Get Your Kids Out The Door In Seconds With This Simple Game Backed By Science

Sam Liberty
9 min readJan 7, 2024

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Here’s the scene. Christmas Vacation has just started. It’s cold, but it’s not snowing. Instead the rain is spitting. Your kids are in their PJs and seem to be hunkering down for the long haul: an extra long break that’s going to last for 12 whole days like some ungodly carol come to life. There are new video games and devices under the tree waiting to be unwrapped.

Short of the jaws of life, how on earth are you going to get your kids off the couch and out of the house? Do you threaten them? Bribe them? Or resign yourself to almost two weeks of cabin fever?

Answer: None of the above. Use gamification and get your kids out the door in minutes, or less.

The Inertia Problem

The problem we are trying to solve here is one of intertia. If you’ve ever been comfy on a couch and then remembered the dishes need to be done, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Disrupting yourself when you’re at a comfortable equilibrium is hard.

For kids, it’s even worse. Not only do they not want to get dressed, not only do they not want to get off the couch, not only do they not want to put on their shoes and jackets and leave the house, they actually have no idea why some one would even ask them to do this.

“Fresh air” or “breaking up monotony so you don’t go mad” are meaningless to them. Thus, the aforementioned threats and bribes are typically the go-to move to get kids up, dressed, and out the door.

My older son is particularly stubborn about these things. He fights hard at every step of the way, sometimes the point of yelling and tears. Then, when we finally get to the place (A place he likes! A playground or a park!) he tries to punish us by committing to have a horrible time, or refusing to get out of the car.

Gamification To The Rescue

If you couldn’t tell, all of the above is based on a true story. To solve the problem, I had to apply some serious behavioral science. Thankfully, my years of training led me to a simple solution that anyone can copy and is virtually guaranteed to work.

When most people think about gamification, they think about badges, levels, progress trackers, and rewards. I’ve used gamification like this with my kids, and it works. It’s akin to a carrot-and-stick approach, and the “stick” part was more motivating than the carrot. It helps with long term behavior change, but for this particular challenge, I didn’t want another new way to threaten or bribe my kids. I just wanted something that I could quickly do that would motivate them to detach their butts from a cushion.

The “game” I designed to solve the problem is exceedingly simple. It’s called The Hat Of Fun.

The Hat Of Fun

How to play

First, I grabbed a piece of construction paper off the messy pile of stuff in the dining room (what, you don’t have one of those?). I quickly tore off three smaller squares of paper for each of my kids.

Next, I instructed them to write down on each slip of paper a place where they might like to go. In this case, I told them it could be anything as long as it was free and not too far to drive.

If there was one place they really wanted to go, they could write it more than once. They could write the same place three times, or write three different places, or some other combination. It was totally up to them.

My older son (9m) took advantage of that, writing “downtown” multiple times. My younger son was more interested in variety and listed three separate places.

Once I had these slips, I folded them in fourths and dropped them into a cool hat that I had from a LARP I attended a few years ago.

I shook them up, and then had my younger son close his eyes and reach into the hat.

He did so, then unfolded the paper, which was one that he had written himself. It said “Forest River Park,” coincidentally the exact place I would have taken them if it were up to me.

The Results

After decades of experience making games and interventions for all kinds of people in all kinds of demographics, The Hat Of Fun might be the most successful thing I have ever designed. It worked instantly, with no need to iterate or test.

Unlike previous outings where I had to argue, threaten, and repeatedly prompt them to get up, get ready, and get out the door, the kids immediately accepted what we were doing. They put on their coat and shoes with no arguments whatsoever. They went directly to the car and buckled their seatbelts. Then we drove to the park and had a very fun time! No complaints. No counter-offers or negotiations. No whining and self- punishment. No dragging of feet when it came to getting dressed and ready.

And then (and this is the best part, in my opinion), we did it four more times during the course of the vacation and it worked the same way.

Every single time.

Each time going forward, I asked my sons to write one additional item each to put into the hat. This kept the hat full and helped balance the entries (so that if Finn’s slip isn’t chosen the first time, he has better odds the second time). It also kept the game fresh.

So it worked. But why?

Here Comes The Science

Why the Hat worked boils down to simple psychology, game design principles, and behavioral science.

Here are the design patterns along with the principles at work.

Self Determination

This is extremely important to the success of the design. Rather than being top down (“Kids, we are going to the park now. Get your stuff.”), the choice architecture is bottom-up. Basically, I let them tell me where they wanted to go, and then we went. This takes advantage of many BeSci fundamentals including Ownership Effect, Support Choice Bias, and Self Determination Theory.

