Make Your Own Christmas Scavenger Hunt

At our house, one of the Christmas traditions is the clue hunt. This started when our oldest was much younger, and I had bought her a 3′ tall Rapunzel doll. I had two problems. One, I didn’t want to wrap it. It’s huge! Two, I didn’t want a five-year-old to see this enormous doll and ignore the rest of Christmas.

To solve both of these, I put it on the third floor of our house and wrapped a note around a candy cane and hung it on the tree. After everything else was done, someone casually asked her, “What’s on that candy cane?” A series of (really terrible) rhymes led her from place to place around the house until finally they took her to the third floor, where Rapunzel was waiting for her.

It worked so well, I kept doing it! Read on and use the attached files to create your own.

Until now, the clues have been those same terrible rhymes. Here’s a sampling:

• The elves are so festive wearing suits of red and green!
• You know how Santa Claus wears a suit of red?
• You’re on the list of kids who were nice!
You may want to look where you can find the ice.

After a few years, the creativity got weaker:

• If I were you, I think this is a nice time to go climb a tree.
• Have you ever tried to rhyme something with Ian?
Check the gingerbread house that has his name on it anyway.

Last year I started to work up to slightly more difficult challenges. For example, one clue was written on the back of a small puzzle from the dollar store, so they had to assemble it first.

This year, we’re really raising the bar with some simple ciphers.

The kids are now 10 and 6, and they have only a passing familiarity with coded messages, so I’m giving them a cheat sheet. (Download the PDF to use it yourself!) It explains how a few types of coded messages work and gives them varying levels of assistance solving the problems. It includes:

• A Caeser cipher, which is simply moving the letters down the alphabet. For this one, I’ve given them the exact shift the clue uses. This will be the first clue so that they’re eased into the hunt.
• A pigpen cipher, which is harder. The cheat sheet doesn’t explain every detail of how the code works, but it does give them the solution key. (If you’re not familiar, you can see an example in the Wikipedia entry.)
• Morse code. They learned about Morse code this summer, and they’re proficient Google searchers, so I’m letting them know that one of the clues will be in Morse code, and it’s up to them to find the key.
• A transposition cipher. Again, this is an easier code to break, and in the example, I give them the type of transposition I’ll use—but also a second type.
• A rail cipher, briefly explained, with exactly the “fence” they’ll need to decode the message. (Again, you can see an example on Wikipedia.)

The one clue that isn’t on the cheat sheet will be a QR code they’ll have to scan, which will send them to a URL on our server with the next message.

In the course of creating this year’s hunt, I realized that the older child is going to solve the ciphers much more quickly than the younger one. So instead of simple clues that lead them to the next place, I’ve made more challenging riddles and included some that only the younger child will know the answer to, ensuring that they have to work together. For example, only the younger child is interested in Pokémon, so one of the clues is, “Her first Pokémon was a Piplup.” (The answer is Dawn.)

As an alternative (or additional) method of clues, you can use multiple choice questions, where only the correct answer leads you to the next clue. For example:

What is 5+2?
a) 3 (look under the sofa)
b) 6 (look in the silverware drawer)
c) 7 (look on your pillow)

This type of question has the advantage of being flexible enough that you can make simple questions for young children or complicated ones for older ones.

Overall, making your own hunt is as easy or as complicated as you want to make it. As a final tip, I usually keep a list of clues in order in a spreadsheet so that when it’s time to hide them, I know which piece goes where.

Share your ideas for clues in the comments, and good luck, hunt-makers!