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How to make your own mystery trail

Ever since reading the Mysterious Benedict Society, Bean9 has been obsessed by the idea of solving mysteries and deciphering riddles, codes and puzzles. For her birthday party this year, I opted for the entirely free, but great fun option of creating my own mystery trail for her and her friends to solve around our local town. The two groups of nine children set off in opposite directions around the designated loop, navigating themselves and working together to solve the clues as they went. They seemed to love the challenge, taking it in turns to read out the instructions, running on ahead to find the next clue and combining their knowledge to unravel the answers, which were often multi-step problems. So, not only was it lots of fun and free to create, the children were practising their mathematical, problem solving, riddle decoding and critical thinking skills at the same time. Bean9 declared it to be her best party ever! What’s not to like!

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If you’re interested in creating something similar for your own children, I’ll share the simple steps I took to create the mystery trail for her party. Please note that the idea for the basic structure of the mystery trail was adapted from the Treasure Trail we completed earlier in the year, in Oxford (see this post). The Treasure Trail company has over 1,000 of these available across the UK, so if you want an easy option and there’s one available in your area, I’d recommend purchasing one of these. But if, like us, there isn’t one available for your area, or you just fancy making one of your own to personalise for your own child (and their ability), read on to see how I made the mystery trail for Bean9’s birthday party.

Step 1 – The first step was to plan a walking route in a loop around a part of the town. We opted for a loop 3 km long, which, once you’d factored in the time to read, find and answer the twenty clues, took the children about 1.5 hours to complete.

Step 2 – The next step was to come up with a backstory, something which resonated with her and inspired her to solve the mystery. Here’s what I came up with (we have issues with over development in our area!):

A local district councillor, David Backhander, has had it in for our local town ever since he was voted onto the council. Determined to ruin this beautiful area, he’s accepted various bribes from development companies in return for his vote to approve the plans for the building of thousands of new homes on green spaces across this picturesque region.

Evidence of this fraudulent activity and details of the amount of money he received from these companies (which have already been spent on the purchase of a multi-million-pound house for him and his family, deep in the countryside, away from any proposed developments…) are stored in his personal safe. Your task is to uncover this code by solving clues around the town so that it can be passed to the police and expose his crime! Good luck! May the force be with you!

Step 3 – Next, I broke the loop down into sections and worked out approximately how many clues needed to be in each section. For example, along the seafront promenade from the start of the trail to where they turn off, there should be 4 clues. This allowed me to evenly space the twenty clues across the course.

Step 4 – Now for heading into town and working out what clues to add to the mystery trail, armed with your trusty clipboard! I can’t deny that people do tend to look at you very strangely as you wander around looking at any odd engravings on walls or signposts, but that’s all part of the fun!

You can base your clues on pretty much anything that is a permanent feature in the town, or permanent enough for it to still be around at the time of the trail you’re running, including road signs; house names; nature, such as trees or flowers unlikely to be removed; engravings on benches; information plaques or boards; letters or numbers on telegraph poles or lampposts etc. Just stroll around looking for something of interest on which to base your clue and don’t forget to look up high – there are often dates engraved into the top parts of buildings which you wouldn’t normally notice, that work perfectly for this sort of challenge.

Then for working out how to turn the information you’ve found into an interesting clue. Here are some tips. Firstly, I like to have a mixture of difficulty levels, starting off with easy clues and increasing in complexity as you progress through the trail. Secondly, it’s fun to mix up the types of clue. We chose a selection of riddles, logic-based questions, word puzzles, mathematical problems, picture clues and conundrums based around common sayings. Thirdly, with older children, you can increase the difficulty by making the clues multi-step problems. Here’s an example from the trail I set:

Before you get to the swimming pool, on a telegraph pole, find two letters above three numbers. If A=26 and B=25, convert the letters to numbers and the numbers to letters and write them on your grid in the order they appear on the pole.

So, for this clue, they had to find the correct telegraph pole on which was written only two letters above three numbers (some of the other telegraph poles for example had three letters above 4 numbers say). In this example, the telegraph showed DP above 916. Once they’d found this, they needed to complete the second part of the question and, assuming A=26 and B=25, work out what number would equate to D (23) and then P (11), and then what letter would equate to 9 (R), then 1 (Z), then 6 (U). Finally, they wrote these answers in order onto the answer grid, so 2311RZU. They enjoyed puzzling out this complicated clue, huddled together in a little group on the pavement.

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To help you think of the types of questions you could set, here are some other examples from our mystery trail:

Word Puzzles & Riddles

If Clacton is ES and Dover is KE, what is Aldeburgh?

In this example, the letters stand for the first two letters of the county in which the city is based. Aldeburgh is in Suffolk, so the answer here would be SU.

Look all around you (up high) to find a name who shares their surname with a car manufacturer. What are their first two initials? If you were to follow this pattern along the alphabet, what would be the next four letters? Add them to your grid.

At the top of a lamppost was engraved the name A. C. Ford, although it was quite tricky for them to spot. Once they’d recognised Ford as a car manufacturer, they had to look at the first two letters and carry on this pattern, missing a letter each time, an additional four times as they moved along the alphabet. So, the answer here was EGIK.

What is the name of the property rated 9.9? Work out which of the vowels are missing from this property’s name. This gives you the name of a signed document acknowledging a debt of some kind. Add this to your grid.

