How to Create a Backyard Treasure Hunt

Your kids will have a blast hunting for treasure at their next birthday party. See pictures of classic toys and games.
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Not so long ago, "birthday party" meant hot dogs, sheet cake and balloons. "Children's-party planner" meant "you." It may seem passé in the face of thousand-dollar dos, but plenty of people are still choosing to go the old-school route, praying the weather holds, decorating the yard and loading up the barbecue.

Sometimes it's a financial thing. Sometimes it's simple preference. Either way, it's about turning your home into a bastion of fun, and adding an organized game to the mix can provide a nice break from the chaos -- especially if that game is a treasure hunt.

The backyard treasure hunt has everything: sunshine, mystery, scalability for ages and budgets, and treasure. Sweet, sweet treasure.

A treasure hunt for a 4-year-old is different from one for a fifth-grader, but the hunt itself has a standard design. It starts with a clue. The job of that clue, and each one that follows, is to give the players hints as to the location of the next clue, until the very last clue of the game, which leads to the treasure.

The game can be as simple or as complex as you want, but setting out to design a 20-clue, multimedia treasure hunt can turn the most determined parent (and partygoer, for that matter) into a quitter. You needn't wow or stump. You need only entertain until it's time to cut the cake.

For now, resist the urge to compose some brilliant clues. Designing a backyard treasure hunt starts not with rhymes or riddles. It starts with a bird's-eye view.

Lay It All Out

You can hide clues in plastic Easter eggs.
You can hide clues in plastic Easter eggs.
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Before you start planning a treasure hunt, you should probably pick your loot. Its size and composition will determine where you can hide it, and knowing the final stop along the route can make it easier to figure out where to put your clues.

For example, if your treasure is the birthday cake, it won't be going in the dirt. If it's a pile of sticker sheets, or chocolate kisses, or a new video game for all your partygoers to play, you can put it in a plastic bag and hide it anywhere. If you're going big with some hula hoops or a birthday gift like a bike, "behind the tomato plants" probably won't cut it; you might need to go under the deck or in the garage.

Next, evaluate your yard: Where can you hide the clues? Most yards offer at least a few decent locations, including under bushes, in low tree branches, inside coiled hoses and buried under some mulch. Clues should be relatively few in order to hold the kids' attention, and the younger the kids, the fewer the clues. Five to eight stops on the way to the treasure is plenty [source: Martha Speaks]. You might want to put your clues in some sort of casing to protect them from the elements, too. Plastic Easter eggs or grocery store bags work fine, or you can laminate if you have the time and equipment. When examining your yard, also keep an eye out for any obstacles your route should avoid, like thorny rose bushes or anthills.

So you have your destination, and you have a hiding place for each clue. All that's left to do in the planning stage is decide the order of the stops -- which clue is first, second, third and so on.

To make it easier, write this all down. Either make notes showing the order of the clues or else draw a simple map of the yard and trace the route, marking clue locations. It'll be nice to have a visual layout to reference when you go inside to craft your clues.

Craft the Clues

The single most important factor in developing treasure-hunt clues is the age of your hunters. The most creative clues in the world won't count for much if the kids have no idea how to solve them.

So keep your audience age in mind as you contemplate the clue options. There are many. Each clue need only point to a location -- the hiding spot of the next clue -- so something as simple as a literal drawing or as complex as a 100-word riddle work equally well. A riddle can offer older kids a fun challenge, especially if they're working in groups and can work it out together. A drawing like an arrow is a nice choice for pre-readers, although you can also position a helper at each clue to read it aloud.

For instance, let's say you hide a clue in some red tomato plants. Possible clues include:

  • Drawings – A tomato, a splotch of red, a jar of ketchup, or "toe" + "May calendar page" + "toe."
  • Riddles – "I am behind something red," "Find me where ketchup begins," or "Your next clue is hiding behind a fruit. You might think it's a vegetable, though; lots of people do."
  • Word puzzles – "Unscramble the letters OMATOT to find the spot," or "Find a word in all these letters and you'll see the goal much better" (a word-find with "tomato" embedded).
  • Bits of material from the next clue location – A tomato flower, leaf or stem (great for pre-readers).

