On a hot July afternoon, the other parents and I arrived at the pizza place with our kids — a group of 7–8 high-energy tween boys aged 11–13 — ready to celebrate Jackson’s 12th birthday.

Their enthusiasm reached high volume in minutes. We were gathered on the sidewalk of the main street of our small town, across from the university — a street with lots of pedestrian traffic and small shops catering to college students.

Instead of going inside for pizza, Jackson’s mom Liz, handed each kid an envelope.

It contained a small amount of cash and a list — a scavenger hunt list.

What kind of birthday party is this?

I stood back with the other moms watching their reaction. We knew Liz’s plan. But we didn’t know how cool this gift was. I didn’t realize the transformation that would happen over the next two hours.

The list was around ten items the kids had to complete together within the next 2 hours as part of their scavenger hunt birthday party.

Some of the kids groaned. Others asked when they’d be getting pizza. Some started reading the list… in horror. They started challenging each other.

Liz quieted them down. She explained the rules of the game and let them know they could choose to opt in or not.

Real-world challenges give kids independence

The parents had all agreed to let our kids go on a scavenger hunt earlier. I’d been doing homemade scavenger hunts with our kids for years. But never in town. Never as a coming-of-age challenge.

My ‘hunts’ had always been ‘educational’ and often involved elaborate directions to complete calisthenics in order to move on to the next item in the hunt.

Liz had created an epic hunt that would take the kids along the main street of town, into shops, talking with people, learning about the town’s history, writing, dealing with money, communicating, negotiating, working together, and… figuring stuff out on their own.

The moms stepped back.

As anyone who has raised teens knows, it’s a fine balance between giving your kid space and being there for them. No one wanted to be over the line and risk crowding their space. But we all wanted a front-row seat to how the hunt would go.

(In a different era, realistically our kids would’ve been doing the things on the list from a much younger age… as part of daily life. No need for moms. But here we are, in a modern world that has made it harder and harder for kids to gain the independence they need and crave.)

The kids’ reactions ranged from boasting to laughter, skepticism, and annoyance that their pizza party was delayed…

It was going to be transformative.

The Scavenger Hunt experience

The kids had two hours. There was no order to the items on the list. If they tried to complete the list in order, they might run out of time.

They needed a plan.

The list included:

  • Getting ice cream.
  • Wishing someone a good day.
  • Asking for directions from one person.
  • Learning one fact about the town’s history.
  • Helping someone (holding the door or similar).
  • Taking a twenty-minute city bus ride and paying in cash.
  • Exchanging silly gifts amongst each other (also bought in cash).
  • Polling three people on the street about how they felt about cats.
  • Taking a selfie in front of a bookstore and noting three book titles of interest.

Jackson was as surprised as his friends.

The moms moved back, but couldn’t resist watching from a distance.

A couple of kids glanced at the group of moms, still hovering a short distance away…

Nope, no help from adults. This was their scavenger hunt. Their party. Their coming-of-age adventure.

They had to make a plan and stick together.

Gaining independence is a hard-won process

As the hunt began, the kids quickly figured out they needed to work together.

They huddled on the sidewalk. They argued. They didn’t know how to start.

They were at the far end of the main street. The end without all the interesting shops, like the ice cream shop and the cool shops with knickknacks a twelve-year-old boy might like. Even the bookstore was easily a mile walk, in the hot July sun.

But the bus stand was about fifteen feet away.

None of them had ever taken the city bus by themselves. They had no clue how to figure out the bus schedule (a symptom of modern life).

Time was ticking. More arguing. A couple of buses stopped at the bus stop. They didn’t get on. They also didn’t want to walk miles in the heat.

They were at an impasse, and they hadn’t even started. The moms went inside. We would’ve/could’ve/should’ve gone home but were curious to see what our kids would do.

Hot sun. Limited time. Limited cash. Seemingly easy yet somehow daunting tasks. A strong desire just to sit in a cool restaurant and eat lots of pizza.

