Backyard Treasure Hunt

Backyard Treasure Hunt

July 23, 2013

Backyard treasure hunts were one of my favorite summer math activities when my kids were young. They’re pretty simple to carry out, but do require a bit of advance planning on your part, especially if you want to create clues geared to the interests and abilities specific to each child (like the daily Bedtime Math problem’s Wee Ones, Little Kids and Big Kids). A good treasure hunt leads to hours of engaging play not to mention early training in spatial skills and a lot of laughs.

What you’ll need:

• A “treasure chest” – any small box that can be easily buried or hidden and contain a treasure. I used a small plastic “raccoon-proof” food container.
• A map containing instructions.
• A compass.
• Clues printed on slips of paper.
• Treasures.

Our treasures varied based on depended on who was playing. If it was just our family the treasure could be something as exciting (and pricey) as tickets to the waterpark or zoo for that afternoon. If friends or neighbors joined in, the treasure could be as simple as spare change, candy or colored stones that each child could take home with them once they divided the spoils.

X Does Not Mark the Spot

Rather than draw a map with the traditional X marking the spot of the treasure, the map should simply point to where the players will find the first clue. Get creative and give the map an old, rumpled look by “painting” over the paper with a damp teabag or stain it with coffee. A “piratey” poem or riddle is another fun way to kick off the hunt.

If the children are old enough, add a compass rose to the corner of the map so they will be able to orient themselves and follow more intricate directional clues.

Each clue must be “decoded” by solving a math problem. The solution to the math problem becomes the number of steps, or paces, that must be marked off to find the next clue.

For example: “If 3 pirate ships carry a crew of 12 sailors each, how many pirates will be searching for the same treasure? Divide that number by 4 and walk north that number of paces from this spot to find the next clue.” Of course, if the children are too young, or they don’t have a compass or GPS, you can substitute a simpler command like “walk toward the swing set,” or “away from the red barn.”

Clever Clues

Be clever about hiding the clues. Nine paces may seem to end up nowhere until the kids look up and see a low hanging branch in a tree with the next clue hidden in the leaves.

Clues can also incorporate skills you know each child possesses. For instance, one of my children loved decrypting messages so I would often write at least one clue in code with a known cypher (printing backwards so it could only be read in a mirror, for example). I tailored each treasure hunt to suit the players to provide each child with the satisfaction of adding something to the game play. And because it was a group activity there was no competition for the prize. Everyone shared equally in the booty after the treasure was found.


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About the Author

Jeanne Bernish

Jeanne is an experienced mom who considers herself a "math-not," but has raised two math-loving teenagers. She works in the ed-tech sector and blogs now and then at Race to the Middle.

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