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The next time you have a group of children hanging around looking for something to do, or are wondering what to do for your child's birthday party, try setting up a compass treasure hunt.

Clues leading to the treasure are given only as compass bearings, and the distance in steps to the next clue. Hand them a compass, show them how to use it, and wish them luck as you give them the first clue.

In their eagerness to find the treasure, even the youngest child playing will quickly learn one of the basics of “orienteering”: how to use a compass. This skill is fundamental to their future explorations of nature (best for ages 5 – 12).

How It Works

Players assemble at the starting point. One player is given a note with a compass course and a distance, measured in steps. This clue leads to the first waypoint, where two items are to be found: a small bag of treats to keep everyone happy and motivated, and a second note with a new compass bearing leading to the next waypoint.

Each waypoint has a small offering of treats and a new note. Each note has the name of one of the players, so everyone gets a chance to use the compass. At the end is a final “treasure” for everyone to discover.

Set the Course

The course can be located anywhere: the park, beach, or backyard. It can be as simple or complex as you want, but should be scaled in difficulty to the ages of the players.

  1. Standing at the starting point, look around in the distance for a hiding place for the first little treasure and next clue: behind a tree, hanging from a branch, behind the garage … Hold the compass and check to see that it’s level enough for the needle or card to spin freely. Wait till it points steadily in one direction, and turn the compass so “N” lines up with the pointer.

    Now hold the compass in front of your face, and turn it until the needle points to North. Look to the hiding spot, then look down to the compass and read the “degrees” which point to the spot.

    (This method is simple, but not “pinpoint” accurate. Keep the next clue reasonably easy to locate).

  2. Walk to the first hiding spot and count your steps along the way. Be sure to take the same size steps as the players would. Write down the number of steps and the course (in degrees) on a small piece of paper. This is the clue you’ll give the players at the start.

    Repeat the process for the next clue: look for a hiding spot, take a compass bearing, count the steps, and write it down. Once you’ve finished plotting this second clue, you have to backtrack to the first clue location and leave the note with compass bearing and # of steps to the spot you just plotted. Don’t forget to leave a few treats to keep the players enticed.

  3. Create as many waypoints as you like, but make enough so that each player gets a turn. The final “treasure” can be buried, hidden, or covered, but where all can access it together. (Not up a tree!) It can even lead right into your house where the birthday cake is waiting as the treasure.

Child with yellow raincoat, baby blue backpack and boots in the woods.

Tips for Your Compass Treasure Hunt

  • You’ll need to teach the players how to use the compass, even if they say they already know how to use it. Some won’t know and may be too shy to ask.
  • For younger children, set the course so it goes in a circle, leading back to near where they began. This way they are always within hearing distance.
  • Remind the players to always stay together: we don’t want anyone to go missing. If the children are very young, you might consider pairing them up on a buddy system.
  • Hide or cover the waypoint treats where birds, the dog, or any little critters won’t get to them before the children do!
  • After the treasure hunt is over, ask some of the children to show you how to plot a compass course to an object of their choosing. The underlying goal is for children to learn how to use a compass, so this reinforces the lesson and gives the children a chance to ask any additional questions about using a compass.