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Frozen Treasure

Age: 0 to 8 Time: Under 1 hour
Materials: food coloring, water balloons, table salt, wooden spoons
Skills: Curiosity, Focus & Self Control, Imagination, Sensory

No matter the season, the sparkle and feel of ice is mesmerizing. In winter, ice steals the show. In summer, ice offers a welcome reprieve from the heat and a constant lesson in the states of matter. An artist friend recently showed us how to harness the beauty of frozen water by making ice gems -- gorgeous icy jewels that pop against the backdrop of either crystalline snow or dusty summer earth. And that made us think: What does one do with beautiful treasure? Create a treasure hunt, of course! This way, a layer of mystery adds to the gemstones’ sparkle. Letting our own children discover the gems and then take their time examining them reminded us that even the simplest objects can be powerful vehicles for learning.

The Guide

Set the Stage

Make the gems ahead of time so you can hide them outdoors. To form round gems, place a few drops of food coloring in water balloons, then fill them with water. Pop them in the freezer or place them outside (it will need to be colder than 32 degrees for at least 12 hours). Make enough for everyone to have at least one gem.

In recent years, we have moved away from using balloons. Instead, we make frozen treasures using muffin tins, large ice cube trays and recycled plastic containers. We feel earth friendly, and the treasures are just as lovely.

Once your treasures are frozen, hide them! They don’t have to be very hard to find, but don’t place them in plain sight, either -- behind a tree or under a bush works. You could also hide tools for your children to find, such as a magnifying glass, small containers of rock or table salt, or wooden spoons. When your kids find the gemstones, they’ll figure out what to do with those tools.

Explore Together

As you head out to hike with your kids, tell them you’ve gotten word that there’s treasure to be found -- something lovely, even a little magical. Then tell them to use their eagle eyes. There should be clues along the way -- things that they wouldn’t expect to see -- that will let them know they’re on the right track.

Let your children make the discoveries. If they’re having trouble, use the classic “warmer” and “colder” clues to help them along. When they find the gems, share in their amazement -- they are beautiful, after all! Take a moment to marvel at them.

Play Together

Found all the gems? Your kids will know what to do next. Very small children will be naturally inclined to explore the gems with their senses -- feeling them melt in their hands, perhaps noting how they slide along the ground or even giving them a little taste. Slightly bigger kids may experiment with tools -- rolling them along the ground with wooden spoons, examining how the sunlight hits them, sprinkling a bit of rock salt on them to see what happens. You can also encourage kids to try cracking the gem open to see what it looks like inside. On warmer days, watching them melt swirlingly in a puddle can be mesmerizing.

Ice gems also lend themselves easily to imaginary play. Remember, this was a treasure hunt! Who else might be looking for all this loot? Perhaps you can help kids create a hide-and-seek with the gems so you can foil any pirates in search of their treasure! Another idea you need to plan for is to freeze the end of a piece of twine in the gems so kids can “go fishing” with them.

Give them space to play, and your children will come up with their own ideas about how to play with these sparkling jewels.

Why is this activity great for kids?

The beauty of ice gems goes beyond their looks -- they offer perfect exercise for children's developing senses. Plus, they encourage the kind of tinkering that builds curiosity and leads to independent experimentation. Practice with this kind of self-directed discovery early on builds habits that help kids become self-motivated and persistent learners later on. Even the busiest child can’t help but get swept up in the hunt and get absorbed in manipulating the sparkly, slippery objects, making this a great opportunity for kids to develop self control. Plus, ice gems are gorgeous, especially to young explorers!

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Do It Yourself

We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!