Monday, 18 May 2009

The Zero-Prep Scavenger Hunt for Kids

We were trying to decide what to do with the kids today when it occurred to me that it would be fun to have a scavenger hunt. The problem was that I hadn't prepared anything ahead of time, and the kids were already antsy enough that there wasn't time to do anything.

So I faked a break-in.

I kidnapped one of Morgan's toy mice, grabbed a handful of furniture from its house along with it, and stuffed them into my jacket pocket. Leaving a few telltale items sprinkled on the porch, I called Morgan down to investigate.

The star of the day's entertainment was our cheap electronic stud finder, which I claimed was a toy detector. It has green and red lights, it makes an authoritative-sounding beeping noise, and a sneaky grownup can control when it goes off by surreptitiously sliding a finger behind it while it's on.

Aiming the toy detector at various parts of our neighbourhood, we quickly determined that the stolen toys had been taken in the direction of ... the park!

We came back in to get sweaters and snacks for the excursion. Morgan knew something was up; she's nearly six, old enough to innately grasp the difference between reality and Daddy's silly tricks, even if she is still sometimes confused about where the border is.

Once she was satisfied that there was fun to be had, however, she was willing to suspend her disbelief, and eagerly added some decorative bedding to the tupperware container I had brought to store recovered toys.

Once I had established the premise, the stud finder worked amazingly well. Danielle and I strolled along the path, and I just had to point the thing into the bushes and off the kids went with gusto. Usually this was a bush we had just passed - a side effect of the "zero-prep" aspect of the scavenger hunt.

The kids got so excited by all of this that they started asking passers-by if they had seen the lost mouse. After an hour of this, we came across one couple who had already heard of our search from other park-goers! Isn't it amazing how society rallies around a crisis?

One of the nice things about the zero-prep scavenger hunt is that you can fine-tune things as you go. When the kids are climbing trees, chasing each other, snacking, or otherwise keeping themselves busy, you can just enjoy the scenery. But whenever there's a lull in the action, you can drop a toy or even just bleep the toy detector and off they scurry!

Here's a tip, though: if you drop a toy, remember where you dropped it. After dropping a charming, faux-wicker mouse suitcase in some bushy grass, I forgot to look around for landmarks. Or a decent landmark, at any rate. I could have sworn it was by this distinctive-looking tufty bit.. but then, you're surrounded by tufty bits. It's amazing how fast a lawn can turn on you.

And then, you have to explain why the toy detector suddenly isn't working. "Interference from the bridge?" was the best I could come up with.

Unable to bear the thought that I was personally responsible for the loss of this helpless, cherished toy, I suggested we link arms and walk through the field in a line, like you see on the TV when volunteers are helping the police looking for a body.

The parallel was somewhat uncomfortable, and we got quizzical looks from the joggers and bicyclists whizzing past us as we inched along. But never fear, the suitcase turned up and my "decent parent" status was saved.

Somehow, Morgan never caught on to what I was doing. In the end, she concluded that I must have set up all these toys two days earlier, "On your way home from work!"

My only disappointment was that the kids couldn't operate the toy detector themselves, for obvious reasons. Had they been able to do that, I'm sure we'd have been running full tilt the whole time!