Backyard Treasure Hunting with Secret Codes

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Photo: Jenny Williams

I’ve been meaning to make a treasure hunt for my daughter ever since I was inspired by my awesome friend Alan. Last year, Alan put together a very involved, quite difficult but not impossible treasure hunt for his family. The kids and I were lucky enough to visit him soon thereafter, and we got to try it as well. It was geared toward adults, but the kids helped as much as they could. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. It inspired me to create my own treasure hunt for my kids. I started working on it last summer, but I aimed a little too high in complexity, and got intimidated with the workings of it. I then managed to procrastinate for an entire year.

Photo: Jenny Williams

Recently I decided it was time to try again, but I aimed for a much simpler hunt this time. I thought it would be a fun activity for my daughter’s ninth birthday party last month, so I geared the clues toward the six to nine year old range, the ages of the kids at the party. I thought decoding secret messages would be fun and challenging but would not stump anyone.

I used a compass and various secret codes to create clues which would lead them around the yard, allowing them to find Easter egg after Easter egg. (Regardless of the season, the plastic eggs work very well to hide clues.) I had a treasure chest hidden in the final spot, filled with prizes for the kids at the party and an extra wrapped present for my daughter. All the kids at the party were pretty sharp, so I had high hopes of a successful hunt!

There was only one compass for the kids to share, but I gave each kid a pen, notebook and packet of decoding tools. There were six clues in all. Since there was a lot to be worked out, all the kids kept running back to the picnic table to decode, then back out to the field. I used some commonly known codes, such as Morse Code, the Greek alphabet and Roman numerals. I also used a substitution cipher and a pigpen cipher. Once decoded, each clue said something like, “Walk 20 steps E (90°)” where they would have to search for another egg. They eventually made their way through the clues and found the treasure chest. I think everyone enjoyed it! It was a lot of work to put together, but each future hunt I make should be a bit easier.


Lessons learned:

  • Put the same number of copies of the clue in the egg as there are kids. That way each kid has their own copy from which to work.
  • Do the hunt somewhere with better hiding places, where each bush and tree doesn’t look like every other one. Our backyard is chaparral, and it all looks alike at first.
  • For young kids, label each clue with a child’s name, and have the same number of clues as kids (or a multiple thereof). Have that child actually locate the egg. That way each kid gets the same number of chances to find and open an egg. Trust me, this will avert disaster.
  • Put all the codes in a little booklet for each kid, bound together so they won’t blow away in the wind.
  • Use Easter eggs that are the colors of nature, and hide them better. The kids found the eggs far too quickly each time.

I do prefer to be on the other side of the treasure hunt, being the one to figure out the clues. But creating a hunt and making a good time for my kids and others was really rewarding. And it gave me the confidence and experience to make another hunt soon, one that will be more difficult and varied than this one.

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