Who doesn’t love a scavenger hunt? Get your kids outdoors this summer and ‘scavenging’ for treasures in nature. Armed with a list of items to find, they’ll eagerly look at the world around them with more observant eyes. Nature watching will be exciting as they collect specimens, take pictures of animals, and do fun activities. This is a great afternoon project for a group of kids, or it can be expanded into a summer-long family project with siblings and parents working together to create fun displays with the results of their summer’s explorations.
Use the ideas in this article to get you started designing your own scavenger hunt that is a good fit for your location.
Planning a Scavenger Hunt
Your scavenger hunt can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish to make it. As you plan, consider carefully your location, the participants, and how long the hunt should last.
1. Location. Choose items for the scavenger list that the kids will most likely be able to find. If they are hunting in a local park, for example, don’t ask them to find leaves from trees that don’t grow there. For a summer-long hunt, your kids will look in many different locations, and it isn’t necessary to plan these out ahead of time. If you are going out of town on a family vacation, though, you could do a little internet research to find out what kinds of trees and flowers are common in the area you are traveling to. It’s a good idea to lay some ground rules first, as some places (such as certain national parks) don’t allow you to pick any wildflowers, and it’s illegal to collect feathers from some species of birds, etc.
2. Participants. Design your scavenger list with the ages of the participants in mind. Younger kids may get frustrated if the items on their list are too hard to find, while older kids will enjoy the challenge. If you are working with a large group, form teams and let younger kids work with older kids. Decide whether your hunt will be a contest or not—some kids enjoy competition more than others. If your group is well-suited to it, have a prize for the person who checks the most things off the scavenger list. (Here are some inexpensive science gift ideas.)
3. Duration. Have a manageable list for the amount of time you have to work with. If you only have an hour or two, just make a list of things each participant needs to look for. For a longer-term project, include things to collect, activities to do, and things to photograph.
Scavenger Hunt Ideas
The possibilities for a nature scavenger hunt are endless! The following are some ideas to get you started designing your own scavenger list:
Things to See
- Insects, such as a butterfly, dragonfly, grasshopper, and beetle.
- A spider web.
- Leaves from an oak or maple tree.
- Frogs, toads, and lizards.
- Mushrooms (do not eat wild mushrooms! They are difficult to identify other than by experts.)
- Wild berries (do not eat them unless they’ve been identified as non-poisonous!)
- Find feathers or abandoned birds’ nests.
- If you’re by the ocean, look for seashells and seaweed.
Things to Collect
- Pinecones, dandelions, seeds.
- Encourage identification skills by having the kids find different types of leaves or flowers native to your area. (Look for regional field guides in your local library or on enature.com, or do an internet search for the ‘native plants’ of your state.)
- Collect ferns, moss, pinecones, seeds, thorns, and other botanical specimens.
- Catch butterflies, capture a ladybug, dragonfly, or other insects, find a cocoon or chrysalis (see this article for butterfly-hatching instructions).
- Look for fossils, colored rocks, quartz, or flat skipping stones.
- Find a temporary ‘pet,’ such as a frog, snail, or grasshopper. (You should let them go after you’ve observed them.)
- Look carefully for something ‘camouflaged,’ such as a walking stick insect or a moth that blends in with its surroundings.
- If you live on the coast, include things like seashells, seaweed, small crustaceans, and small pieces of driftwood.
Things to Do
- Go wading, swim in a lake, climb a tree, go on a picnic.
- Draw a flower, make a dandelion chain, make a leaf rubbing.
- Get up early to watch the sun rise, write a description of a sunset.
- Go hiking, build a shelter, find your way with a compass.
- Look at pond water under a microscope, go stargazing with binoculars or a telescope.
- Record a birdsong or other animal sounds.
- Find a chrysalis and watch a butterfly emerge from it.
- Go to the zoo and have each child find a fact about their favorite animal.
- Keep a nature journal for writing descriptions of activities and drawing pictures.
Things to Photograph
- Birds at a bird bath, birdfeeder, or bird house.
- Squirrels or other small animals.
- Animal tracks (if you have time, you can also make a plaster cast).
- Sunset or sunrise.
- Waterfall, mountain, boulder, lake, beach, or swamp (with someone in the picture!)
- A sibling or friend doing one of the activities listed under ‘things to do.’
- Unusual sights like a tree root curled around a rock.
- The discovery (plant, animal, landscape) that amazed you the most.
Make a Display
Encourage kids to keep a nature notebook with a record of everything they saw on their nature explorations. Their notebook can include pressed flowers and leaves, pictures they took with a disposable camera, written descriptions, drawings, and more. Let them display three-dimensional objects in a display case or keep them in their own decorated cardboard nature box. Items such as seashells and rocks can make an attractive decoration in a glass jar. Insects can be pinned and labeled to be kept either on a piece of corrugated cardboard, or in a more permanent and attractive exhibit case. After hunting all summer, they should have quite a satisfactory collection!
Before setting out on a nature expedition, gather a few important tools from around the house:
- Plastic bags – bring home specimens without making a mess.
- Camera – take pictures of what can’t be collected with a digital or disposable camera.
