Dr. Mom’s great party triumph during my youth was when she did something that everyone expected to be terrible (a.k.a. educational), and turned it into something fun. Such was my 8th birthday party at the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta. From what I understand now, Fernbank is quite a large and interesting science and natural history museum. Back in the late 70’s, however, it was a pretty small and none-too-engaging little group of dioramas mixed with a nature trail in the back.
Out of this simple setup, however, came a brilliant idea—science scavenger hunt. The scavenger hunt itself may be one of the very best, and least used, party concepts out there. Turning a room, a back-yard, a block, or a museum into a gigantic puzzle is, to me, akin to taking a kid and throwing him on the inside of a video game. Everything around becomes a part of the game—each item not part of the puzzle is a red herring. Every blade of grass that obfuscates a hidden toy is an obstacle to be overcome.
So at first, we pairs of 3rd graders being handed a piece of paper with quiz questions on it were pretty non-plused by the concept (most notably the sullen and unappreciative birthday boy), but when we started, this little museum exploded into world of its own. High-fives over finding clues. Peering over at other teams to see what they’ve gotten. The mad dash into the nature trail for the final clues. Flora and fauna had actually trumped murder and mayhem for partytime fun. So much so that I remember my friend Steven Greenstein coming up to me the next day, almost bewildered, and saying, “you know, that party was really fun!”
Dr. Mom gets tremendous props for that idea, and I was determined at the appropriate time to give my boys a similar experience. That occasion came up when Gus turned 7, and had gotten deeply into Indiana Jones. Much like Star Wars, Indiana Jones is not exactly on its face a subject that would inspire a non-violent orientation for a party. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, to me, still the greatest action/adventure film ever made. And that non-stop action—never giving you time to breathe—makes a birthday party where Nazis aren’t being thrashed a challenge.
But, like with Star Wars/Star Trek, Indy has a side to the adventure that has lots of tension and engagement, but not the “beat the enemy” side. At it’s heart, Indy is all about what they call in the industry the “MacGuffin” – that object that drives the plot forward. It’s about search and discovery. And that’s a perfect segue into, what else? The scavenger hunt. Now, be forewarned on this one, I went a little crazy. Gus’ “Indiana Jones and the Museum of Mystery” party was my opus. But as I go through what I did, note that you don’t need to do all of this to make a party amazing. All of these elements could be taken, left, or added onto. Okay, with that, let me break down what I did into elements you might find useful:
The MacGuffin: If you’re going to do a scavenger hunt, I think it’s a great idea to have some kind of primary driver. Dr. Mom’s was simple and effective—top score wins. No doubt that’s a great way to engage. But given I was doing an Indiana Jones party, I wanted a MacGuffin that would be more thematic. At the time it was Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that was out. As I was looking for party favors, I stumbled upon my MacGuffin at www.chocolateskulls.com. A high-quality, anatomically correct, chocolate human skull—10 pounds of solid chocolate! The nice thing about something like the Chocolate Skull was it gave the kids a common target. They weren’t competing against each other, they were competing together to reach a common goal.
The Backstory: One of the most wonderful things about kids is the ease of suspension of disbelief. Most kids are ready and willing to shut their skepticism down and pretend that a tree is a magic beanstalk. But I found that with Gus’ 6th birthday party, a Harry Potter one, skepticism started to creep in. They started to question how things worked, who the evil wizards really were, etc. So for Indy, I felt it necessary to make them feel immersed in not only a series of tasks with an end goal, but the culmination of a story. I gave the story a little grounding in truth, to make it feel more real, as I created an old note, purportedly from Gus’ great grandparents, to be opened on his 7th birthday.
Lou and Nat, the Candy Store owner and baker, respectively (truth), had been experts in chocolate, and had uncovered the legend of the Chocolate Skull (not quite so true). I created a whole race of people dedicated to the preservation of the best chocolate—the Cocopichu. And the fact that the magical chocolate skull had been hidden from adult eyes, and could only be seen by children, and touched only by a child on his 7th birthday. Hence the gathering at this time of these children to fulfill Lou and Nat’s dream—to find the Chocolate Skull.
After I told the kids the story, many, many of them asked me “is that really true?!?” I knew, at that point, I had ‘em hooked.
The Place: You can really set up a great scavenger hunt just about anywhere, but the larger the world, the more immersed the kids will be in their experience. For Indy the archeologist, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History was a natural choice. One of the things I ran into, however, is that this isn’t 1977 anymore with kids running around museums on their own. If you’re doing any scavenger hunt beyond the back yard, make sure there are several adults monitoring any group of kids as they go around. If this seems onerous, then simply constrain the environment.
For Gus’ 5th birthday, we did a pirate party that included trying to find groups of small plastic sea creatures that were “shrunk by the evil sea witch, and dying in the dry back yard.” They needed to find groups from different sea animal species and get them into bowls of water before they drowned. The kids LOVED that, and no monitoring was needed. But back to the museum, having each exhibit truly come alive not because it was animated, but each was a potential clue really engaged the kids.
The Puzzle: While having a good MacGuffin is a plus, the fun is in the search. I would add that if you are hoping to make the search a cooperative rather than competitive one, you do need to set the bar a little higher as to how entertaining that search is. When teams are competing against each other, the adrenaline rush of trying to win can often make even a simple search a compelling one. But, to be honest, cooperation lacks that visceral thrill. So finding the difference between tough and fun is key.
I thought of the puzzle in a couple of steps. First, I had clues spread through the museum, and each clue was a little poem. Here’s an example:
Clue #1: Go to the Dinos, but even further in the past, to an old movie on how life on earth came to last. One essential element, the one that you breathe, is the clue to the treasure that you do most need. (11)
A: Oxygen – If you go into the Dino section, the movie theater is directly to the right, on the early life area. The elements of life (CHON—Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen) is featured. You want the O in CHON.
Once each team found their clues, there was another blank page waiting for all of them with nothing but numbers and a final clue. They (with a little help from Indiana Nathanson) figured out that if they used the little numbers by each clue, and put the first letter of their answers in the requisite space, it would spell something out.
What it spelled out was strange—“GRAPE JUICE ON PAPER.” Adventurer that I am, I remembered that grape juice could sometimes be used as the agent to uncover invisible ink, and there was a blank page in Lou and Nat’s packet that had a gritty feel to it (if you do invisible ink using baking soda paste, it can be uncovered with grape juice—pretty cool!).
We then brushed grape juice on the paper, and, like by magic, the final location of the Chocolate Skull was uncovered! So every team gets a piece of the puzzle, then they come back and put the pieces together as a group. This really worked like a charm.
The Prize: I layered the Cocopichu story saying that the “children of the Cocopichu would always surround the skull to protect it.” Then I found little sweet-tart skulls and filled the magic bag with hundreds of the candy skulls, and my MacGuffin. The combination of handfuls of candy skulls and hunks of chocolate skull was more than enough for the kids. The one thing I’ve found is that if you have prizes that were actually a part of the party, those are a million times more special than what Kirsten calls the “Bag O’ Crap.” Indeed, some of Gunnar’s friends still wear the personalized “DK Wilds” and “Mario Fireballs” t-shirts I made for his Mario Super Sluggers birthday party.
Well, this post turned out to be my opus as well, I guess. But if you take these pieces in mind, if not to the crazy Dad extreme I might have taken them, you can do a search and discover birthday party that can take whatever theme the kids may be into a the time, and turn it into a cooperate, and incredibly fun and unique experience.