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When parents pour their heart and soul into it, kids 12 and under will absolutely love this family ritual. Not only is it an especially good activity for families going through tough financial situations, but since it provides a valuable experience dealing with creativity and recycling as well, we recommend it for everyone.

Before you set out, gather the kids and explain the purpose of this treasure hunt: “We’re going to go out looking for things that might be useful. So as we walk around, keep your eyes peeled for interesting items, and I want you to try and imagine all the different ways it might be useful or how it could be made into something new. We’re not going to bring back everything we find, but we will keep some of the more useful or interesting items.”

Grab a few bags or a box (children will often want their own little bag, and cloth bags, if you have them, work best) and set out for a walk along places where you are likely to find discarded items. Finding safe spots to walk along the highway or a street work well, as do paths that will take you through vacant lots. While doing so, you and the kids then hunt for “treasures” that might be useful.

This is a creativity exercise as much as anything else, so don’t get caught up in the practicality of their items or ideas. The value of this exercise is in the process, not the finished product. You don’t have to take back everything they find; it’s okay to be selective, and if you’re not sure about something, you can always have them set it just off the side of your path so that you can pick it up on your way back if necessary. But don’t be a scrooge, either. Allow your kids to collect things you might not be all that excited about, and work with them rather than against them. Help them think of ways to make their idea into reality rather than focusing on how silly their idea might be.

Ways to make family treasure hunts a more enriching experience:

A)  When tourists take trips to poor areas in Africa, they are often swarmed by children eager to score their discarded trash. An empty plastic bottle or a piece of string can be a glorious find to a child that has practically nothing. When kids play, they invent their own games. Got a stick and an empty plastic bottle? You’ve got yourself a game of hockey. Not too long ago in history, all of a child’s toys were made by taking a found object and re-purposing it into something else.

Get back into this spirit by having kids invent games they can play with the items or encourage them to think up ways they can make something into a toy. For instance, a little bit of acrylic paint can turn interesting rocks into strange space creatures. A hubcap can become a flying saucer. A collection of empty plastic containers can make some interesting blocks for tower building, and the added skill needed for working with the different shapes can «actually make it more enriching than traditional blocks. And there’s all sorts of items that can be turned into dolls or figurines.

B)  Not all treasures have to consist of old junk. Kids can also look for beautiful rocks, interesting plants, or creatures and critters they might find. So feel free to take treasure hunts walking along a creek or a beach. If they find a frog or a garter snake, let them take it back as a free pet and keep it for a week or two before letting it go again. (Garter snakes eat small fish or earthworms, and which one you can get it to eat probably depends on whether or not you found it near a water source. Frogs and lizards will eat crickets. Both feeder fish and crickets can be purchased at pet stores. Crickets cost a few cents each, feeder fish were 10-30 cents each the last time I checked. You can have kids dig up earthworms themselves or purchase them from a fishing store.) Not only will they love this catch and release pet project, but it can give them a valuable lesson in focusing on experiencing things rather than possessing

C)  Check out a book on native edible plants from your local library and see if you can spot any on the walks you take. Cat-tails are a perfect example of something you’ve probably passed a million times and never thought of as food, but the base at the root of a cat-tail can actually be quite tasty. Learning how to find food hiding in plain sight is another self-sufficiency skill that will give kids some much needed comfort and reassurance when money is tight. Just make sure you know what you’re doing first; don’t haphazardly conduct a taste-test with every weed in the field. Study up on the subject, and make sure you’re certain before you try it. Once you get good at this, it makes a fun activity to go out hunting for edible plants and then come back and make a salad with whatever you find.

D)  If all goes well, kids will have a great time and be eager and excited to do it again. So don’t forget that planning can be part of the fun. Throughout the week you can discuss different places that might be good targets for a treasure hunt, or talk about what you will look for and what you might find

Keep safety in mind

Just be sure to keep safety in the back of your mind. Picking up old junk may make parents queasy – but it is generally safe from a biological standpoint. Any human-related microbes will have died within a day or two of sitting out in the sun, and getting down and dirty like this actually helps strengthen a child’s immune system in the long run. More likely dangers are cuts from sharp metal or the risks in trying to do this near heavy traffic. If your kids find an object to take back, make sure it’s not going to injure them and remind them that some of these items aren’t safe for babies and younger children.


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