Plus, why you should create this fun, easy, and educational activity with your family.

By Blythe Copeland
February 03, 2021
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Young boys (3 yrs and 6yrs) in capes playing in backyard
Credit: Getty / MoMo Productions

Few kids' activities are as easy, fun, and valuable as an outdoor scavenger hunt; best of all, you don't have to be a child development expert or a Pinterest parent to set up a seek-and-find that engages and educates children of all ages. "Scavenger hunts are wonderful for building mental agility, creativity, patience, paying attention to details, and staying focused and calm in the face of solving problems," says Charmaine Pattinson, CEO of Plinkit. "Learning through play and learning in context is ideal for young children, and a backyard scavenger hunt does exactly that."

Why You Should Create a Backyard Scavenger Hunt

A backyard scavenger hunt combines two essential developmental activities—the problem-solving element of the search and the benefits of outdoor play. "Kids who play outside see benefits such as increased attention span, less anxiety, better moods and sleep, heightened creativity, among other things," says Alanna Gallo of Play. Learn. Thrive. According to Paige Abramson Hirsch, chief content editor of Plinkit, "Outdoor play is essential for encouraging children to use all their senses and to experiment with reasonable risk, in addition to connecting with nature, soaking up fresh air, and getting a healthy dose of vitamin D." At the same time, the structure of a scavenger hunt helps kids work toward critical development milestones. "Seek and find games are good because they require a sense of focus and attention to detail, both of which are important skills to develop," says Gallo. "If they are working with other children, scavenger hunts can provide kids with opportunities to collaborate and problem-solve. Beyond the actual scavenger hunt, you can extend the game into more academic conversations about nature, animals, seasons—anything that comes up."

What Tools You'll Need

A scavenger hunt can be as complicated—or as simple—as you want, whether you're inclined to draw or download checklists and create elaborate clues or just send your kids outside with general instructions to "bring back some treasures." To make the hunt feel a little more formal, offer kids a brown paper bag, small basket, or bucket they can use to collect their finds and provide them with binoculars, a flashlight, or a magnifying glass to aid in their search. "Using real tools gives them a sense that they are doing real work, and I think overall children enjoy feeling like they are doing something purposeful," says Gallo. "Bringing a camera could be an amazing add-on if children are old enough—allowing them to bring their unique perspective in photographing the items is a great way to bring in a creative element into the scavenger hunt."

How to Set Up a Scavenger Hunt

Modify your scavenger hunt to accommodate your child's age and developmental level; to complement skills and concepts they're learning at school, and to match your own personal DIY skills. "Parents can keep it simple and spontaneous with items that are naturally found or make it more complex by hiding specific items—it really is up to you," says Pattinson. Some parents choose to hide items, but if you prefer to find natural elements, Gallo recommends supplying a list of names or pictures for the kids to identify: certain types of leaves, a bird's nest, acorns. "I love to provide my little ones with a printout of items to look for that are already in nature," she says. "Generally speaking, it's important for children to connect directly with nature. Finding items that occur naturally lends itself to more authentic opportunities for discussion and exploration."

Younger children can work through a hunt for items based only on color, shape, texture, size, or first letter: Find items that are blue, green, and yellow; smooth, bumpy, or soft; all beginning with the letter H. "Identifying items by shape, color, or size is a hands-on way of building early math skills, and recognizing items by letter is excellent for strengthening pre-reading skills," says Hirsch.

Make the hunt more complex for older children by layering on additional tasks, suggests Hirsch: "Create a challenge to find an object for each letter of the alphabet, have your child solve a simple math problem to get to the next clue, [or] hop on one leg to the driveway, and move from place to place to find the next clue." And don't let bad weather dissuade you: "A rainy day hunt is a great time to focus on the senses," says Hirsch. "Can your child hear the rain? See a puddle? Smell fresh earth? Rather than running from the rain, embrace it and all of its sensory experiences."

While participating in the scavenger hunt with your kids can provide a fun opportunity for family bonding, letting your little ones self-direct their level of engagement is important, says Gallo. "For something like a scavenger hunt, I don't see any benefit for parents needing to control how focused the children are, or if they complete the hunt exactly as planned," says Gallo. "It makes it just another activity to check off the list. Kids need [the] freedom to play without supervision and to explore on their own terms—that's the kind of play that benefits children most."

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