Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Wrapping paper alternative (how to design a kick-butt Treasure Hunt)

Americans generate about 2 pounds of gift wrapping waste per year.  Compared to other kinds of waste, this amount doesn't loom large, but it's also an easy target for reduction because we only exchange gifts every-so-often, and so changing our approach can be more focused.  Avoiding wrapping paper is a lot easier than figuring out how to, say, buy food without plastic packaging.

Why bother worrying about wrapping waste?  And why am I writing about wrapping "paper" during Plastic-Free July?  It's because wrapping paper has so much plastic in it (even though it's called "paper") that our local recycling center won't take it.  (See 
for more info).   And the tape and ribbons that go with the paper just add to the tally of planet-wrecking, non-recyclable plastic.

Wrapping paper has two socially important functions: (1) it temporarily hides the gift from view, adding to the surprise aspect of the gift, and (2) by adding to the object with non-utilitarian decoration, we signify that we're marking an occasion of importance.   Handing someone a chocolate chip cookie?  That's just being a good host or guest.  Handing someone a chocolate chip cookie in a fancy, wrapped box?  That's a gift.  

Of course, there are lots of reusable or otherwise ecologically friendly ways of wrapping presents (gift bags, scarves,  homemade bows and colorful newspaper), but I want to offer up one of my kids' favorite ways of getting gifts: the Treasure Hunt.  As awesome as wrapping gifts can be, very few of us will remember the wrapping style of any gift we got for long, but the Treasure Hunt is a treasured memory for many of my kids, above and beyond whatever measly Miser gifts I ever bought for them.  In fact, even though my "kids" are now in their 20's and 30's, we *still* do Treasure Hunts.  That's how awesome they are.

And because I've done this so often, I have sage wisdom to pass along for those who are new to creating hunts of their own.  (Of course I do.  I love imparting sage wisdom!)

How to put together a kick-butt treasure hunt

Long before I start putting out the scraps of paper that serve as clues, I grab a notepad and pencil, and I do a tour of the house and grounds, looking for good clue locations in various "zones".  A "zone" might be "second floor bedrooms", or "upstairs bathroom", or "backyard", or such.  In  in my experience, a good treasure hunt has 8-12 clues to hunt for, so it's helpful to try to have that approximately that many different zones.  

I have 4 kids who do the treasure hunt, so in each zone I choose four different locations where I'll hide the clues.  For bedrooms, I stick with a generic hiding place that's the same for each kid ("under your pillow"); but in the second floor bathroom, I might jot down several specific places: the medicine cabinet mirror, shower, soap dish, and cat decoration.   The kitchen has so many good hiding places that I'll usually be able to have two hiding locations per kid somewhere in there.  

Suggestion: don't choose an object (like a bicycle) that someone is likely to use and/or move around the day of the treasure hunt, or you might end up losing that clue and derailing one kid's treasure hunt. . . you don't have to ask me how I know that little fact.

Once I have these locations written down, I plan out a route.  Running back and forth a lot makes the experience last longer and also increases the number of times my kids run past each other, both of which make for a more awesome treasure hunt.  So I try work that into the route; if they start in the dining room on the first floor, the first clue might be up in the attic or out in the back yard, and then down into the basement, and then back upstairs . . . lots of criss-crossing is fun.  I can do that just by numbering things on the list of hiding places, right there on the notepad.  

Only then, when I have my notepad filled out, do I start to create the actual paper clues for the kids.   I have two pro-tips for this.
  1. Color code the clues, so each kid has a different color.   That way, Y knows to look for the (say) hot-pink clues, and not to accidentally take J-son's clue.   (Except for the year that she did take his clue, throwing things off kilter).
  2. On each clue, write the location where you'll put that scrap of paper, as well as where that clue leads.  So, for example, one of the clues from our Pirate Treasure hunt reads,
    A-child: Yer at the hanging tool bag.
    Arrr!  Look lively!  And look ye ter the eight-sided mirror hoisted high in the house.
    Knowing where each scrap of paper goes will be a huge help when you're getting ready to put the clues around the house.
I do all of this in a Word document; in future years I can cut-and-paste to swap kid names and give them each a "new" treasure hunt.  Here's what page looks like when I put it together:
For the Pirate Treasure Hunt, I print a pirate map on the back.  If I were doing this for a different holiday, I could imagine having a birthday cake image or a Christmas tree . . .  that way, people can put the puzzle pieces together or just a tiny bit of extra fun.  

As I said, I print each of these pages, one per child, on different colors of paper.  Then I cut the various clues apart.   The above sheet has 13 clues; I'd cut it into 13 pieces.   Once I have all the pieces, I sort the clues by where I'll put them --- all the backyard clues together, for example, and I put those together in an envelope.  Because I usually prepare these clues long in advance, the envelopes help to keep things sorted during the weeks (months) between making these and putting them out.     

On the day that I'm going to launch the treasure hunt, all I have to do is grab the envelopes and walk around the house and yard, putting the clues in their correct spots.  I hide the present (or the money, or whatever the "treasure" is) in the appropriate place, and hang on to the first clues to hand out to my kids at just the right time.  

Our first year of doing the treasure hunts, I taped a few dollar coins underneath their dining room chairs, so that they had no idea that they were sitting on the treasure all through dinner.  Now, whenever we have  Pirate Dinner, my kids all look under their chairs before they sit down.  One year, I taped the coins under the chairs after the hunt had started, after they'd already started running maniacally around the house.  When he came to the last clue, J-son was at a loss:  where do I look?  He told his sisters, "it can't be under the chairs!  I already looked there!"  So it turned out to be a great hiding place that year, too!


  1. Oh that's sneaky and clever!

    My ecofrugal approach is so much more boring: I save all gift wrap and gift bags and we reuse them until they can't be used anymore, and we are trying to shift to cloth wrap instead.

    1. For my 84-year old dad (and my sisters and other friends), I too save/reuse/repurpose wrapping. Actually, my sisters and I have a tradition now of giving back the gift bag so we can use it again, with the same tag: "To Miser Mom from Sister F", etc. For me, the trick is how to save all that wrapping stuff without it becoming overwhelming, storage-wise. Brutal triage is the only solution I've come up with!