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Planning an Amazing Treasure Hunt for Kids

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Searching for treasure has always been a favorite activity around here.  We don our pirate costumes, grab the first clue and get to searching.  The perfect way to spend a family afternoon.  Aarggh!

After setting up a treasure hunt for my little’s pirate birthday recently, I discovered the true joy of searching together.  There was something about being on a shared mission, finding clues, interpreting a pirate map and solving the riddle.  The journey was almost as much fun as finding the treasure itself.

Difference Between a Treasure Hunt and Scavenger Hunt

As you probably have figured out by now, my family loves a good scavenger hunt.  There’s something about a list of things to find that adds excitement to any event.

Although there are some similarities between a treasure hunt and scavenger hunt, they are two different activities.  This was the first time we tried a treasure hunt with the kids.  It was so much fun, but definitely not the same thing as a scavenger hunt.

A treasure hunt is a game where players find a hidden item or location using a series of clues.  There’s a specific “surprise” item or destination that needs to be identified. 

A scavenger hunt is a game where you give players a list of specific items to locate.  There also can be specific tasks or for a photo scavenger hunt, photographs to take.  I have also organized scavenger hunts with clues to find the items – like this Thanksgiving Scavenger Hunt.  But to write the clues, I have to have a specific items in mind for the hunt.

For our treasure hunt, there were clues that led to a treasure map.  Then, the treasure map led to a final treasure.  

When planning a treasure hunt, you can choose to have multiple layers.  How complicated you choose to make your treasure hunt depends on how old your kids are.  The older your kids, the more challenge they will want.

Tips for Planning a Treasure Hunt for Kids

Treasure hunts don’t just have to be reserved for pirate birthday parties, though.  You can set up an amazing treasure hunt for kids in a few simple steps.  With practice, a kids treasure hunt can become a go to family activity any time of the year.

Choose a Treasure

For my little’s birthday treasure hunt, we took his biggest gift – this amazing wooden marble maze (affiliate) – and hid it as the treasure.  The amazement in his eyes when he opened the car trunk to discover this beautiful gift spilling out of the homemade treasure chest inside.

If you’re doing a treasure hunt just for fun, though, your treasure can be a lot smaller.  Choose a treasure that will excite the kids, but doesn’t cost too much.  I have hidden new art supplies, summer kick off toys (such as bubbles and water play) or even toys from deep in the back of the play room closet.  A surprise is a surprise – even if it isn’t exactly new.

Or select your treasure based on a theme.  Hide items for back to school, starting a new sports season or going for your family’s first camp out.  There are lots of things that you can hunt for – you just need to get creative.

Make a Treasure Chest

Once you’ve chosen your treasure, find a treasure chest to hide them in.  You can use an old crate, box or other container.  They even have these authentic looking treasure chests (affiliate) that look like a real pirate’s and are perfect for pretend play.

For our treasure hunt, I wanted to make the treasure chest as authentic as possible, but also wanted to make it myself.  So, I created this treasure chest using a cardboard box.  Check out the easy tutorial here.

The nice part about making your own treasure chest is that you can make it whatever size you want based on the dimensions of your cardboard box.  This let’s you create a chest that will fit your treasure no matter how big it is.

Determine How Many Clues

Before getting too far along with your treasure hunt planning, decide on the number of clues you want to have.  My rule of thumb is to choose the number of clues based on the child’s or guests ages.  So if you’re planning a treasure hunt for a preschooler, use fewer clues.  For older kids, you can use more clues.  

Consider how much time you want to spend on doing your treasure hunt too.  When I planned this treasure hunt, I wanted it to take most of the morning.  So, I planned many clues and a treasure map.

But for a kids birthday party with a limited time span, it’s better to use fewer clues.  I recommend for a younger child’s party 5 to 7 clues.  For an older kid’s party, you can go up to 10 clues.  

Write Good Clues

Every child’s treasure hunt skills are different depending on their age and ability.  When writing clues, it’s important that you choose locations that the kids can actually find.  As I’ve discovered, if you make the treasure hunt too hard, it can be more frustrating than fun.

To write a treasure hunt clue, start with the location of the clue.  Where do you want the clue to be found?

Hint:  I usually make a list of locations and decide how the treasure hunt will be laid out BEFORE writing the clues.  I find it easier than just deciding as I go.  

Once you have the locations, you can write the clues.  I love my clues to rhyme, so I search for a rhyming word online.  Then, I fill in other lines.  Many times I use other clues as my template.  Check out these ideas for writing different types of treasure hunt clues here.  You can see some examples in our shop here.

When writing your clues, make sure that they are readable and easy to solve.  The locations should be pretty accessible too.  You’d hate to hide a clue way up on the top of a shelf only to have your child not be able to reach it.

Bottle Up the Clues

Now that you’ve written the clues, you need to find a way to hide them.  For the pirate treasure hunt, I created a message in a bottle for each clue.  I stuck a clue in the top of each bottle and hid the bottle.

