Scavenger Hunt

Games and play are a great way to help kids develop skills, learn to manage their emotions, and develop resilience. Disguised as fun, they can force kids to face down challenges, and struggle through adversity. It’s a topic my friend Dr. Kristen Milliken, of Your ADHD Life, writes about in her book, PlayDHD.

With Kristen’s book in mind, I recently ran a scavenger hunt for my twin boys. In this case, it was the kind where they started with one clue, which led to another, and then another, and so on, until they got to the treasure at the end – a small box containing Legos, a magic eight ball, gummies, and a book.

It was a fun thing to develop, and it was clear that it made my boys feel valued and loved. My thinking as developed it, as well as the methodology for setting things up is below.


Notes on Goals:

My main reason for doing it was to give them a fun experience, and a good memory. However, as I set it up, I had some sub goals that I also wanted to address:

Riddles are Fun!

I wanted to challenge their problem solving skills, but not so much that things became so frustrating that it wasn’t fun. To do this, I set up each scavenger hunt clue as a riddles written in the first person.

For example, during backyard movie nights we roast marshmallows and make s’mores at the fire pit in our backyard. The clue for that location read, “I warm those watching outside and make movie nights sweeter.”

Map Reading is a Useful Skill

My boys are in upper elementary school, at the age where they can handle reading maps, but don’t get much opportunity to do so. I want them exposed to that skill, so I made four out of the twelve clues in the hunt maps. Three of the maps they got at the location they had to use it, and one they had to figure out the location from the map and then use the map to determine where in the location to look for the next clue. The maps ranged from a satellite photo with an “X” on it, to a minimalist sketch of local streets. They navigated each of them, but I did have to teach them how to hold maps to better orient themselves as they used them. One I intentionally labeled and drew so that, if you were orienting it correctly, the words would be upside down.

Self-Advocating Matters

Self advocating, and talking to strangers is a skill kids have to develop. To that end, I placed some of the clues in locations where this could be practiced. I went to our town library, a breakfast joint we frequent, and our local Y, and asked people at each location to hold the clues for my guys. Luckily, they all agreed. The clues had already been made.

Note – the breakfast joint was busy when I got there, so rather than just ask them to hold the clue, I ordered muffins for the boys, and an egg sandwich for myself. I then asked them to put the clue in the bag, paid for it all, and told them we’d be back to pick it all up when the boys got to that clue. When the boys got there, I sent them in by themselves to get the food, while ran an errand at the bank. Independence!

Code Breaking Works Your Brain Muscles

Logic and problem solving is also a worthwhile and fun challenge. To that end, I wrote two clues in a simple cypher (A=Z, B=Y, etc…) In order to get the clues, the boys had to break the code and then translate the riddle. I did this for the first clue, and the one at the Y. The reason being that both were inside, so I didn’t have to risk the paper getting wet. I also included a pencil in the envelope with the Y’s riddle in it so the boys could more easily decipher the code.

Good Memories Foster Healthy Emotions

I mentioned that my main motivation for this activity was to give the boys a fun memory. Closely related to that was a desire to help them remember past good times. The boys have been on a bit of a negative kick lately, and I wanted to remind them that we’ve done some pretty cools tuff just in our regular travels around town. To that end, I tied many of the clues to places we frequently have fun in, have been fun in the past, or are tied to our common travels. I revealed this about 1/2 of the way through the hunt, to help them solve one of the riddles. Suddenly our travels from one clue to the next became filled with their stories and recollections of the things we had done at the various places we had visited during the day. It made me feel really good to hear them talk about their memories of playing at playgrounds they had outgrown, the times we had gone out to breakfast with their grandparents and how much they enjoyed exploring and climbing on a the big rock when we took walks at the local pond.


Ideas on Personalization:

While some of these goals may make sense to you, you may very likely have other things in mind. Perhaps you want to focus more on helping your kids manage challenging situations, in that case make your clues harder to figure out, put them in places that are difficult to get to, use multiple challenging codes, or do some combination of each. Just be mindful that the hunt is supposed to be fun. I would advise against building in so much challenge that the frustration outweighs the fun.

