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Mystery Trail Walk

Age: 3 to 8
Time: Under 1 hour
Materials: items from the kitchen, baked goods

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 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 fairies up to, you ask? Baking magic fairy treats for our explorers to find and enjoy!

There is a window in your child’s life when experiences like this are perfect. The magic of this hunt is made possible because kids between the ages of 3 and 8 (or so) quite readily accept and work within a fantasy context. The idea that forest fairies left clues for us and a mystery to solve does not seem odd at all, but rather quite intriguing. As a result, Mystery Trail Walk leads to powerful learning and is, hands-down, one of the most memorable and beloved activities we do.

The Guide

  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 fairy muffins, and we will get to enjoy those muffins at the end! Even though they may not appear to be into fairies, it’s remarkable how absorbed in this particular story kids can get. If fairies simply won't fly with your kids, though, come up with a mystery scenario that fits their 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.
  2. Gather the “clues”: 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.
  3. Write a note: Write a note to the kids from the 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Set the stage: Tell kids your mystery scenario. Then, let them know that the 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?!
  6. 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 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.
  7. Enjoy our magic fairy 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 fairies must be like. And, it's always nice to whisper "thank you, fairies!" to a tree, as it is said that the fairies can hear everything the trees hear!

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 him a great reader someday. The hunt is a great way to engage kids and help them learn to look carefully and exercise the 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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