Turn an ordinary trail walk into an extraordinary, magical hunt. What makes it magic? Kids notice unusual objects that you have secretly planted ahead of time. Better yet, these objects act as clues to help kids solve a mystery. What mystery, you ask? It’s up to you. We like to say that forest fairies or creature friends were up to something, but no one knows what it was, and we have to look for clues and figure it out. What were our forest friends up to, you ask? Baking magic nature treats for our explorers to find and enjoy!
This activity is featured in our March Activity Calendar in honor of National Take a Walk in the Park Day on March 30th. Need your free copy? Visit tinkergarten.com/calendar today!
Step 1: Pick your story.
Our simple story is that the forest fairies were busy last night, but no one quite knows what they were up to. It will turn out that they were baking magic nature muffins, and we will get to enjoy those muffins at the end! Come up with a mystery scenario that fits your kids' interests. For example, if ninjas are their thing, change the story so that kids need to figure out what the ninjas were up to. Or, keep it real and say that you were working in secret the night before, challenging the kids to figure out what you did.
Step 2: Gather the “clues” and write a note.
Gather about 10 items that could serve as clues and some kind of baked goody with a container that seals out bugs and critters. We’ve used things like a wooden spoon, a silver mixing bowl, a butter box, an empty egg carton, oven mitts, kitchen towels, measuring cups, a package of flour, and, near the end, a muffin tin.
Write a note to the kids from the forest fairies (or mystery party) telling the kids that they are welcome to eat the treats. Get crafty if you like—whatever suits you and your audience.
Step 3: Prep the trail walk.
Before you even bring kids on the walk, go out and place all of the items along the trail. Space them out so the walk gives time for kids to think about the story a bit after each “find”. Make sure clues are visible to someone your child’s height, and hide the treats with note attached wherever you plan to end the trail walk.
Step 4: Set the stage.
Tell kids your mystery scenario. Then, let them know that our forest fairies left clues behind. We’ll know they are clues because they’ll be things hanging in the trees and along the trail that don’t belong. Ask, are you ready to find clues and solve the mystery?!
Step 5: Guide thinking as you hunt.
Each time a new clue is discovered, stop the group to talk about the item and what it might tell you about those forest fairies. Along the way, kids will develop a range of theories. Accept all ideas, asking follow up questions to keep the kids talking and thinking. If you have more than one kid with you, you’ll know it’s really going well when the kids discuss and debate directly with one another.
Step 6: Enjoy our magic treats and some good conversation too.
Read the note to the kids and pass it around. Then, open up the treats and share in the sweet solution to the mystery. Enjoy the treats together and, hopefully, some good conversation about how you solved the mystery and what these forest fairies must be like.
Why is this activity great for kids?
This experience heightens kids’ curiosity and forever increases the wonder and potential magic of any trail walk. As they encounter clues and try to solve the mystery, a child will incorporate new information, reflect on his current theory and revise his theory as necessary—rather sophisticated stuff and the very basis for higher level critical thinking skills. Practice with this kind of theorizing and story building will also help to make kids great readers someday. The hunt is a great way to engage kids and help them learn to look carefully and exercise the focus and self control required to notice objects/clues tucked along the trail. The ultimate reward of cookies or muffins along with the note at the end makes for a most sweet payoff too! Kids exercise their imaginations and a sense of joy as they play with a most imaginative scenario. Finally, they practice communicating with one another as they share ideas and listen to the ideas of others.
Note: We must share that we owe this idea to John Blaney, a brilliant man who trains people big and small to learn in forest schools in England and beyond.
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By communication, we mean the ability to listen, understand, speak, read and write and more. In order to communicate effectively, kids must learn to understand what they want to get across, then decide on how to convey their messages, working to coordinate the mind and body to do so. They also need to learn to anticipate how the message will be received by another person(s). This is rather elegant and requires a symphony of physical, cognitive and social capabilities. The more children can practice, the better!
Why does it matter?
On a very practical level, kids need to be able to express questions and ideas in order to learn. Kids who communicate effectively can test ideas, seek help and let their formal and informal teachers in the world know what they understand and where they need support. Kids will also need strong and nuanced communication skills in order to work well in peer groups and manage relationships with authority figures, critical parts of life in classrooms and beyond. Later in life, they will need these skills to form close relationships, advocate for themselves within communities and be effective in the workplace.
What is Critical Thinking?
People use critical thinking skills to gather information, evaluate it, screen out distractions and think for themselves. These skills help us identify which knowledge to trust and how to use new and old knowledge together to decide what to believe or do. People also use these skills to develop arguments, make decisions, identify flaws in reasoning and to solve problems.
