For the past five years, my wife and I have participated in the annual Post Hunt in downtown Washington DC. The Hunt is a series of puzzles scattered throughout a portion of the city, and thousands of people run around trying to solve them over the course of a few hours one Sunday each year. It was created by the warped mind of humorist Dave Barry, the humorous mind of the warped Gene Weingarten, and Tom Schroder (lovingly known as Tom the Butcher, an editor of the other two, or the man who takes the blame for everything that goes wrong).
Last year, our experience with the Post Hunt inspired us to take our daughter’s 8th birthday party to the next level. If there are skills I work to encourage and nurture in her, it is critical thinking and problem solving. Putting those two together, the ability to step outside the trap of bad assumptions and figure things out in a novel or unexpected way, is what ultimately makes an awesome person. And she shows great promise, if a proud Dad says so himself.
We decided that her birthday party would be a “Treasure Hunt.” Like any good treasure hunt, it included a map. Unlike your standard map, however, this map simply had road names and a collection of seemingly random icons. Most of the icons were in fact random and meaningless, while a select few of them indicated the location of a puzzle one of the two teams of girls had to solve. The solution to one puzzle would lead them to another location on the map, where a new puzzle awaited. To make it very clear that the team had found the right location, the actual object from the map would be clearly visible there.
For instance, the bike at the center of the map was one such location, and there was an actual bike in the front yard of that house (and much thanks to our neighbors for letting us place strange objects in their yards for a Saturday afternoon). In that case, the clue also told my daughter that the bike was a birthday present itself, and she could feel free to walk it home.
We wanted each puzzle to be a different style, and the whole adventure to take long enough that the teams could wrap up with cake and ice cream at the end, then go on their merry way home full of sugar and clutching their “treasure” (the goody bags kept in cardboard treasure chests back at the house).
The easiest was kind of a large ‘jigsaw’ puzzle, more like a picture tangram maybe. One girl, working on her own, might have solved this one in no time at all. However, we threw a bit of a curve by giving each girl on the team one or two pieces of the puzzle to start, then make them work together to figure out how to put it all together. It was amusing watching the small group of girls walking up to each other, trying to see if their pieces made sense together in some way, then moving on to try another match. Eventually, the put all their pieces on the ground, and worked together to assemble it correctly, revealing the clue.
The second type of puzzle was a rebus. The team unfurled the “scroll” containing a series of pictures with a few operators, and have to figure out what happens when you take “Starbucks” (no rights reserved, though my ability to free draw that logo made me question how much coffee I was drinking) minus “star’ plus “ticket” minus “stick”.
The girls stared at this one for a little while. Only when they started to write things down did it all come together for them.
As I watched the one group of seven and eight-year olds, you could see clear differences from puzzle-to-puzzle. Some girls were excited about the jigsaw, while others really dug into this rebus.
The one they all felt good about, and was a good one to start them off on, was the pop culture quiz board. They were given an answer board, with spaces for each letter of each answer. A few letters were filled in to help clue them in, and keep them on course with spelling. Once they had answered all the trivia questions on the rows, the center column provided them with the location of the next puzzle.
Each girl had a turn to answer at least one question aloud, and if they didn’t know they could ask a friend or pass it on to someone else, and take a crack at another one. Although it pains me that every one of them knew Justin Bieber, it was some small consolation that my daughter still did not like him at the time. I have even lost that battle since then, in anticipation of losing many more.
The final type of puzzle for the girls was a cryptogram. I found a PDF online of a simple substitution cipher wheel, and made enough copies for all the girls. When they reached the location, a board containing a string of letters and symbols, and told to replace E on the inner wheel with L on the outer wheel. From there, it was really no sweat for them to decipher the clue, with the girls taking to shouting out letters from their wheel, while my daughter wrote it all down. They all stopped to think of the implications for a second when I told them they could keep their wheels, and use it to send each other secret messages.
All in all, it was hours and hours of huddling with my wife over the kitchen table after the kids were in bed, tossing back and forth ideas for puzzles, assembling code wheels, cutting up picture puzzles, etc. In other words, we had as much fun putting this thing together as the kids did running around the neghborhood solving it in ninety minutes.
Months later, my daughter has not yet attempted to send encoded messages to anyone, thank goodness. I know, however, that she is learning that there are no barriers for her, only obstacles. And that the pursuit of overcoming those obstacles can be as enjoyable and rewarding as what is to be found on the other side.