- Notebook and pens or colored pencils – make notes and drawings so you can remember what you see.
- Jars – transport insects and other small critters, or use to display rocks and shells
- Snack – hunting can work up an appetite!
- Sunscreen and bug repellent – don’t get burned and bitten.
- Baby wipes or hand sanitizer – clean up when you get grimy.
Kids don’t need lots of fancy equipment to observe nature, but here is a list of suggested tools to make their study even more rewarding:
- Insect net – catch butterflies and other flying insects.
- Binoculars – observe birds and squirrels up close.
- Magnifying glass – see the intricate details on insects, flowers, leaves, and more.
- Plant press – preserve flowers and leaves to mount in a notebook or use for cards or crafts.
- Field guides – get help identifying trees, flowers, rocks, birds, etc.
- Backpack – carry all your exploration tools conveniently. (If you’d like a backpack already stocked with high-quality nature exploration tools that will last for years, see our line of nature backpack kits.)
Scavenger Hunt Activities
Listed below are a few examples of activities that you could develop based on your location. Use the list of Things to See, Do, and Collect above to inspire you! Be prepared for the science projects below with some important Nature Tools. These activities can be adapted for any age.
Park Scavenger Hunt
Instructions: The items on this list should be easy to find in a city park. Bring along an empty egg carton to collect your finds. (Note: for kids who aren’t able to read yet, try a color scavenger hunt—paint the inside of each cup of an egg carton a different color and let kids collect anything they can find that matches each color.)
1. something green
2. something red
3. something smooth
4. something rough
5. something fuzzy
6. something round
7. something straight
8. something that rattles or makes a sound
9. two different kinds of leaves that are different colors
10. a pinecone
11. a flower
12. a rock with an interesting pattern
Backyard Scavenger Hunt
Instructions: Using sidewalk chalk, write a list of items for kids to find. Draw a square or circle next to each item where they can place the actual objects as they collect them. Include multiples of objects such as 5 small pebbles, 3 pinecones, 4 yellow flowers, 2 large leaves, etc. Customize the items on the list to include things you know exist in your backyard—some may be easy to spot and others should require a little more scavenging!
Nature Scavenger Hunt
You can use this worksheet as a scavenger hunt list of things to find. See how many of the fourteen objects on the list you can spot. Can you find a bird? Can you see any insects? How about different types of rocks and trees? If you’re near the ocean you may be able to find shells and seaweed. Using the worksheet, color the things you saw, and add your own drawings to the list for other things you saw. Discuss with your kids why you saw what you did, and why you weren’t able to find some other items.
Scavenger Hunt Science Lesson
Can you think of some animals that live in cities? What kinds of animals have you seen at parks, around stores and buildings, or in your own backyard? Animals including rodents, like mice and squirrels, as well as larger mammals such as raccoons, possums, foxes, and even coyotes have also been known to live in cities.
In addition, a variety of insects and birds live right outside your door. Some spiders, centipedes, and beetles even seem to thrive more inside our homes than they do outside! Most of us consider creepy crawly creatures living in our homes to be pests—from insects and spiders to mice or even birds nesting outside our houses.
Abundance of food that is easy to find is probably what attracts many animals to cities. Food from garbage cans, litter, and crumbs on the street are all fair game where animals are concerned! They can easily find water from ponds or streams in parks or even sprinklers, rain gutters, or swimming pools. There are also plenty of options for finding shelter in the city, especially for animals who have adapted to living close to humans. Lots of animals get used to us when they live in a city and aren’t as shy or easily frightened as their cousins who live in the wild. Most will still keep their distance, but know when to stick around if it could benefit them in the form of a meal or a sheltered place to sleep.
All animals, including humans, adapt in certain ways to survive. Since environments can change quickly, it is important for animals to change certain habits in order to keep up with their changing environment. This is particularly true for animals who live in cities. The gray squirrel, house sparrow, starling, and pigeon are among the most common animals who have taken to city life and who have made a few changes to their behavior to adapt to an environment that is different from that of the woods or forests they once occupied.
Raccoons are also a great example of an animal that has adapted to city life by changing certain behaviors to fit in. Rather than nesting in trees as they tend to in the wild, raccoons who live in cities have considered other options for their homes including sheds, crawlspaces, piles of brush, and even abandoned cars. Raccoons are very good at grasping and opening things and can use both their front and hind paws quite well. While a raccoon’s diet normally consists of berries, seeds, nuts, fish, and other small animals, they aren’t very picky about what they eat, which comes in handy for city-dwelling raccoons who will take what they can find from dumpsters, gardens, or litter on the street.
One way animals are equipped to survive is through camouflage. Many creatures, from insects to chameleons to foxes, use camouflage—they blend in to their surroundings which helps them hide from danger and also gives them an advantage when they are looking for food.
The arctic fox is an animal that uses camouflage quite well. It lives in flat lands that lack many trees. During the winter, an arctic fox has a thick white coat of fur. The white color helps it blend in well with its white snow-covered surroundings. As the snow begins to melt away in the Spring, the fox’s coat darkens to a brown or grayish color, which again helps it to blend in with its surroundings of mostly barren tundra with only a few rocks and plants scattered here and there.