Philanthropy Turns Out To Be A Good Way To Get Sedentary Kids To Exercise

The Kid Power fitness tracker–which converts steps taken into food donations for hungry children across the globe–is also pretty effective at raising kids’ heart rates.

Philanthropy Turns Out To Be A Good Way To Get Sedentary Kids To Exercise

When sedentary kids strap on this Fitbit-like wearable, they might start exercising, at least temporarily. But they’ll work out harder and longer if they know that their activity is also helping someone else.


The Kid Power band, developed by UNICEF, lets kids use exercise to “unlock” a donation of a food packet to a child in need somewhere else in the world. Over the past two years, independent research has found that the program’s combination of philanthropy and activity works: Children in the program–most of whom come from low-income backgrounds–are 55% more active in a day than kids who only have a fitness tracker. A second study found that children using the program met their daily activity goals 30% more often. For low-income children, where activity gaps are most prevalent, these jumps are especially significant.

“The simple idea of helping is something that’s incredibly empowering to children,” says Rajesh Anandan, senior vice president of strategic partnerships at UNICEF and co-creator of Kid Power. “The basic need that all children have–and frankly grownups as well–is to feel like what we do matters, and that we are significant. Helping save another child’s life nurtures and addresses that in a really profound way.”

Like many other wearables, the Kid Power band tracks steps. But those steps are linked, via an app, to points that translate into a real donation of food to a child who is malnourished. It’s meant to address two parallel problems: In the U.S., one in four kids are sedentary; globally, one in four kids are malnourished. Severe malnutrition goes beyond simple hunger and requires urgent medical treatment; UNICEF’s therapeutic food packets provide that treatment.

The app also includes videos about the children receiving food donations. “When we talked to kids, they really wanted to know what the lives of the kids that they could be helping were really like,” says Sven Newman, a founder at Daylight Design, the San Francisco-based firm that helped develop the strategy and experience design for the app.

“One of the most compelling things that went into the app was videos of a kid in a country where they were doing their ‘mission,’ and really understanding what the life of that kid was like–where did she go to school, what was her family like, what did she do after school, what did her home look like,” Newman says. “Just creating that human connection ended up really being a powerful motivator.”

The app includes typical game features, like badges and social feedback. But Newman says “the most powerful game dynamic we had was a sense of higher purpose.”


The Kid Power band initially launched as a pilot program low-income schools in Sacramento, California in October 2014, and quickly scaled to thousands of schools. In most schools participating in the Kid Power program, over 60% of students are receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Some don’t have P.E. programs or playgrounds. Partners such as Target have helped fund donations of the wearables and the in-app “missions,” which have an additional cost. Target also sells the band separately in stores.

Collectively, children using the wearable have donated more than five million packets of food to more than 30,000 severely malnourished kids elsewhere. And they’ve established healthier habits themselves.

“If it’s just an activity tracker, for a couple of weeks it’s a shiny new toy and it’s exciting,” says Anandan. “And then kids are done with it. Whereas what we’ve seen with Kid Power–anecdotally as well as we can see in our data–we still have kids a year later who are still getting active. And we’re now reaching hundreds of thousands of kids through this program.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.