Making a successful treasure hunt for kids can make any parent feel like a superhero. Any time you can gather a group of kids and create an activity that gets them working together and having fun is definitely a parenting win! But don’t worry if you don’t have a natural knack for creating treasure hunts — there’s lots of help available to get you started making clues and getting a fun treasure hunt started.
“The earlier children learn that fun and adventure isn’t just inside an app or on television while sitting on a couch, but outside exploring, the more they’ll be empowered to be healthy, curious and active later in life,” says Eric Schudiske of Geocaching, a real-world treasure hunting game where players use GPS-enabled devices to find hidden items. Here’s how to make your own treasure hunt in your neighborhood — a sure way to become the coolest mom ever.
A treasure hunt for kids can be created in so many ways — indoors, outdoors, in teams, by theme, costumed, for little kids, for big kids, for a birthday party, for a play date or for a sick day at home with just one sniffly little kid. It doesn’t have to be just for pirates! Harry Potter fans — wands at the ready — or fearless backyard explorers armed with a compass will have a completely different experience with just a few creative elements thrown in. The basics are always the same: Create about ten clues that lead kids over, under, around, through, in, out and finally to the goal — treasure.
“Good clues lead kids along a trail from a known location to an unknown location, giving oblique references to landmarks or other things they will recognize when they see them,” says Jayson Wechter, the creator of San Francisco Treasure Hunts. “When the kids know they’re on the right track, it increases their sense of excitement as they get closer to the place or thing they’re seeking.”
Some people confuse a treasure hunt with a scavenger hunt, but don’t make that rookie mistake. A scavenger hunt challenges players to find a set list of items, but a treasure hunt leads players through a series of clues they need to decode to arrive at one treasure.
Types of Clues
Treasure hunt games can also be a great teaching tool for your kids, even if they don’t realize it. “Geocaching is a great way to help teach distance, direction, problem solving and learn about nature,” says Schudiske. Center the clues around skills you’d like to promote: using compass points can teach children directions, but writing clues in cryptic riddles can promote problem solving and outside-the-box thinking.
If you’re good at coming up with riddles, more power to you — if you’re not, don’t despair! There are many other types of fun clues that will get your searchers using their noodles and working together. “The clue could be visual, too,” says Wechter, “like a series of photographs of small details or a close-up photo that can be spotted if the child is observant. This can make the treasure hunt an exercise in visual awareness, a kind of ‘Where’s Waldo’ in which they have to spot something specific in the environment that they might normally overlook.”
Try one of these creative clue ideas:
- Put a Message in a Bottle
Hide numbered bottles around the yard like organizers at Chica and Jo do, with each clue leading to the next bottle.
- Make Them Think
Make your own jigsaw puzzles by cutting the clues into pieces, and have your kids put the puzzle together to get the clue.
- Write in Invisible Ink
For a super-secret mission assigned to the world’s top spy, follow the Mad House’s lead and write your clues in invisible ink.
- Think “Cheep”
For an inexpensive option, use numbered plastic eggs with clues inside.
- Use a Compass
Hand kids a compass and directions to lead them from clue to clue. Learn how at Earth Easy.
- Go Natural
For an outdoor hunt, use natural markings and arrows on trees, rocks and the ground, like Red Ted Art suggests.
- Don’t Give Them a Clue
Ditch the clues altogether and have them follow a string to the treasure — My Kids’ Adventures proves it’s harder than it sounds.
Finding a hidden treasure can mean different things to different kids. Your prizes will depend largely on the age of the players and the goal of the activity. The prizes shouldn’t be expensive — the joy of a treasure hunt is in the journey more than the destination. Here are some ideas to get your imagination going.
- Beaded necklaces, rings, bracelets and tiaras
- Chocolate coins, gold foil-wrapped caramels or a 100 Grand candy bar
- Gold-colored snacks like golden raisins, fish-shaped crackers or cheese puffs
- Finger puppets
- Dress-up costumes
- Small toy cars
- Glow sticks
- Party room with treats and balloons
Cara J. Stevens is a freelance writer living in Connecticut with her husband and two children. She writes frequently about health, wellness, parenting, beauty and hair care, and she has written 9 books for children including three after school activity books. Find her on Facebook and Twitter