Tiny Treks: The Joy of the Hunt

Can you find something squishy? Something blue? Something prickly? Something fast?

When the kids say there's nothing to do in your yard, or when they aren't enthused about a hike on a familiar trail, a scavenger hunt is a great way to rev up their interest. It also teaches them to look more closely at what they thought they already knew.

If you think ahead and are just a little bit arty, you can invite your kids to make an egg-carton scavenger collection. Save an egg carton and paint the inside of each egg compartment a different color. Or use solid-colored stickers. The object is to find one item of that color in your yard to put into its matched compartment. (This is more fun in spring or summer because you can find things with a wider array of colors, like pink and purple.) When you're done, you also have a nature collection and something to keep it in.

Or if props are too much trouble, you can simply shout out criteria: Find something rough. Go! You can make this a team activity where everyone works together, or a speed contest, or a creativity contest. (Don't just pick a rock for "something hard.")

This kind of hunt is transferable to a trail, although if you are in a publicly-owned park, you need to set ground rules about what kids can uproot or break off (and avoid speed contests). If you are careful, you can still take a flower petal or a leaf without being destructive.

I recently took my kids to "the keyhole" at Ijams Nature Center, where the trail goes through a tunnel created by the stacking of square cut stones from an old quarry. We marveled at the greens, blues, whites, and oranges streaking the rocks and speculated about what might now live or travel in the hundreds of holes drilled in those rocks during the mining. The walk back was less exciting than crawling among mossy boulders looking for animal dens, so we had a scavenger hunt. When I told the kids to find something curved, my daughter came back with a stick with a dried vine grown into a swirl around it. My son found another vine with a pointy, seeking tip when I asked for "something spiky." Wildflowers not only met color criteria but also served for "something soft" and "something fluffy."

When we hiked the Middle Prong trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the kids tried to decide which tree we passed was the oldest (for "something old) and tried to catch salamanders ("something fast"). My 3-year-old proudly found an American giant millipede (also called a worm millipede or iron worm) for "something shiny." My kids "petted" it and learned its long black body armor, with thin red stripes at each segment, feels like hard plastic.

You can expand the game by adding other steps: When you bring back the object, you must find another adjective to describe it. This can produce thoughtful and entertaining results from children too young to actually know what "an adjective" is. My 3-year-old, for example, uses the word "porcupine" as an adjective to describe anything prickly. A sweet gum ball may be called a porcupine ball.

Or ask your child to tell a fact about the object. What is it used for, by people, animals, the plant that created it, etc.? Have them search for items that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet. You can adjust all this to the age and interests of your kids.

Try to see how many different kinds of seeds you can find on a hike. This is an opportunity to talk about how plants reproduce, and show your older child how to identify the parts of a plant. On the Middle Prong trail, I showed my 7-year-old lots of ferns with thick rows of brown spores on the undersides.

Scavenger hunts are so versatile, they work while walking along fence rows by grandma's farm or while walking down a road in a suburb. And kids often love to start collections of what they have found. Their pebbles, feathers, leaves, and seeds can come inside in a plastic cup, like the one that sits on my daughter's dresser as a reminder of the walks we've taken together.