Illustration by Chris Gash 

In 1950, during the weeks that followed Halloween, employees at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF noticed that a stream of checks, for amounts big and small, had started to arrive in the organization’s mailbox. The checks were donations to support UNICEF’s work to help children in countries that were still recovering from the devastation wrought by the Second World War. The employees soon discovered that the contributions came from children who had collected coins while trick-or-treating on Halloween night.

That fundraising drive, led by the Reverend Clyde Allison, Mary Emma Allison, and their children in Philadelphia, quickly became a model for other communities, and the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF campaign became a national tradition. Today, every October, more than one million elementary school kids collect change in little orange boxes to help children in need around the world.

A lot has changed in the lives of American children during the past six decades. Door-to-door trick-or-treating has become less common. Video games and other forms of digital entertainment have limited the time that kids devote to physical play. The television set in the living room is no longer the only screen in the house. In response to these changes, our team at the U.S. Fund started to incorporate technology into the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF campaign. When social media grew popular, we launched Halloween photo contests on Facebook and Instagram. When smartphones became ubiquitous, we created a pumpkin-carving app. But in modernizing the campaign, we neglected the element that had made it successful in the first place: kids’ intrinsic desire to help other kids.

In 2014, we began to roll out UNICEF Kid Power, a program that works with schools and families to promote both fitness and global citizenship. Kid Power builds on the “kids helping kids” tradition that began with Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF and uses wearable technology to embed philanthropy into children’s daily lives. The program combines a wrist-worn device called the UNICEF Kid Power Band with the Kid Power App. Together, the device and the app allow participants to link physical activity with an opportunity to achieve positive social impact. Kid Power is, we believe, the world’s first “wearable for good” initiative.

The Future of PE

The Lancet, a UK-based medical journal, has called physical inactivity a “global pandemic.” Among children in industrialized countries like the United States, the problem has reached an especially alarming stage. According to Let’s Move Active Schools (which is part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative), two-thirds of US children today are insufficiently active, and the Physical Activity Council reports that about one-quarter of them actually have “sedentary” lifestyles. Budget limitations and the pressure to focus on academic performance, meanwhile, have constrained efforts to initiate or expand physical education (PE) programs in schools. Indeed, only 4 percent of Title I schools—schools with a high percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches—have daily PE requirements.

To date, school-based initiatives to solve this problem have been difficult to sustain or scale up. Given the high cost of operating a PE program, many schools have focused on using curriculum-based interventions, but those interventions have limitations. They typically require significant class time and are highly dependent on teachers’ ongoing effort and enthusiasm. So there is a pressing need for approaches to increasing students’ physical activity that are easy to integrate into other classroom activity and do not rely on teachers’ motivation alone.

Kids in other parts of the world face a very different problem. Worldwide, one in four children under the age of five—about 159 million children—is malnourished, and 16 million of those children suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), a life-threatening condition. SAM often requires specialized care, but it’s also possible to treat this condition quickly and cost-effectively by providing a regimen of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), a peanut-based paste that is packed with protein and other nutrients. UNICEF and its partners are working to deliver this life-saving treatment. Yet as recently as 2014, they were able to reach only 19 percent of children who suffer from SAM.

UNICEF Kid Power aims to address both of these crises with a single solution. When participants engage in physical activity while wearing their Kid Power Bands, they earn Kid Power points. Those points unlock funding from corporate sponsors, parents, and other supporters, and UNICEF uses that funding to deliver RUTF packets to severely malnourished children around the world. The more kids move, the more points they earn—and the more children they help.

Today American kids spend seven hours a day—in other words, most of their non-school waking hours—in front of a TV, computer, or mobile device screen. Devices of that kind aren’t necessarily bad; in fact, they can deliver content and games that promote learning and health. But when we started working on Kid Power, we discovered that most existing wearable technology products for children were created to provide entertainment. Even products that claim to encourage positive behavior, we found, rely on prizes and other extrinsic rewards that do nothing to sustain kids’ interest or attention. So we decided to create our own wearable offering.

To develop Kid Power, we worked with some of the world’s leading designers and engineers. We also collaborated with two founding partners: Calorie Cloud, a nonprofit organization, provided a technology platform that we were able to adapt for use in resource-constrained school settings. And the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF provided seed funding to develop a classroom experience that combines easy-to-use technology with a standards-based curriculum.

The technology component has three elements. First, every student in a participating class receives a Kid Power Band. Second, every classroom gets a tablet that students can use to sync and charge their bands. And third, students use the Kid Power App (which comes with the tablet) to check individual impact and to track group progress. The technology has been certified as safe for children and is intuitive enough for third-graders to start using on their own. The Kid Power curriculum consists of weekly lessons and includes case studies, worksheets, games, and multimedia resources. We have taken care to align the curriculum with national content standards and Common Core State Standards, and teachers can easily adapt it to suit their schedules and needs.

Technology has always shaped human civilization—from the stone tools that marked the dawn of the Stone Age to the array of digital tools that define the Information Age. From the beginning, these tools have had the potential either to cause harm or to catalyze progress. Unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as drones) can threaten lives or save them. Virtual reality can isolate people or build empathy between them. Mobile apps can be mind-numbing or mind-expanding. And a wrist-worn device can deliver mere entertainment, or it can be an empowering wearable-for-good product.

The Power of Empathy

In October 2014, after numerous classroom pilots, we launched the first city-wide implementation of UNICEF Kid Power in Sacramento, Calif. More than 800 elementary school students in that city joined the program, and by March 2015 we had expanded Kid Power to thousands of students in Boston, Dallas, and New York City. In each of these cities, local donors helped support the program, and city offcials and school administrators helped us bring Kid Power to high-need schools. By March 2016, the program will reach more than 70,000 elementary school students in 15 cities across the United States and Europe, and pilot versions of Kid Power will be under way in middle-school and after-school settings.

To expand the school program and to extend Kid Power into retail channels, we worked with our presenting sponsors, Star Wars: Force for Change and Target Corp. In November 2015, Target began selling several versions of the Kid Power Band—including two Star Wars: Force for Change editions. Now families everywhere can join Kid Power by purchasing a band and downloading the Kid Power App. A portion of the price of each band goes to support Kid Power, so our retail program is effectively self-sustaining.

Kid Power has already yielded inspiring results. An independent evaluation conducted in Sacramento schools found that students who engaged in the program were 55 percent more active than their peers. A second independent evaluation, which covered schools in Boston, Dallas, and New York, produced similar results. That study found a 30 percent increase in the number of days when students met official daily requirements for moderate to vigorous physical activity. These findings show that empathy for others can be a powerful and enduring motivator for kids.

In all four cities, teachers gave the program positive feedback as well. A majority of teachers told evaluators that Kid Power technology was easy to use and that the curriculum was in alignment with academic standards. What’s more, 95 percent of teachers said that they would participate in Kid Power again. They also noted high levels of engagement among their students. One fifth-grader, according to his teacher, had this to say: “Every time my Kid Power Band vibrates, I feel like a superhero!”

Equally impressive, we believe, are the enthusiasm and creativity that kids have demonstrated in finding ways to become more active. We heard about an elementary school that saw participation in its walking club double. We heard about a group of fourth-graders who started playing pickup basketball before class. We heard about an 8-year-old girl who insisted that she and her mom get off the subway one stop earlier than usual so that they could add 10 blocks to their daily walk to school. And from a principal in Boston, we heard about a 10-year-old boy who had started taking the stairs in his apartment building as he headed to school every day. “I’m leaving now,” he reportedly said to his mother one morning. “Gonna take the stairs. Gotta feed the world!”

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