The kids were frustrated. They had not taken up the challenge yet…

Facing a challenge

The moms took a window seat hoping to catch the action. Liz loved every minute. She wasn’t worried.

A couple of kids took charge.

They counted the money they had. And announced a plan.

The arguing stopped. They studied the bus schedule. There was a noticeable shift in the energy of the group. They were on a mission…

They got on the bus.

The gift of independence

Two hours later…

A very different group of kids walked toward the pizza place, laughing and telling stories to each other about their adventures. Some of them were still finishing their ice cream cones. Others were wearing cheap sunglasses or playing with gadgets they’d bought for each other.

They had one last task — take a group photo.

They organized themselves on the sidewalk, joking, and posing. And took their photo. They didn’t notice the moms as they headed inside the pizza place for the real birthday party.

They’d been on an adventure. The challenges they met and conquered had given them a rush like no other.

They had stayed together, figured it out, and helped each other. Talked with strangers on the sidewalk, and learned about their town. They had stories.

They had met the challenge.

They gained independence…

…and with it confidence, trust, stronger friendships, and the knowledge (or at least a hint of it) that they could manage as adults one day. They gained a newfound self-reliance.

What worked and why

Liz’s hunt was a good balance. She included fun and challenging activities and real-world tasks.

  • The kids had to meet a long list of life skills.
  • The kids had to problem-solve to meet the time requirement.
  • They had to communicate with each other and speak to strangers.
  • They had to comport themselves appropriately to take the bus and approach people to ask for and offer help.
  • They had to work within a budget to get the items on the list.
  • They had to prioritize if they wanted to not run out of money, not walk a long distance in the heat, and get back in time for pizza.
  • They had to work together and overcome their initial nerves to meet a goal.

Some held onto their worry. Others met the challenge with twelve-year-old bravado.

The hunt created a balance of freedom and responsibility. It was a coming-of-age adventure and transformed their summer… and how they saw themselves.

How to give your kids a transformative, coming-of-age experience

I talked with my now-grown son recently about that experience.

He felt that having a group of kids who all had to work together toward a common goal was the most significant aspect of the hunt. It was made better by having some ‘adult level,’ real-world goals that challenged them and made them feel more grown up while still being low risk and within range of their abilities.

He didn’t think a scavenger hunt would be needed to accomplish a similar transformative experience.

For instance, just gathering a group of kids and giving them the goal of going on their own to get pizza or ice cream or to the public swimming pool for an afternoon would accomplish the same thing. It would give tweens a doable, low-risk challenge.

It would give them independence and responsibility (something kids in different countries, contexts, and eras have been experiencing at younger ages).

He pointed out that having a real-life goal is more meaningful than just completing a bunch of contrived challenges (though I’m pretty sure his young self liked some of the silly fun aspects too). The goal can be having a good time — like having pizza or swimming — but it (the goal) is important because it creates an inherent purpose.

You can create an age-appropriate scavenger hunt or opportunities for independence for kids of almost any age just by giving them a goal.

Make it something fun that your kids naturally want to do. Something challenging but within reach that they have to figure out themselves. Something they can work together on and celebrate accomplishing together.

This goal allowed the young teens to see themselves as capable of doing adult-like tasks. A powerful thing at any age, but especially for a young teen.


The scavenger hunt was the best gift Jackson and his friends could have received. Better than any material present. It gave the kids a transformative experience that they, and their moms, never forgot.

Liz’s gift was to all the kids. It brought them closer together and brought out the best in them. They worked together. They trusted each other, in part because the adults in their lives trusted them.

The scavenger hunt showed the kids that they’re capable and can rely on themselves and each other to figure things out.

Giving our kids real-world challenges can make a huge difference in their growth.

In the end, the scavenger hunt wasn’t just a birthday party activity, it was a meaningful adventure. The best gifts we can give our kids are experiences that challenge them, help them grow, and build their confidence and self-reliance.

The pizza Jackson and his friends enjoyed afterward probably tasted even better because they had something real to celebrate — a taste of independence.