This year, we went to a number of birthday parties for kids in Benji’s class. They all followed pretty much the same formula: The parents had rented time at Pump It Up, Arena Sports, or Elevated Sports. A large number of kids showed up — usually >20, accompanied by a least one parent, for a total of 40 to 50 people. The kids were let loose in the bouncy house/play zone for an hour, followed by an hour of eating pizza, veggie tray veggies, chips, candy, and cake in an almost perfectly featureless “party room” decorated by the parents with lots of plastic banners and such. As a party favor, each kid got a plastic bag full of Pump It Up (or whatever)-brand Oriental Trading Company-quality junk that broke almost instantly and that we then had to secretly make “go away” at some point not long thereafter.

Needless to say, although Benji enjoyed these events, I couldn’t see spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars to put on a generic, junky party. I wanted to do better for Benji, and after talking with him, we agreed we would do better: We’d do a scavenger hunt at a park. (Park parties are one major benefit of an August birthday.)

I’m going to gloss over the many hours of work my mother, my mother-in-law, and I put in during the weeks before the party. I suspect most families opt for the generic event-place party because it really is much easier and requires a minimal amount of planning. You just have to pay lots of money for that convenience. We paid in time rather than money, and here’s what we ended up with.

We invited seven kids initially, one for each year of Benji’s life. I sent each family an invitation that said (to summarize), “Oh no! Thieves have stolen Benji’s cupcakes, but they left a puzzle on a map showing where they hid them. Complete five challenges to collect all the puzzle pieces and find the cupcakes!”

We held the party at St. Edwards State Park, which is huge and has a really phenomenal play toy. Beforehand, Mom, Deborah, and I scouted out a location and set up the cupcakes, water, and watermelon on some secluded picnic tables on the far side of the park away from the play toys.

Deborah generously did the boring part and stayed with the cupcakes while Mom and I ran the party.

We met the kids near the play toys and issued them their equipment: An orange T-shirt and a cloth drawstring bag (Deborah made the bags!) containing a puzzle piece numbered one through five. The number determined who got to make the final decision if there were any arguments (it wasn’t actually an issue). Then we did the challenges.

Challenge One: Picture Matching

I had previously gone all over the play toy and took pictures of different parts of it. Most were very up close, but some were far away or up high. The point is that the pictures didn’t always look exactly like subject when you saw it in real life. We printed out 23 of these photos.

For this challenge, the kids had to receive a photo, run all over the play toy, and find where the picture came from. Then they came back and we gave them a new picture.

Colin returns with the last photo. The last picture was a doozy – all five kids searched and still needed a clue to find it.

Once they found all the photo sites, they got the first batch of puzzle pieces.

A word on the puzzle: Mom has previously hand-drawn a map of St. Edwards on a blank puzzle, and we marked the cupcake location on it. Then we divided the pieces into five groups, making sure to mix them well and to include the cupcake location marker pieces in the final set. Throughout the party, they assembled the puzzle in a small Xerox box lid that we carried around.

Challenge Two: Take a Rubbing

For this challenge, the kids had to complete three rubbings of something on the play toy area. We instructed them on how to do a rubbing and gave them flat crayons and white paper cut into quarters, and let them lose.

Mia demonstrating how to do a rubbing.

Most of them came back with pretty much indistinguishable pieces of paper covered with bumpy surface rubbings, but they all had fun, and we gave them the next set of puzzle pieces. The kids really, really liked assembling the puzzle.

Challenge Three: Find and Identify a Unique Leaf

We took them all on a very short (0.25 miles) hike around the Orchard Loop. On this hike each kid had to find a unique leaf. They saved those in their bags, and at the end, we looked through some identification books to try to see what kind of tree or plant it came from.

We also took a break to let them climb a fabulous tree.

Once everyone had tried to identify their specimen, out came the next batch of puzzle pieces!

Challenge Four: Find an Interesting Natural Item

Similar to challenge three, we walked on a trail — the Perimeter Trail, this time, strategically in the direction of the cupcakes — and each kid had to find an interesting natural item to show everyone. At the end of the trail we sat at a picnic bench and the kids showed their items and explained what they found was interesting about it. Most of them showed the leaves they had found on the previous challenge, but they also found things like hollow sticks, moss, maple tree whirligigs, and such.

Then more puzzle pieces. So close!

Challenge Five: Bubble Relay

This is tied with the photo matching for the challenge I’m most proud of. I came up with both ideas on my own, and the kids loved both.

For this challenge, we gave each kid a bubble wand and bubble juice. They lined up at one end of a big field and had to blow bubbles to get across the field. The trick: They could only walk as far as their farthest bubble went before it popped. Then they had to stop and blow more bubbles.

The kids were hilarious during this challenge. One blew on a bubble to try to make it go farther, one popped all but their lead bubble (eliminating competition?!), some stomped all the bubbles.

We had carefully arranged this challenge so the prevailing wind took the bubbles in the right direction — again, surreptitiously towards the still-hidden cupcakes location.

Once all the kids reached the hedge at the end of the field, we issued them the last batch of puzzle pieces. They assembled the puzzle — not totally trivial, because it has 48 pieces — and then had to read the map to find the cupcakes.

Actually, it didn’t require much map reading, because once they came around the corner of a building, the cupcake tables with their orange table cloths were very obvious.

Then it was cupcake time, plus watermelon and grapes provided by Deborah. While waiting for everyone to finish eating, we gave each kid a balloon (not helium), which they ran around with. Some kids colored with chalk a bit. We took a picture with everyone and we were done!

Throwing the balloons in the air to celebrate a successful party!

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