Monday, 18 July 2016

Pokémon Go: The Best Fitness Tracker for Kids?

OK, so you've heard about how Pokémon Go is getting kids outside. Is it really effective at getting kids fit and active? We love technology but it needs to be part of a balanced life where kids get exercise and learn other valuable skills. We're always looking for ways that technology can be used to encourage good habits.

We've only officially had Pokémon Go in the UK for a few days now and the servers have been down or patchy for some of that. But the weather has been gorgeous and we've had plenty of time to find out what all the fuss is about.

How Does Pokémon Go Encourage Exercise?

Pokémon Go encourages exercise in three ways:
  1. The game is played in the real-world by catching Pokémon (cartoon monsters) that appear at real locations. You'll catch the occasional wandering Pokémon by sitting at home on the sofa, but to really play the game you need to get out and about. Different Pokémon are more common in different locations so the game encourages you to move around.
  2. Pokémon Go uses real locations for Pokéstops where you need to go to collect items that you need for the game and for Gyms where you go to battle for prestige and rewards. This means that you need to physically visit these locations. In some areas this will encourage a lot of walking, though in cities these locations are likely to be very close together.
  3. Another way to collect Pokémon is to hatch an egg (these are found at Pokéstops.) Eggs take a specific amount of walking to hatch, either 2km, 5km or 10km. These are significant distances! If you're serious about hatching eggs then you'll end up walking a long way. You can receive or buy additional incubators to hatch multiple eggs at once, but even so there's plenty of walking to be done. 
In our experience Pokémon Go definitely encourages kids to walk. My kids have happily walked many miles this weekend to collect Pokémon, pick up more Pokéballs and hatch eggs.

Niantic will need to keep adding to the games to make sure the motivation stays long term, but at the moment Pokémon Go is very effective.

You Need a Phone with Internet Access

You do need a phone (or tablet) with internet access. For younger kids this probably means playing the game on a parent's phone. This is how we're using it. I have Pokémon Go on my phone and we all walk together (it's working pretty well as a fitness motivator for me as well as the kids!) 

For older kids you'll need to think about whether they have enough data to play Pokémon Go. 

Pokémon as a Fitness Tracker

As well encouraging exercise, most people, kids included, like to use a fitness tracker to monitor how far they have walked. Does Pokémon Go do a good job of this? Well not at the moment. In our experience Pokémon Go is terribly inaccurate at calculating distances. The app uses GPS tracking to to calculate distances so if your GPS coverage is patchy this doesn't work well. There have also been lots of issues with the Pokémon servers being down or slow to respond which is also likely to affect the tracking. 

I wear a FitBit so I've been able to compare distances recorded. A Sunday morning walk in the countryside recorded 10 times as much on the FitBit as on the app. We headed back to an area where we'd had good coverage previously and got much better results. 

The lack of accuracy is really frustrating at the moment. Especially as the distances required are long. But I expect this will be a temporary issue that can be improved significantly as the app matures.

It's important to note that even if you were to let your kids take your phone with them to play in the garden or at the park, that activity probably wouldn't register. Because of the way the GPS works you need to be covering larger distances to get the activity registered, running around a lot in a small area won't register.

Slow cycling, scooting or skateboarding will work, but teens may go too fast for their activity to register. This may get adapted as players provide more feedback.

Note that people have found ways to cheat using drones, model railways and robotic vacuum cleaners so you might need to keep an eye on potential cheaters! Having said that, automation might be a fun way to make up for any activity that didn't get picked up by the app. 

Pokémon Go at School?

My 9 year old son wears a fitness tracker so he can see how far he has walked / run each day. He doesn't have a kids fitness tracker as they often have other features and wouldn't be allowed in school (where he does quite a bit of his exercise) and he prefers something more grown up anyway, instead he has a tracker that can be worn as a watch.

Of course young kids won't be able to take a phone to school so their walking won't be tracked in Pokémon Go. This is definitely a downside of using Pokémon Go for fitness tracking.

Older kids are likely to be prohibited from playing Pokémon Go while they're actually in school. At the moment the tracking is only effective while the app is running so exercise while at school won't be counted. Tracking exercise when walking to and from school might be an option though.

Pokémon Go Plus

The Pokémon Go Plus is a wearable that uses Bluetooth to connect to a phone. If playing with a young child you might prefer to have your child wear this to reduce the amount of time they have to spend holding your (expensive and important) phone.

It looks like the wearable is just a simple Bluetooth device so your child will need to be in range of your phone while wearing it.

A FitBit style tracker which records steps and syncs later would be a great product for the future.

Pokémon Go as a Fitness Tracker for Kids?

So is Pokémon Go the best fitness tracker for kids? For us it's definitely the best fitness motivator that we've found for the kids, and me. I can definitely see a future for real-world augmented-reality games getting kids active.

As a fitness tracker it's pretty weak at the moment. But it's only a few days old. I'm sure this will improve over time. It would also be brilliant if there was a wearable that didn't need rely on the phone for tracking which could be used by younger kids and during sports activities, or if the app would at least track walking in the background when the other features are turned off at school and during other activities. 

The motivation part is more important for us than the tracking (though it would be nice to have both!). Pokémon Go will definitely be getting me and my kids out and about more this summer. Once they're back at school then it won't be effective at motivating them while they're in school (luckily my kids don't need any motivating to run around at school, but some do.)

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