You don’t need to be this elaborate, though.  You can print the clue cards on cardstock and cut them out.  Then, hide them in the correct location.  If you choose an outdoor place, weigh them down with a rock or something to make sure they don’t blow away.

Another idea is to roll them into scrolls and tie a ribbon.  Then, place in the correct location.  You could add a small tag that says “Clue #1”, etc., to the outside so kids know that they found the correct one.

Sneak in a Map

Now, the part that will transform your treasure hunt for kids from ordinary to extraordinary.  Sneak in a treasure map.

Over the years, I had already set up many treasure hunts where we found clues around our house and yard.  Although this was fun, I decided to elevate this traditional treasure hunt and add a treasure map.  The map lead to “buried” treasure.

For our treasure hunt, I also added in a key.  The treasure was hidden in the trunk of our car, which had been moved to a secret location.  Since no digging was possible, you needed the key to open up the trunk.

Remember, creating a map as part of your treasure hunt is optional.  This is far from necessary.  But, it added a nice twist for older kids.  If you can’t assist your kids on the treasure hunt, this is probably a step that I would avoid.  We were doing our treasure hunt as a family, so there were parents around to help.

To make a treasure map, think of a birds eye view of your location.  Draw a layout of your neighborhood, town, adjacent park or other space the kids need to search.  We transformed neighborhood landmarks into pirate themed ones to add to the fun.

After the map is made, scan it or take a picture.  When aging our map, we used too much water and ruined the original.  Being able to print a quick copy reduced the stress of having to make a brand new one.

To give your map a real pirate-like feel, you can age it.  Rip or cut a jagged border around the edge of your map.  Paint with tea, coffee or even add distressed ink to give the map an aged look.  When painting your map, a little liquid goes a long way.  So, be sure not to over saturate it.  Let your treasure map dry.

If desired, you can singe the edges to give it even a more antiqued look.  Definitely not necessary, but it is kind of fun.

Grab Some Accessories

For some reason, treasure hunts in our house mean pretending to be pirates.  We grab our pirate hats, eye patches and even a pirate shield.  You can also dress in your  favorite pirate costume.  Check out my favorite pirate costume here.  And if you have a little lady pirate in the house, she might enjoy this pirate dress costume. (affiliates)

Searching for hidden treasure is always more fun in costume.  

Even if your family isn’t interested in dressing up for the pirate treasure hunt, you can still grab some fun accessories to help you on your quest.  We always carry a compass, binoculars (affiliate) and magnifying glass (affiliate).  Sometimes there is even a play pocket knife (affiliate) since those are always useful.

Encourage Working Together

We have kids of different ages and normally do treasure hunts together as a family.  This is a perfect chance to emphasize team work skills.

Encourage the big kids to read the treasure hunt clues to the little ones.  Also, work together to figure out the answers.  If you find that the bigger kids are always solving the clues, have them ask their younger siblings first before shouting out the answer.

Team work was even more important when it came to using a treasure map to find the treasure.  The map had to be interpreted based on our neighborhood geography.  It took a lot of working together to figure out the treasure’s final location.

Don’t Make it Too Hard

As mentioned above, when making your treasure hunt remember your audience.  If you are creating a treasure hunt for kids, make sure that your entire group can participate.  It will be a lot more fun.

Write the clues so your kids can read and understand them.  Find locations for the clues that can be reached easily.  And place the treasure in a spot that everyone can access.  Although authentic, burying the treasure under the ground is not the best final location.

Go Beyond your Backyard

When I created our pirate treasure hunt, I thought bigger than our own house and backyard.  This was a family treasure hunt, so I knew we could safely go beyond our property.

If you have adult assistance or feel comfortable with your kids finding clues in the neighborhood, consider making your treasure hunt expand beyond your own backyard.  Work with your neighbors to hide clues throughout the neighborhood.  Or involve local shop owners in town who don’t mind holding onto a clue.  This is a great way to create a treasure hunt that older kids can enjoy too.

Also, keep in mind that treasure hunts aren’t just limited to an at-home activity.  You can create a treasure hunt on vacation, visiting grandparents or an alternative outdoor adventure.

Tips for an Amazing Treasure Hunt for Kids

Ready to Set Up your Own Amazing Treasure Hunt?

First, choose a treasure to hide.  Use a handmade treasure chest or other container to conceal it.

Next, decide on the final location of the treasure.  Knowing your destination can help you select the rest of the clue locations.  Write this place at the top of your planning sheet.  Then, write down the locations of each of the clues that will lead the searchers to the treasure.  Decide on how far you want each clue to be from each other, whether you want kids to go inside and outside and if you want them to explore beyond the backyard.

Once you decide on where the clues will be located, start writing your clues.  Check out these tips to writing different types of clues for your treasure hunt.

Then, hide your clues and let the treasure hunt begin.

Need some treasure hunt printables to help you get started?  Check out these treasure hunt printables in our shop.  You can edit your own clues, add clue labels and make pirates hats to wear while you search.

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