These concepts all boil down to us humans being more accepting of concepts we generate ourselves rather than those forced upon us by others. An item or course of action becomes more appealing purely because we previously chose it. And letting them take control over their day is empowering.

Now, you might be thinking, “Why not just ask them where they want to go in the first place?”

The answer has to do with indecisiveness and engagement-killing time lag. Ultimately, our solution must be fast.

Elimination Of Overchoice / Better Choice Architecture

Ketchup? Catsup?

When you ask a kid “Where do you want to go?” you are showing your trust in them. However, you are also putting them into a classic situation of Overchoice. The question is so open that almost anything could be an answer. With so many choices to pick from, it’s very difficult for a young child to analyze the options and decide.

On the other hand, if we narrow the options for them (for instance by saying, “Would you like to go to the park or the pool?”) we run the risk of triggering automatic opposition and getting the answer “Neither!” or “I want to stay home!” and then it all starts up again.

The choice architecture of the Hat is ideal because I asked them not to decide where to go, but only to list places they would want to go. In this way, they are not making a choice for themselves now, but creating options for a future self (even if that future is imminent). It’s also much easier to make good choices for our future self than it is to make them for ourselves in the moment.

Lastly, siblings frequently disagree with each other. What if one says they want to go the park and the other says they want to go to the pool?

The way forward must be fair.

Fairness

One of the key concepts I’ve landed upon in gamification for young children is the all-importance of fairness. Kids develop a sense of fairness (and therefore of righteous indignation) at a very young age. How young? As early as age three.

If one kid asks for the pool and the other the park, I now have to settle the argument. This is inherently unfair, because my choice would be arbitrary, or at least seem that way to the kids. It’s also a betrayal to ask where they want to go and then not honor it.

In “The Moral Development Of The Child,” famed psychologist Jean Piaget examines the stages of moral understanding in children through the lens of game rules. As the kids mature, their sense of what is fair becomes sharper and it becomes clearer that what is fair is what is mutually beneficial and agreed upon by all. A rule is fair when it does not privilege any party over another.

The Hat Of Fun achieves this through randomness. Each child has the exact same odds of having their card pulled. As time goes on, the odds self-correct to favor the child who has had the fewest cards pulled. And the kids can even influence the odds by writing the same items more than once. It’s a great balance of control and randomness. But it’s also important that the kids find it not just fair, but fun.

Unpredictability

Yu-Kai Chou lists Unpredictability & Curiosity as one of the eight core drives of human motivation in his Octalysis Framework.

We people are naturally driven to mess with things and then see what happens. And our brain chemistry finds rewards much more rewarding when that reward is a surprise. This is why many modern games’ revenue are driven by Loot Box mechanics. They more closely resemble slot machines than traditional video game rewards.

Leveraging this drive can be considered a “black hat” gamification tactic, especially if it drives addictive behavior. However, in many games, such as ones centered around exploration and discovery, it’s perfectly safe. The Hat Of Fun uses it to create curiosity. In fact, I would say this drive is absolutely core to why it works. It’s what makes the Hat fun in the first place.

In order to get a grime, crumb, and pajama-encrusted child off a couch, a strong motivation is necessary. The curiosity and unpredictability of “what will come out of the Hat?” accomplishes this, especially because there is a good chance that what will come out of the hat is something they themselves wrote.

I’ve considered turbo charging this design pattern by adding a few things to the hat myself: special surprises that are extra wonderful and only I know about, like jumping at Sky Zone or a trip to Boston’s Science Museum. This would greatly increase the unpredictability of the Hat and the variability in the potential reward’s perceived value.

I haven’t yet because the Hat already works so well and I am worried about undermining my kids’ self-determination. But if the Hat’s power starts to fade, I have a secret weapon in my back pocket.

Fast, Fun, and Fair

All of the above has led me to a new framework for gamification for kids. I call it Fast, Fun, and Fair. I will be writing more about this in my next article in the series. Until then, keep it fun!

HEY, MOM AND DAD: This article is part of the series “Better Parenting Through Behavioral Science & Gamification.” See the rest of my articles on this topic here.

Sam Liberty is a father of two, and gamification expert and serious game consultant. He teaches game design at Northeastern University and was lead game designer at Sidekick health.

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Sam Liberty

Lead Game Designer at Sidekick Health. Co-Founder of Extra Ludic; Designing and teaching serious games for social change and real-world impact