You could also visit one of the many Web sites offering premade ones. Lots of people have already gone to the trouble of creating age-appropriate clues, some of them fill-in-the-blank that cut the time down to practically nil.

Got your clues? Got your treasure? Put each one in its hiding spot, and you have your treasure hunt! You can stop here if you like and have a perfectly entertaining party activity. If you're up for it, though, you can also take some extra time to customize your hunt for specific party traits.

Customize Your Hunt

There are plenty of ways to personalize the basic treasure hunt. Some adjustments are logistical. You want all of your partygoers to feel involved and rewarded, so party size is a variable to consider. You'll want a copy of the clue for each child, if they're all working separately. If you're dividing them into teams, have one clue for each team. You could make a rule about rotating which hunter does the reading at each clue.

Think about age, too: For young hunters, maintaining interest can be tricky, so you might want to hide a little prize at each clue location to keep them excited.

Other adjustments are purely for fun. If your party has a theme, why not run it through the treasure hunt, too? A pirate theme is the most natural – eye patches for each hunter, clues with burnt edges, and a pirate-style treasure chest.

But other themes can work. For a fairy party, give each hunter a wand, sprinkle clues with glitter, and hide a bunch of wearable fairy wings as the treasure. They can wear them for the rest of the party and then take them home as party favors.

Hiding a map piece with each clue is fun, too. Each piece fits into a puzzle that turns into a finished map at the end, showing the location of the treasure.

To start off your hunt, gather the whole group together. You can weave a short story about pirates setting off to find buried treasure, for instance, or just straightforwardly announce that you're having a treasure hunt and explain how the game will work. Let the kids know there's a special prize at the end (or prizes for coming first, second and third). Then read off the first clue and let them go.

Author's Note: How to Create a Backyard Treasure Hunt

This article came along at a serendipitous time for me, since my daughter turns 4 in a month and we weren't sure what we'd do to celebrate. As soon as she heard "treasure hunt," she was in. ("I'll go get my shovel!") Soon after agreeing to the plan, though, it occurred to me this might require more time than I have – but as soon as I started researching I stopped worrying. There are tons of people out there who've posted amazing clues and creative extras (one woman talked about using Lego creations for clues), and even better, kids' Web sites that offer downloadable clue sheets that are basically fill-in-the-blank. So if you're interested in making this happen but are concerned with the effort level, don't be. Just look around the Web a little.

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Sources

  • Consumer Reports. "Kids' birthday parties: Have fun without busting your budget." Februrary 2012. (Aug. 6, 2013) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/01/kids-birthday-parties/index.htm
  • McCullough, Cas. "How to Create a Backyard Treasure Hunt, Minecraft Style." My Kids' Adventures. July 15, 2013. (Aug. 2, 2013) http://www.mykidsadventures.com/how-to-create-a-backyard-treasure-hunt-minecraft-style/
  • Parents Magazine. "Printables: Treasure Hunt and Scavenger Hunt Games." (Aug. 2, 2013) http://www.parents.com/holiday/easter/printables/printables-treasure-hunt-and-scavenger-hunt-games/
  • Martha Speaks. "Treasure Hunt." PBS Parents. (Aug. 2, 2013) http://www.pbs.org/parents/martha/activities/treasurehunt.html
  • Riddle Me. "Sample Treasure Hunt Clues." June 16, 2012. (Aug. 8, 2013) http://www.riddleme.com/blog/sample-treasure-hunt-clue/
  • Wightman, K.L. "Writing Scavenger Hunt Clues: Ideas for the Treasure Hunt." K.L. Wightman. Jan. 14, 2013. (Aug. 8, 2013) http://klwightman.com/2013/01/14/writing-scavenger-hunt-clues/
  • Williams, Jenny. "Backyard Treasure Hunting with Secret Codes." Wired. June 7, 2010. (Aug. 2, 2013) http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2010/06/backyard-treasure-hunting-with-secret-codes/