Also referred to as “higher-level thinking,” critical thinking draws on many other skills that matter (e.g. focus/self control, communication, making connections, and even empathy). Kids won’t fully develop critical thinking until adolescence or even adulthood, but remarkably there is lots that you can do to help your kids build its foundation during preschool and early school ages.
How do little kids build a base for such a complicated set of skills? A key building block to critical thinking is the ability to develop theories about the world and to adjust your theories as new information becomes available. Kids can practice this as they attempt to solve mysteries or actively wonder about why things are as they are. As a family, the more you ask questions, make predictions and allow kids to take active part in discovering the answers to their questions, the stronger you make their foundation for critical thinking. As kids grow out of the 3-to 5-year-olds' freewheeling relationship with reality, you can also train them to question information and see the inconsistencies or flaws in certain ways of thinking.
Why does it matter?
In a world that is increasingly saturated with media messages and where information comes from a wide range of sources that differ in quality, critical thinking is more important than ever. Kids need this skill in order to be informed and empowered consumers, to either suggest or evaluate new solutions to complicated problems, to make decisions about our society and its governance, and to form the beliefs that guide their personal and professional lives.
What does it mean to develop Curiosity?
Curiosity means the ability and habit to apply a sense of wonder and a desire to learn more. Curious people try new things, ask questions, search for answers, relish new information, and make connections, all while actively experiencing and making sense of the world. To us, curiosity is a child’s ticket to engaging fully in learning and, ultimately, in life.
Why does it matter?
As a parent, this skill is, perhaps, the easiest to grasp and has the clearest connection to a young children’s learning. We all want my children to wonder, explore and drive their own learning and, better yet, to experience the world fully. Most teachers would agree that the curious children so often seem more attentive, involved and naturally get the most out of time in school. Even the research suggests that being curious is a driver of higher performance throughout one's life, as much if not more than IQ or test scores.
Focus & Self Control
What is Focus and Self Control?
We think of self control as a child’s ability to focus on something in such a way that maximizes learning. In order to do that, they first need to direct their attention and focus on a single thing. They also need to discern which information around them is most important and deserving of their attention. Thirdly, they need something called “inhibition.” Think of inhibition as the ability to control impulses, block out distractions and continue attending to the same thing. Focus, discerning and inhibition all require rather fancy brain work and are thought to be part of the “executive functions” or the set of cognitive processes involving the prefrontal cortex that help us manage ourselves and the environment to achieve a goal.
Why does it matter?
Our world is full of distractions, more today than ever. Kids who are in any learning situation need the ability to control their impulses, block out noise and attend to the person, objects, events, or discussions that are central to learning. As classroom teachers, we saw that kids who did this ruled the classroom. As outdoor educators and parents, we know the same holds true outside of school.
But don’t take our word for it; the research is impressive. It turns out that these executive function skills are closely tied to success in the classroom, higher level education and life beyond school. Experts like Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia have shown that, “If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions—working memory and inhibition—actually predict success better than IQ tests.” Although these skills are difficult for young children and don’t crystallize until adulthood, the more kids practice them, the better at them kids become.
What is Imagination?
Imagination is defined in many ways, but one we like is, "the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality." This is no small task to little kids, and yet young childhood is a time in which imagination is developed more than any other. How does imagination develop in childhood? Through an increasingly sophisticated life of make believe.
We all likely have a sense of what we mean by make believe or good old "pretend play." How do experts define it, though? To some, there are different types of make believe that vary in sophistication and make pretend play different than other types of play. For example, kids may use objects to represent something else (e.g. a block becomes a cell phone). Or, they may start to give an object certain properties (e.g. a doll is asleep or a tree is on fire!). Still yet, they may themselves take on the properties of someone or something else.
From there, pretend play evolves into acting out scenarios or stories, those getting increasingly intricate as imagination develops. As kids' pretend play grows more sophisticated, these stories come to involve not only the creative use of objects, but multiple perspectives (e.g. good and bad guys in the same story), and/or the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions (e.g. I am sad, but then become happy after I save the village from certain doom).
Why does it matter?
An ever growing body of research substantiates the many benefits of pretend play including the enhanced development of: language and communication skills; self-control and empathy; flexible and abstract thinking; and creativity. These are the skills that will help kids balance emotions, form healthy relationships, work effectively on teams, stay focused in school, be successful at various jobs and solve the problems of an increasingly complicated world. An individual's creativity in particular, both requires and is limited by her imagination.