Environmental games and activities: Scavenger hunts

Looking for some outdoor or environmental activities for youth? Try a scavenger hunt for hands-on, educational fun.

Example of a winter scavenger hunt checklist.
Example of a winter scavenger hunt checklist.

Games are great to help youth explore and learn about the natural environment. By turning learning into a game, it changes the mindset of children. There are many positive aspects to using activities of this nature. Games can be hands-on, interactive, cover key concepts and create good discussion. Scavenger hunts may be one of the most popular, effective and easy-to-use activities.

Scavenger hunts involve youth working alone, in pairs or small groups to “find” selected items. Collection of the item is not always necessary or advised as many items are best left where they are. Bird nests, animal scat, live plants, buck rubs, mushrooms and spider webs are some examples of items that should not be collected. Items that can be collected include rocks, feathers, seeds and cones, fallen leaves and conifer needles and litter. Some items just can’t be collected such as animal tracks, trees, live animals and sunsets.

Checklists are really good means of helping youth with what to find. For younger children, the list may include pictures of what to look for rather than just words. For older children, you can involve more specific identifications in the hunt. For example, a younger child might find a leaf, but an older child might find a red oak leaf. Laminating the sheets is a good idea because dry erase marker can be used to check off items and the sheets can be used multiple times. If you are collecting, a storage bag or small box works well. Youth like taking pictures, so using a digital or phone camera is another way to “collect” items without taking them.

Environmental scavenger hunts can be created easily and adapted to any location. They can be made to relate to many different types of habitats or ecosystems such as aquatic, upland forests, prairie, bogs, swamps and marshes. Don’t forget urban environments too! Scavenger hunts can be theme-focused as well. They can be specific to birds, mammals, insects, fishes, trees, small plants, seeds, weather, etc. There is no limit to what scavenger hunts can seek as long as you think creatively!

While the scavenger hunt portion of the activity is fun, it is the learning aspect that should be the important component. Make sure to start the activity encouraging youth to ask questions, keep their senses alert and work together. At the end of the hunt, it is important to discuss their findings. What is it? Where did it come from? Why did it end up where it was found? What use is it? What special features does it have? What senses did you use? How did you find it? Public speaking can also be incorporated by asking each child or group to find the coolest thing and have a “show and tell” about what they found. Many more questions are sure to arise and some engaging conversation will likely result.

Environmental scavenger hunts are fun, engaging and educational. In addition, they are easy to make, coordinate and are adaptable to most any location or age level. Try one with your 4-H club, youth group, classroom or family. Everyone involved will find it worth the time.

Watch for more environmental games and activities in future articles on Michigan State University Extension’s Environmental and Outdoor Education webpage.

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