How to Host an Epic Scavenger Hunt

published May 10, 2022
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Over the last few years – even during isolation – scavenger hunts became a wildly popular birthday trend. And after experiencing the  joy of kids scrambling around to solve a shared challenge, I can personally attest that scavenger hunts are the perfect party activity. 

To start, a scavenger hunt tends to be low cost and usually requires zero professional help to be successful. Even the most epic ones don’t require a lot of time! You can design, prepare, and host a scavenger hunt totally on your own. Second, not only do scavenger hunts provide the main entertainment for the day (check!), but they offer an exciting way to give out party favors (more on that later). Third, they literally can take place anywhere that makes sense for your celebration, whether that is inside your home, at a park, or even virtually through Zoom. So, no matter the size of your party or your budget, you can make a scavenger hunt work. And fourth, scavenger hunts require teamwork, which is especially helpful when the invite list includes friends from different parts of life. It offers an easy ice-breaker for kids to meet each other, and at this point in my parenting, I’ll always choose a cooperative game over a competitive one.

Now that you’re hooked on the idea, here is your foolproof plan for hosting an epic hunt for the next party, playdate, or school auction item! 

Step One: Choose a Theme

Chances are your child has a theme in mind already. this will be your creative roadmap for all the fun details ahead, starting with some pre-hunt fun. 

Say the theme is pirates. Kick off the party with a dress-up and crafting station. Help kids get into character with costumes, whether eye patches or other seaworthy gear you purchased, or items from your closet. Try your hand at face painting. Provide baskets of cloth, ribbons, and fabric glue so the kids can design costumes on their own. 

Step Two: Write the Clues

There are two ways to lead a scavenger hunt. More traditionally, you provide a list of items or places to locate with no particular order in mind. Then, there’s what I call the “detective” route, where you provide clues that must be solved to reveal the next destination and the next clue. Personally, I prefer option two as it builds more suspense and excitement, and it opens up opportunities to add additional fun challenges along the way.

If you go the detective route, you’ll need to write the clues ahead of time; then, you can pre-plant the clues at each location for the kids to find on their own. This works well if you’re hosting inside a home, in a backyard, or virtually. Or you simply hand out clues at each stop as the hunt unfolds. This option is best when hosting in a public space, like a park.

For younger kids and pre-readers, keep the clues simple with pictures of items they need to find or places they need to locate. Instead of a list, you could even turn the visual clues into a treasure map! If you need help, look to Etsy for amazing customizable clue templates.

For an older crew, add a level of difficulty by using riddles, math problems, or geolocation for them to crack in hopes of unlocking the next set of instructions. Throw in a team building exercise to complete before moving forward, or balloons to pop that hide essential bits of information. And of course, don’t forget your theme! Be sure to work in details that tie back to the original idea. For example: if it’s Space Explorers, they kids must solve a word jumble to name all of the planets. Or they have to build and launch a rocket. Or pretend to be Saturn and hula hoop for ten seconds. You get the idea.

Step Three: Stock the Stops

Make the most of each stop on the hunt by providing items for kids to snack on, trinkets for them to keep (see: themed party favors!), and even mini crafts or activities to complete. For example, when my daughter attended a puppy-themed hunt, one stop revealed dog bones (aka: dog shaped cookies). At another, they made “dog collar” necklaces. And at the final location, they received tiny puppy plushies to keep. 

Another fun idea to make the most of each stop is for kids to gather keys or numbers along the way that they then must use to literally unlock their final prize. Or, invite generous neighbors and local shop owners to participate. And have the kids use secret codes or complete a task at each home or store to earn the next set of clues.

Step Four: The Grand Finale

Most likely, the scavenger hunt will finish back at the hub of the celebration. Make the finish line simple with the cake and candles and maybe some party poppers for flare. Or, finish with a bang and hide the final prizes inside a pinata, a locked box (buried treasure!), or even inside the cake! Let your creativity loose. Include whatever themed, final prize you want here: more themed party favors, sweets, or something homemade like ribbons or certificates of completion. 

Step Five: Every Day Hunts

Now that you are a scavenger hunt expert, don’t forget to include them in everyday play, from learning activities to witching hour. 

For younger explorers, try taking  “Letter Walks.” Before leaving your home, print out a sheet with the alphabet. Then search for matching letters on street signs, posters, and license plates. Or, if you have plastic Easter eggs on hand, try this sight word hunt or this word family hunt.

Another one of my favorite low-effort activities is to hide puzzle pieces throughout the house. The kids run around to find them, sort them out, and then piece the puzzle back together. When they’re done, I start all over again with a new puzzle. This usually guarantees at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted play without screen time or bribes. Parenting win!

If you’re having a hard time motivating your crew for an afternoon out or to run errands, don’t forget the power of the hunt! Even if you’re going to the same park or the doctor’s office, a scavenger hunt turns the mundane into something magical. Write out a list of items for your kids to find on a sheet of paper or use a quick Google search to find templates online. You can even laminate a few ones for your frequented locations (like the tidepools or a nearby wooded area), and then keep them ready in the car or diaper bag so you can hunt on the fly.