If your kids are very young and need a bit of motivation for your hike or if you are new to hiking and worried they will become bored, a scavenger hunt is just the remedy.
You’ll easily have your children searching for the next item on the list, and you’ll have lots to talk about as you look and find new things. They will be building their awareness of the natural world and combatting plant-blindness without even realizing it. It’s an old teacher trick to get kids to learn and to do things all while thinking they are just playing a fun game…!
Scavenger hunts are great for all ages. We all know kids love them. Adults seem to enjoy them, too, as evidenced by the companies running scavenger hunts around cities. Even high schoolers like them; I ran with a wonderful (and hilariously wholesome) crowd in high school, and we were known to organize large-scale scavenger hunts. There are different types of scavenger hunts for different ages and situations. I also developed a really fun, vocabulary-based nature hunt for older children, and I recommend photography scavenger hunts for little kids, but here I’ll tell you about the version for 3-5 year old, which I first used on our Blue Hills hike with my niece. As always, it follows my promise for sharing high quality nature activities.
You’ll need a few things to make your nature scavenger hunt successful for your 3-5 year old. First, you’ll need the scavenger hunt itself. You can find a variety of versions online for free (listed below) or make your own. Here’s a photo of the one I created. It has two columns, which you can complete all at once or cut apart and do separately. One column has a list of items to find with your eyes only; the other column has items to find and collect.
You’ll also need a crayon to use to mark items as they are found. I recommend a crayon because 1) pencils and pens make it easier to impale oneself (dangerous on a hike!) and 2) they don’t dry up like markers. If you have a child who likes school, plays school, or asks for “homework”, a clipboard will make it all seem very official.
Finally, you need a basket or bag to use for collecting items. Literally any type of basket or bag will work. In a pinch, a small gift bag works just fine. A plastic Ziploc is fine, even good—it will let your child see everything she has collected.
The last item is not necessary, but it’s a great addition: a magnifying glass! Give a child a magnifying glass and she will take off looking at everything. Somehow it makes this so much more fun.
Now here’s my teacher advice… don’t give the scavenger hunt to your child right away. Enjoy the excitement of the great outdoors, the fresh air, the sights and sounds, your child’s natural curiosity about what she sees, and the newness of the trail first. After all, the scavenger hunt’s purpose is really to do just that—to help your child appreciate and build an awareness of the natural world.
When your child’s interest starts to wane or when she starts to act tired, bring out your big exciting surprise! Now, don’t wait too long. Once you hear “I’m bored” or “Carry me”, it could possibly be too late. Be on the lookout for the right timing. The right timing will have your child rejuvenated and ready for the next adventure.
Give a quick overview of the hunt. Explain, “I have something special for you! Here is a list of things we can find on our hike. Do you think we can find all these things?” Point the pictures and the words, showing her what is on the list. Then say, “I wonder what we will find first?!”
If your child has trouble finding anything at all, feel free to get her started. Make a BIG deal when you find the first item and put it in the bag. Then, when you spot the next item, lead her to it. For example, if you see a feather, say, “I hear some birds. I wonder if we can find a feather around here.” Then, walk over and look around the area. With a little bit of momentum, she will surely take it from there!
There are tons of types of scavenger hunts to try. Here are a few:
Bingo Hunt from Mass Audubon
Free Hunt from Julie Milks on Teachers Pay Teachers
Free Hunt from Laurie Hendrix on Teachers Pay Teachers
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How do you keep your little ones engaged on a hike? Have scavenger hunts worked for you?