Homeschool,  Life,  Reality

How Poker Chips Saved My Sanity

A few years ago, I realized that I was outnumbered by children in my house. I know that is a logical conclusion when you have three kids and two parents, but the reality can sometimes catch you off guard. When the kids graduated out of toddlerville, I needed to come up with a way to manage and handle all of the expectations, chores and rewards in our house. I tried chore charts, stickers, and posters. I attempted morning motivational meetings where we set up the expectations for the day. I wrote out a daily schedule of events. I set up consequences and rules.  None of it stuck.

But then came poker chips. And the system worked. And it lasted. It’s been working for years now. We started it with toddlers and even now as teenagers, my daughters and son are still comfortable with the chip system.  Since it’s worked so well for us, I thought it might be time to share!

Now first let me  say that these chips do not need to be expensive at all. You can use simple chips like these ones:


The concept is simple.  Kids can do extra jobs or chores for poker chips which can then be turned in for screen time or ‘extras’ around the house. One white chip equals 15 minutes of screen time. (So 2 chips if you want to watch a 30 minute show.) Screen time involves any tablet, game, computer, etc. If you are staring at a screen, you need to pay for that time.   

You can save those chips too if you want. Five white chips can be turned in for a blue chip. (That’s equal to ‘paying’ for a family movie for the evening.)  And equivalently, five blue chips can be turned in for a red chip.  Note – some poker chip sets come with  green or black  chips. As the kids got older, we tried incorporating these larger  chips for bigger  rewards, but it didn’t work as well for us. It got too complicated for everyone and I discovered it was just easier to work with red chips as the top. If you have older kids you’re starting this with though, you might be able to go ahead and build a system that includes those levels. I’m thinking if kids are older and you’re starting out with those higher levels, it may be easier to manage.

The red chips were where my kids really took off on this idea. I came up with a chart of what you could do with red and blue chips. If the kids worked together, they could save up enough red chips to earn a family movie OUT. All the kids had to put in a certain number of red chips in order to make this happen. They could also pay for ice cream out for the family, etc.

We based how many red chips each of these activities would take by counting red chip as $5. We also told them that they could use the red chip as a $5 bill if they saw something at the store that they wanted. Note: We did have that backfire once when my 11-year-old, who had been hoarding chips for almost a year, hit me up at Walmart with a whole pouch of red chips for a massive Lego set.  We ended up letting him get it because we wanted to honor our agreement, but from that point on, the kids had a $20 limit unless previously approved with mom and dad.



What do you need?? Here are a few tips to get you started!

Let the kids make their own chip jar. We have used empty peanut butter jars, yogurt containers, cool whip containers, and pencil cases.  One of our favorites was a plastic tub that baby wipes come in. 🙂 All of them worked pretty well, but I do encourage you to choose something with a lid.  This lets them feel ownership over the new system. They are excited to show off their jars and proud to put things in their jars. (Note – if you have a child that is especially sound  sensitive, try to  choose something that will give a satisfying noise when the chip drops in. Or when it gets shaken. This helped my son LOVE the project – even if I had to deal with some crazy maraca noises for a while!)

Find a storage location for the jar. We tried several things before we finally settled on the entertainment center for our storage. When we let the kids keep them in their rooms, they either got lost or there were accusations of theft. It was a little messy to have to ‘reboot’ a couple of times when containers got lost. Storing them in a central location that was somewhat ‘on display’ helped each kid keep an eye on their jar. Many times, I would hear the kids showing off how much was in their jars to each other.

Build a chart.  I had a friend who said they couldn’t do this with their toddlers because the system would be too hard to understand. It’s really not. If you get a piece of poster board, you can draw colored circles to represent the chips and then a symbol to let them know what it’s good for.  A little clock with a 15 on it works! You can even get one of those dial/rotary timers and use a marker to put coordinating color dots at 15, 30, 45 if you’re worried about them understanding the concept. When my son was 5, he would bring me a chip along with the timer. When he ‘paid’ me the chip, he would turn the timer to the correct dot and then go to watch his show.

You have to stick with it.  You can start things off with giving them a couple of chips to start or asking them to do small jobs to earn the chips.  But when they ask for screen time, get  into the habit of asking for the chips right away. They need to know that the chips are THE ONLY WAY they get screen time or extras.

Deciding the chores. We never counted daily tasks or picking up after yourself as a chore to be rewarded. They were always extra things the kids could do in order to earn.  We figured out how much some of the chores were worth by how many steps the job would take or if it took teamwork, etc. Take age into account.

Chip-stravaganza. On some days, we needed all hands on deck to get the house clean for a special event, etc. On those days, I told the kids they could earn as many chips as they could work for. I would sit on the couch (or in a central location) and hold my chip jar (a margarita glass shaped candy dish) and have all the kids line up in front of me. Then I would assign fast tasks (clean up that end table or pick up all the things off the floor before we vacuum, etc) and the kids could earn a white chip for that task. They would get their chips instantly, but be assigned another task right then. We have done ‘burst’ cleaning sessions that way and everyone ends up happy. The house gets clean and the kids have full chip jars at the end.

The biggest thing is to adapt it to work for you. You can start it easily and simply with things you already have around your house for the chip jars and maybe use buttons or legos until you get your chips. Don’t let it get so big in your mind that you don’t get started! 🙂

If you have suggestions, questions or if you try it, I’d love to hear how things work for you!