In my case, I set things up to break more toward the fun side with an eye toward setting up another one in the spring that will be more challenging. That way the fun from this one will help carry them through the next one, despite things being a bit harder. That paid off, because the weather was cold and rainy on the day we did our hunt, which made the difficult aspects all the more frustrating for them.


Notes on Execution:

Rain, Resilience, and Good Cheer

As I mentioned, the weather report for the day we were going to do the hunt was foreboding. Rain. But, as they say, the show must go on. And honestly, I thought the rain might make the experience better for my boys. They’d, of course, like it more if it were a nice sunny day, but enduring a chilly, rainy day in November makes you feel like you’ve earned it when you get to the treasure at the end of the hunt. And that, my friends, is how resilience is built. They stepped up to the challenge like champs, and were in good spirits the whole way, even after one of them fell into a creek while looking under a bridge for the final clue.

Adjusting on the Fly

The weather meant I had to adjust my plans a bit. So, I laminated every clue that wasn’t written in code, and made sure the code clues were inside so they would stay dry and could be easily written on as they were cracked. I also moved an early clue that was based in our house to later on in the hunt so that we’d have a reason to go home to a take a break if the wet and cold were getting to be too much. (As it turned out, hunger was a bigger deal than the weather, and we took a quick break to eat a snack and drink some milk. I guess the muffins weren’t good enough.)

X Marks the Spot

The final clue was a map that led to the treasure. At first, I had planned to place the treasure at home, but then I decided it would be more fun for them to find it “in the wild”. Luckily, we have a pond nearby that has a good-sized drainage pipe that never fills with water no matter how hard it rains. Even better, it’s under a walking path, and not particularly obvious. Dry, and a bit hard to notice – I made that the endgame. Luckily, the treasure box was well hidden enough that no one ran off with it before the boys found it. (Or maybe the rainy weather just worked to our advantage.)

Staying in the Background:

I was with my boys for most of the hunt. Largely because I wanted to make sure none of the clues were missed because they have been found and moved by someone else. I also kept a cheat sheet in the car just in case. Thankfully, none of that proved necessary.

However, I made it a point to stay in the background. I stayed in the car at some spots, and wandered a good distance away at others. I wanted the boys to feel like they were doing this on their own, and I didn’t want to accidently look over at where a clue was, and give away its location. (Though I admit to doing a little hot/cold hinting for a couple of clues that they just couldn’t seem to find.)


Lessons Learned:

For the next scavenger hunt, I’m going to make the clues a bit more challenging. My boys solved the ones I used this time relatively easily. I also plan to use more that one code system, this time with random symbols to replace the letters, rather than the simple cypher I used this time. One of my guys, in particular, proved to be a whiz at cracking the code I used. And I plan to put more clues in the woods, with descriptive text to help them find it. I think this might add a bit more magic and mystery to the experience. Additionally, I think I may have to provide more specific location clues in some cases. (At one playground, I had taped the clue under a slide. I thought it was obvious, but it still took them almost fifteen minutes to find it, and even when they did, it was only because I ended up giving them hints.) Also, because of all the traffic we hit (a nearby highway was shut down due to an accident), the boys asked that the next one involve less driving and more walking. So I’ll factor that in as well.

Overall, it was a fun experience, and it was great to follow along behind the boys as they tracked down the clues and then told me where to go next. I’m excited to do it again.

Obviously, mixing fun into your interactions with your kids can go a long way toward making things more interesting. And the added dopamine boost that comes with fun and play is even more beneficial for those with ADHD. Scavenger hunts are just one approach. How do you add fun to the daily lives of your kids? Have you used it to teach them? Do you use it help them get things done?


For more on ADHD and parenting, check out the ADHD Essentials podcast.

For more on Play and ADHD, check out Kristen Milliken’s book PlayDHD.

For more on Kirsten, check out her site, Your ADHD Life. or her episode on the podcast.