We’re into the dog days of summer and my kids are running out of new things to keep them busy. Here’s a productive activity for one child or a whole group that will encourage exploration and discovery, as well as work their brains: a scavenger hunt!

A scavenger hunt is easier and quicker to arrange than a treasure hunt because the items to be found are already in existence. If there is time to organize and the kids are more interested in solving riddles that will lead them to a hidden object, plan a treasure hunt. Both are loads of fun. Or, depending on the age group, mix it up and combine them. If you’re like me and need to do something spontaneous, a scavenger hunt it is.

This adventure is waiting in your own back yard and doesn’t require much prep work. Don’t have much space in your yard? Use a local beach or park and have the kids find and collect what nature has discarded. Tailoring the objects to the location provides a ready-made list; or print out one of several pre-made versions available online. (See wikihow.com/Create-a-Scavenger-Hunt or search for “scavenger hunt ideas” under Images.)

I like to be creative and make my own. Don’t forget to use open-ended ideas to foster independent thinking. Examples are: “Look for something thin”; “Find something that begins with the letter ‘A’”; “Collect two objects that are green.”

Here are some other suggestions on how to have a hunt and gather of your own.

Tools: Arm each child with a pencil and a basket or bag for collection. Supply specialized equipment like a small spade if there will be digging involved.

Decide on the goal and prize: You’ve got the power. Are the players to get the most items during a timed hunt or is it a contest of whoever finds everything on the list first?

Kids are inquisitive. They really won’t care either way and will enjoy the journey just as much as the reward. Choose an inexpensive prize of stickers, a bag of candy or a blue ribbon. I think the longer they scamper around the better. They get great exercise and are tired by bedtime. Plus, I enjoy watching them. I know exactly where they are while I relax in a lawn chair with a tall glass of lemonade.

Lay out the rules: In public locations there should be no picking plants or disturbing wildlife. Point out boundaries of property lines and “off-limits” areas such as waterways, climbing trees or neighbors’ yards. Remind the hunters to be respectful of others.

Lists for the little ones: Include toddlers by using plastic eggs in well-seen places. Use pictures of tactile items such as smooth stones, soft dandelions and bumpy sea shells for preschoolers who cannot read. With elementary kids who can sound out simple words, sneak in objects that will help them learn about their environment (what is moss and where will I find it?). Help them along. If an item might be difficult to find, give map-like clues such as “Take three steps from the shed and look for red rocks.” Sometimes “X” needs to mark the spot.

Challenge the older kids: Instead of listing the item, have teens use their phones or iPods to research. Prompts such as “This is Canada’s most popular symbol” will be more of a test than asking them to find a maple leaf. Make them think with clues like “Putting this under your chin means you like butter.”

Ready, set, go! Be sure to explain what they’re going to do, because as soon as the lists are in their hands, they’ll be off and running. These hunts are so versatile they can be altered for nearly any time or place. Feeling cooped up on a rainy day? Try an indoor hunt. A long road trip becomes an opportunity for “collecting” out-of-state license plates, foreign cars, or other families on the highway. A research scavenge is quiet. Have them find information for vacation destinations (When did Disney land open? Who was Martha’s Vineyard named after?). For more specialized hunts check out mykidsadventures.com/scavenger-hunt-ideas.

And the winner is … Everyone is a winner. For my scavenger hunt I can recycle and return to nature what my children have borrowed with nary a carbon footprint left behind. They have a sense of adventure and completion, and I’ve had a moment to put my feet up. My kids are so inspired by this game they will make up their own for days afterwards, too, giving me a break from hearing “I’m bored!”


Laura Livingston Snyder is a writer and mother of four who lives north of Syracuse. She blogs at freshapplesnyder.com.

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