Sunday, September 29, 2019

How to use hiking gamification to engage children on the trail

With the amazing views above the tree line, our family became hooked on peak seeking.  But it was the gamification of collecting patches that got us hooked on completing the 46ers in the Adirondacks!  Here is how it happened...

As our preferred family time together, have always been committed to spending our time together camping, hiking, and outdoor adventures, but completing the 46ers has only recently been put on our radar.  Most of our family hikes have consist of local trails where we pack a lunch and set out for the day to rediscover the amazing outdoor spaces. We had previously hiked some small mountains, like Bear Mountain in New York and La Cloche in north-eastern Ontario but nowhere near the elevation of the Adirondack mountain range.  

We have always enjoyed our family hikes, but more recently we have been looking for the next big adventure (the next cool waterfall, a mountain with amazing views, a location we have yet to discover). 

The Adirondacks seemed like the perfect leveling up in our adventure quest.  The mountain range was relatively close to home (a five-hour drive across the border into the United States from Canada) and it offered the opportunity to test our skills and endurance as a hiking family.  

On our first trip to the Adirondacks, we summited Algonquin and Wright and we could not believe the amazing views from the top of the mountains. The peaks were well worth the effort (and pain) to make it to the top of the mountain and I was very pleased with just how well our children did on the hikes, especially on the long hiking day with some grueling climbs to the top of the mountains.

On our way home, we stopped in Lake Placid to look around at the local shops, as the children wanted some souvenirs from the trip. Most stores had all of the typical souvenirs: sweatshirts, t-shirts, mugs, keychains, etc.  But then we went into a store and found patches of the two mountains we had just climbed, and 44 other patches of mountains we could climb in the future.  Although our legs and feet were still sore from the long hike, we talked about how amazing it would be to come back every summer to hike more peaks and to eventually collect all of the patches from the 46ers.  And just like that, we were hooked.  The children talked about where they would put the patches.  One wanted them sowed on a sweater, the other wanted them on a blanket for her bed and the other wanted to make curtains with the patches to hang in her room.  

There are so many amazing feelings when we are on top of the mountains and so many great reasons for coming back, but we would be lying to ourselves if we did not admit that we also like gamification of collecting the patches and its influence on our commitment to complete the 46ers (why else would anybody hike up to Street Mountain!).     

The use of gamification in parenting 

The concept of gamification, also known as game theory or game-based mechanics, has traditionally focused on gaming activities on digital devices, such as computers, smartphones, and wearables with users earning gaming elements such as points and virtual badges.  

We find gamification strategies in our loyalty programs that give us points for purchases, in our watches that reward us with virtual badges for accomplishing our steps for the day and in our apps that track our fitness.  But the study of gamification has been gaining traction outside of the digital world.  Research has recently shown for example that adding games to family activities helps to make them more enjoyable and can have an important role to play in encouraging children and youth to engage in physical activity

As a buzzword, gamification is only a few years old, but parents have been using these same strategies on kids forever.   The gamification of parenting (aka positive rewards parenting) involves adding gaming elements to everyday tasks, such as scoring stickers for cleaned bedrooms, adding competition morning routines, winning prizes for good report cards and leveling up allowances for good deeds (Not sure if we could have ever potty trained without the use of stickers!!) 

Hiking gamification 

Hiking gamification is different than just tricking children to make hiking seem fun. It's about validating and rewarding children’s accomplishments and encouraging positive growth.  It is about providing children with the motivation to reach goals and to document their achievements. It is about acknowledging that there are parts of hiking that can be challenging (e.g. pushing the last hour to the summit, walking the long trail back to the car, feeling sticky and cold from the rain, etc.) and rewarding them for persevering beyond the challenges and obstacles.     

There are many ways to integrate gamification into hiking with children:
  • Giving children patches for completed mountain tops; 
  • Certificates of completion for long trails so that children can hang them on the walls in the room;
  • Virtual badges on their smartphone devices for reaching their step goals while on the trail;
  • Competing in a scavenger hunt of items typically found in the forest and giving points for the person with the most items found while on the trail; 
  • Have children take pictures along the trail and then post them to social media to see which one gets the most ‘likes’
  • Stopping at an ice cream store after hikes to celebrate a job well done;
  • Allow children to buy new hiking boots after they have reached a specified target goal. 

Parents should experiment with different types of gamification and its impact on motivation and engagement with the sport.  Not all children will respond to the same types of rewards so it is important to make sure the reward system meets the specific needs and interests of the child.

The limits of hiking gamification 

Hiking gamification is only a tool and, like everything parenting related, it needs to be used in moderation.  Using hiking gamification is about finding the right balance for your family. It can be great when it’s a fun incentive for your children to do push to the mountain top but relying too heavily on gamifying every challenge runs the risk of imparting the wrong message about the benefits of hiking.   

Hiking as a family is about reconnecting, spending time together in the outdoors, and away from everyday distractions.  Too much focus on games and rewards can distract from the enjoyment of walking in the woods and soaking in all of the amazing discoveries that nature has to offer. 

The ultimate prize of hiking does not come from a badge, a treat, or the ice cream cone after the hike, but rather from the thrill of being in nature and hiking together as a family.  


As a hiking family, we are committed to the enjoyment of outdoor spaces and spending time on the trails together.  Hiking is an activity that we do as a family to stay connected and to participate in shared activities.  The motivation to hike as a family is based on shared meaning and enjoyment of spending time together.  

Gamification is a tool that we can use as parents to help our children get over the obstacles on the trail and to motivate them to accomplish tasks that they find difficult or challenging and to focus on our shared activity when life seems too busy to carve out time to spend together.  We continue to enjoy all kinds of hiking trails, but gamification keeps us on track for completing the 46ers. Once we do, we will be looking again for our next big adventure.


No comments:

Post a Comment