“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” – Mark Twain
This quote ran through my mind at my going-away party as one of my colleagues compared me to the old BASF motto, “We don’t make the products you buy. We make the products you buy better.” I believe that line of thinking is a crucial part of doing just about anything worthwhile. There is considerable freedom in the understanding that to be creative is not necessarily to be original, it’s to take what’s there and give things new and curious combinations.
I think the “new and curious combinations” is especially important when it comes to activities that have a conflict partnership model, as good ole’ “I’m going to beat you up” activities are, to be frank, easier. For example, one of the most popular birthday parties in my area for boys (and I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts for yours too) is the Laser Tag party. Boys running around trying to shoot each other with guns? No end to the fun, right? Yep, and simple and replicable, the variations are situational—a person shot one time may be the person doing the shooting the next.
When my big guy turned 10, I had thought he’d be ready to end our imagination play parties for something a little more standard, a few friends at a baseball game, a trip to the movies with his pals, or perhaps even…Laser Tag. I was actually a little surprised when he said he wanted another at home slumber party, and wanted a “mystery party” of some sort. He and his friends were reading Hardy Boys books, and he needed to be restrained from playing junior detective (aka jumping to conclusions and accusations based on very flimsy evidence) at school when a few miscreants decided to start vandalizing lockers.
To be honest, I was really, really tired at that point, and I was fresh out of “ideas.” The thought of trying to design a mystery party from scratch seemed daunting. Then an idea dawned on me, what about one of those “whodunit?” murder mystery parties, where each person becomes a character and one of them is the murderer? But what if no one wanted to be a murderer? What about setting it up that they were trying to uncover clues to catch a serial killer? Cool, eh? With a little urging from my wife, I thought the better of doing a murder mystery for 4th graders. Seemed a little extreme. But if not murder, then what might intrigue these young Sherlock Holmes?
Their singular obsession with the “locker thief” at school gave me the first idea—they’d need to catch a thief. But nothing was coming to mind on how you would put together a party based around thievery. I wracked my brain trying to think of anything “mysterious” that could be adapted. Then it came to me—the good ole’ Scavenger Hunt!
So I had the topic—catching a thief (an activity that required teamwork) and I had the medium—a scavenger hunt (an activity that required teamwork). All I needed was to twist the kaleidoscope just right so the pieces would create an interesting new picture.
Enter the “Decade Thief” – a serial burglar who steals only things that have to do with the number 10. His or her larceny included such crimes as stealing the “X” right off of the face of Big Ben, and inexplicably finding a way to remove the entire 10th story of the Empire State Building. Dressing in my best FBI agent wear, I told Gus and his pals that my day job was working day and night to bring this thief to justice, but this criminal mastermind had evaded me at every turn.
Using a fun little Ransom Note font generator (I used a different one, but this one is really good as it pulls images from Flickr), I created a Decade Thief email address and sent out this little diddy to each person that explains our villain’s motivation (I removed a few items for privacy, but you’ll get the idea):
I am the Decade Thief, the greatest criminal of all time,
or at least the last 10 years
I only steal things that have to do with the number 10,
and I am ready to strike again!
But evildoing is no fun without confounding
those who would catch me.
So I am daring you to be one of 10 kids to meet
on this 10th Birthday weekend before
I rob the 5 Guys–TWICE!
Unraveling my mystery may take all night,
so if you are game, bring your sleeping bag
and all your courage.
You may show this to your parents for RSVPs,
BUT NO POLICE!
As the email might suggest, I took a slightly new wrinkle on the scavenger hunt from my Museum of Mystery party a few years back, and added email as the delivery device for clues. To give it a real time feel, I set up all the clues in draft emails, and simply had my wife, who is connected to her Blackberry in Borg-like fashion anyway, email the next clue to my son’s personal email account every time they got one right. She was always in earshot, so either by email or by voice, she knew whether they got the answer right, and quickly zipped out the next clue to us. Incorporating email or social media into the party definitely helps put a new, realistic twist on the old theme, and helps a lot in terms of helping something like a scavenger hunt move forward in real time.
