.  I dropped them off at school, and went on to work, while Bunny went back at noon to help out at Monster’s party.  Turns out Monster had had a rough morning, and was crying for a good portion of it.  She tried to talk to him, but couldn’t get much out of him.  There’s a “giving tree” at his school, with gifts/gift ideas for those in need.  Bunny was explaining to him that they were presents for people who didn’t get any, and he replied “Oh, like me”.

I left work early so that I could go back and talk to him when we picked up the containers from the party, but he was fine by then.  They had been working on a Christmas craft in the morning, and I think Monster is struggling a bit with the fact that my ex-wife, his mother, doesn’t celebrate Christmas (she is a somewhat-practising Jehovah’s Witness), and is a bit confused and worried that she’ll be left out of things because of it.

Next Week

Stay tuned for special Christmas posts next week, with Christmas eve and Christmas day photos, presents, and a very exciting announcement.

Edit:  The exciting announcement will be postponed until further notice.

This Week

Sorry for the late update.


We picked up a Christmas tree over the weekend, and decorated it after the M&Ms got home.  Monkey was really excited to decorate it (last year he couldn’t do much) butMonster was a bit reluctant to help at first (he wanted to play Minecraft instead).  After a bit of encouragement from me, he got really into it and had a lot of fun.  They each claimed a section of the tree and set up “exhibits”.  Monster with as many gold coloured decorations as he could find, Monkey with all the clear “diamonds”.

Christmas Tree

Here we are in front of the newly decorated tree.

For supper, we had a couple of my friends coming over who the children love playing with.  We had a Nerf gun fight, goofed off, and had a lot of fun.


We took the M&Ms to the zoo to see the festival of lights.  The weather was perfect, and everyone had a blast.  When it was time for bed, and I had finished reading his bedtime story, Monkey was very cuddly and Monster gave me one of the best hugs ever.


Not too much excitement.  It was the last night of Cub Scouts for Monster for the year, and we had a fire and cooked banana boats.  Monster wasn’t a fan of the banana boats with peanut butter in them, but said he’s willing to try them again another day without peanut butter.  That’s pretty impressive for Monster, in the past he would likely have decided that he didn’t like them, and refuse to every try them again.  We played a few games of “manhunter” (a combination of hide-and-go-seek and tag) and Monster kept trying to hide up a tree, but didn’t have time to climb high enough to be out of sight.


Bunny and Monkey baked some cookies together today.  It was really cute to watch, with Monkey asking after each cookie was put on the cookie sheet whether he was allowed to eat it or not.  I ate way too many of the cookies, and ended up feeling sick, but they were too delicious.


School Christmas Events

Monster’s school has decided this year that, rather than do a Christmas concert, they will host an “evening of winter fun festivities”.  “Card making, a bake sale, drumming, cookie decorating, and photo fun.”

Sounds like it could be a good idea on the surface: make it more interactive so parents and their children can do things together.  And it will probably work well for most families out there.  However, for children with parents who are separated and don’t get along, it may not work so well.  At a Christmas concert, separated parents can sit on either end of the gym, and any animosity between the two parents doesn’t need to affect the children at all.  At an evening of activities, this is not possible.

My ex-wife and I divorced, in part, because our constant conflict was making a toxic environment for the M&Ms.  Our relationship hasn’t improved since then.  The event is next Wednesday, during my time with the M&Ms.  My ex-wife, meanwhile, has indicated that she will attend, that she’s bringing her boyfriend, and that I have no say in the matter.  Ok, so adding to the conflict between her and I, we have her boyfriend, someone whom both of the M&Ms have said they dislike and are not comfortable around (putting it mildly).

So rather than subject the M&Ms to the tense relationship between me and my ex-wife and another person they’re not comfortable with, I pitched another idea to Monster.  Why don’t we go to the movies instead?  He’s been asking for a while if we could go see Ant-Man again, so we’ll be doing that. [Edit: apparently my ex-wife went out and bought the Ant-Man DVD for the M&Ms when she found out that we were planning to see that instead, we’ll have to find something else fun for the M&Ms to do.]  I offered him the choice, and he was hesitant, but finally decided that he’d rather go to Ant-Man.  Despite all this, I can’t help but feeling that I’m somehow letting him down or missing out on “important childhood memories” that I can never get back.  Even though I know, in my head, that the M&Ms will be better off not to be subjected to our arguments, I’m sad that they will miss out on this event because of things that had nothing to do with them.