Treasure hunts are very, very big in my family. When we were growing up, the kids in my grandmother’s neighborhood would knock at her door to ask when we were coming for our annual summer visit. They were waiting for my brother and his annual spectacular treasure hunt, which ranged over the entire neighborhood and was full of complicated and thrilling clues.
Today, people often make treasure hunts for their kids, usually for special occasions like birthday parties. I think that’s great, but only as far as necessary to teach and encourage kids to make their own.
Why? Because while making a treasure hunt is hard, it is exactly as much of a challenge as it needs to be for each kid. Treasure hunt clues can be complex ciphers or simple drawings of household objects. They are completely adaptable to the skills and interests of the children making them.
Your children will come up with clues and inside jokes with each other that you could not possibly imagine. They have fun making the hunt, love solving it, are super excited watching each other solve it, and perhaps most importantly, feel gratitude to their sibling or friend for making something nice for each other.
Here are some tips to support a kid-made treasure hunt.
1. Show them how it is done. A treasure hunt is not a scavenger hunt, in which participants go through a list of objects they must find. A treasure hunt is about deciphering clues. You have to make a few inspirational hunts for the kids first, so that they understand how it works. Limit it to about 10 clues and keep them fairly easy to start. Each clue can lead to the hiding place of the next clue, or they can all work together toward resolving one final message about the location of the hidden “treasure.”
You can just draw pictures of household objects or write simple clues like “fridge” for your youngest sleuths. If you feel crafty, you can make a clue and cut it into a few puzzle-shaped pieces that the kids must assemble to solve. For older kids, riddles and coded clues add to the challenge. If you have several children of different ages or ability following the clues together, star a few of the simplest ones and ask the kids to let the youngest take a try at those first. If you are making a very large and difficult treasure hunt for many children, they can all work together or, if they prefer to be on teams or in smaller groups, you can make several copies of each clue and ask the kids to take just one when they find it (this is really up to you and the personalities of the kids). For the final clue, hide a box of candies or toys or some small items that would thrill your children. Make sure the box is distinctive, but it can be pretty simple. This is our go-to treasure chest:
2. Once your kids have the idea, you can encourage them to make their own treasure hunt. A surefire way to spark this in our household is a box of small treats like scented crayons, chocolate coins, or other little delights that I keep stocked and tell the kids that they can only use for the treasure in treasure hunts. They LOVE to pick out a treat to hide for their sibling or friend. But I keep it very small and that seems to please them. If they want to make a treasure hunt for you, you might ask them to make you a special note or drawing as the final treasure.
3. Set out large colored index cards and fresh markers for the clues. It really helps if the clues look a little different from ordinary pieces of paper. Fresh markers start any project off well!
4. Encourage the children to number the clues. This makes it much easier to keep track of the order. One of the hardest things for younger kids to remember is how to hide and order the clues. If there is a clue leading to a toy box, they will get confused and try to hide that clue in the toy box rather than in the preceding hiding place. Working backward as they hide the clues, from the final treasure to the first clue, seems to help with this issue.
5. Get some books on riddles and also some on codes and ciphers out of the library. For older children, this can be all the spark you need! They’ll want to use the codes for something once they know how to make them, and a treasure hunt is the perfect vehicle. Riddle books help them create their own riddles, or they may use some straight from the books. My children used the riddle, “What gets wet the more it dries?” in a clue leading to the towels in the bathroom, and the riddle, “I have keys but they never go in locks!” to lead to a clue on the piano. An inspiring book might be The Eleventh Hour, by Graeme Base. The entire book is a whodunnit picture puzzle with a ciphered message to solve at the end.
6. Let them do it their way. You’ll have visions in your head of how they should do the clues and they’ll decide to do something of their own. If you are asking them to make the treasure hunt for something educational and on a theme, let them make some off-topic clues. They might give too many hints to each other or repeat clues or do the whole hunt in illegible writing. Try to avoid too much guidance and let them figure it out and explain it to each other. If the whole thing falls apart, help out if they want it, of course, but trust that they are going to have a great time with each other. And if the children are fairly young, stay generous about making them the occasional hunt; they will be so thrilled to solve it and your clues will inspire them to try new types of codes and ideas in their own treasure hunts.