We started with this email:
So you and your friends
Think you’re so smart?
I am the one
Who made stealing an art!
I give you ’till 10
To try and find me
10 clues I will give you
To try and stop my crime spree
Ponder my clue
Then email me back
I’ll let you know
If you’re on the right track
Here’s clue #1
Are you ready to go
It’s time to begin
My dastardly show!
On a peg I hang
But no coat am I
I am a symbol
Of days gone by
Of the Duke, Campy,
And a man named Jackie
I want the name of the team
Not the city
PS. Feeling stumped?
There are rules for that, too
No answers can adults give
But they CAN give clues
Two from Detective Dad
Three Gus’ Mom Clues
Then one phone call each
For your parents’ views.
(The answer was Dodgers, an old Brooklyn Dodgers hat hanging from a peg in our family room)
I also played with the 10 theme by not only having 10 clues, but 10 tasks they needed to complete in order to earn the next clue. And indeed, they needed to find out what their task was in “Amazing Race” fashion by figuring out another clue. Here was the follow-up to clue #1:
You got that one right
But now for a twist,
Your “Blue” clue is waiting
Where a bird sits
(A bird built its nest right over one of our front porch lights)
They then found a note attached to the bottom of a Smurf that was lying in the nest that said:
10 clues, that’s too easy!
So 10 tasks you must do
First, find 8 of his friends,
Plus two enemies, too
They’re all in the front yard,
So you’d better hurry,
Tell Detective Dad
To email me a pic that’s not blurry!
And so they ran around the yard uncovering eight old Smurfs I had around, as well as Gargamel and Azrael. I then used my Droid phone to snap a picture of their find and email it to the ole D.T. Lather rinse, repeat with more brain-teasers and body twisting activities. Break after the first time for diner provided by…5 Guys (as a thank you for protecting them, of course).
Again borrowing from my Museum of Mystery party, when they finally gathered all the clues, they had to find one last sheet of paper that had blank lines to fill in each clue, with one blank line in each clue a different color. They quickly figured out that if they took the letter from each that was a different color, it would spell something else out. And it did – “LOOK IN SHED.” It was pitch black at that point, and they crept with flashlights outside toward our run down and creepy looking back shed. Inside was a masked thief holding a birthday cake (which was stolen earlier in the party). And the thief was…wait for it…my wife!
One of Gus’ friends was over a few days ago, now months after the party, and while he was playing he found the mask my wife used, and put it on and said “Hey, I’m the Decade Thief!” so even after a full summer of fun, this party seems to have kept some impression with the gang, so I’m happy it went well even with the young “Tween” crowd starting to get a little “too cool for all this kind of stuff. Indeed, most of them noted that they “pretty much new it was Ms. Nathanson” from about midway, “but it was pretty fun so they kept going.” Well, not “BEST…PARTY…EVER!” but pretty high praise for this elder crowd.
I think I would have really gotten them had my original idea panned out, as the Decade Thief reveal was supposed to be a much bigger deal. Originally I had asked Gus’ Music Teacher, who is, by elementary school standards, The Most Interesting Man in the World, if he could spare 10 minutes and be our thief, as I thought the “special guest appearance” from someone they LOVE but would never expect to be there would really put the icing on the proverbial birthday cake.
Unfortunately because of the summer date of my fella’s birthday, he was already traveling and I missed out on that (though I have a feeling that he was actually afraid of being locked in a basement and eaten given how odd my request was). I wanted to note that, however, as I fully believe that if you can pull off something like that as a clincher for a “whodunit” party, be it your kid’s teacher, coach, or someone both your child and the majority of her/his friends know willing to play this role, I think it would add a HUGE amount to the impression of the party, as everyone loves the shocking twist when it comes to a mystery. In all, though, one successful tribute to idea recycling.
Next, another twist on the kaleidoscope brings a video game to life.