The property rated 9.9 was called The Beach. The only vowels not in this name are i,o and u, which together as IOU, is a name of a signed document acknowledging a debt of some kind!

Phoenixes are supposed to rise from these trees! How many were planted here in 1976? Write the number in words on your grid.

In this example, there was a plaque to commemorate the planting of 25 ash trees in 1976 and as, in many a tale, phoenixes are supposed to rise from the ashes, I thought this to be a perfect clue for my little bibliophiles!

Search around to find the surname of the Manager of the England Football Team. Check out this man’s first name. What material can you find?

One of the benches along the river had a plaque to remember the life of a Douglass Southgate. I was pretty sure given the focus on the World Cup, that someone would know Gareth Southgate to be the English Football Team Captain. Once they’d found the name Southgate on a bench, extracting the glass from his first name, Douglass was then a fairly facile step.

What flower do you find planted on either side of this walkway? Complete this saying: A/ _ _ _ _ /between _ _ _ /_ _ _ _ _ _ Add the last two words to your grid.

Roses were planted on either side and I was a little unsure as to whether they would have heard of the saying A rose between two thorns, but fortunately one of them came through for me!

Mathematical & Logic Problems

Between which two places is spinning allowed? If you count the number of letters in the first place and then the second, and find the product of these two numbers, what would your answer be?

Spinning in this case was a type of fishing and the information as to where it was allowed was written on a signpost close to the river.

X Bridge has had a troubled past! The current bridge is the fourth built in this spot. Add together the dates of when the other three bridges built here were either washed away, collapsed or destroyed.

This involved them finding the three dates of when the three previous bridges had broken by scanning all the information on the board, and then a second step of adding these dates together.

By the bridge, search for the green National Cycle Network milepost. What is the name of the shape inside the black circle? How many lines of symmetry does it have?

Fairly self-explanatory, the circle was surrounded by a pentagon, with five sides of symmetry.

At the beach huts, which colour is ‘odd’? Which two primary colours do you mix to make this colour? Add the letters of these two colours together to give you the answer to this clue.

Initially, they had to work out what was meant by the term ‘odd’. In this case, there were 6 blue beach huts and 5 green ones, so ‘odd’ denoted an ‘odd number of beach huts’. The colour green is made up of the primary colours blue and yellow and there are 10 letters altogether in these two words, so they needed to add 10 to their answer grid. A little convoluted, but good practice for figuring out multi-step problems.

 

To make things more interesting and give a challenge to one of the younger team members, add in picture clues of things/places they have to find.

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You can then base the clue on information located nearby the picture clue. This example was from a war memorial and was surrounded by three plaques remembering soldiers who died during service in the war, thus providing ample information on which to create clues.

You can also layer in questions about their historical or scientific knowledge, asking questions about key dates, significant historical or scientific figures, or events/breakthroughs, and linking it to something in the environment. Take this clue for example:

This bench is a memorial to a lady born in same year as WWII’s Victory in Europe (VE) day. What was her middle name?

Actually, because the questions were so diverse, it meant that no-one knew all the answers, but between them, by pooling their knowledge, they could figure out the answers as a team and ensure everyone felt pleased to have contributed something to the mix.

Step 5 – As you’re wandering around working out the clues, make sure you make a note of the directions they need to take and include in this guidance how many clues they’re expected to find in each section. This should help them narrow down their search location for each clue. For example, you might say “cross the road and onto X Walk. You have two clues to answer between here and X Road.”

Step 6 – Now to take your clues and directions home to write them up, with a different font colour for each to allow the children to easily differentiate between the clues and the directions.

Step 7 – In Excel, make a grid for your answer key. This enables the children to work out the length of each answer, i.e. how many letters and/or numbers long it should be. This should give you an odd shaped grid of boxes as shown below. You could leave the challenge just like this and if they complete all the answers correctly, they get the prize.

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Or you could go one step further and help them convert these answers into a hidden four-digit code. Fill in the answers on your grid help you work out the next part.

Step 8 – Highlight 24 of these boxes in a pale colour, with at least one box highlighted for each clue and preferably all different letters and numbers (although that’s not essential). Then, to the right of the grid, in either a random pattern or shape, write the letters and numbers from the highlighted boxes. Next, add in four different numbers or letters not included in your highlighted selection. This will be your four-digit code for them to find.

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Each time the children solve a clue, for the letters and numbers which appear in the highlighted boxes, they cross off the corresponding number or letter on your patterned grid. Once they’ve answered all the clues and knocked off all 24 letters/numbers in the highlighted boxes from the patterned grid, there should only be 4 number or letters remaining – your four-digit code. Ask them to write these in a separate four box grid: numbers first, followed by the letters in numerical and alphabetical order.

And there you have your four-digit code for them to give to the police and provide evidence of David Backhander’s fraudulent misdemeanours! Or for whatever story you create for your own child’s party.

If you’re having a large number of people at the party, split them into two groups and go in opposite directions around the loop. This does mean that you need to rewrite the clues and answer grid backwards, but smaller groups are much easier to handle!

Having written it down, it sounds like a lot of work, but in reality, it only took me an hour and half of walking around the loop figuring out clues to ask and about the same again to write it up. MrJ checked the trail for me one evening to ensure it worked properly and we tweaked the clues slightly as a result.

To be honest, I really enjoyed the process of creating the mystery trail and Bean9 was thrilled that I’d taken the time to create her a unique, fun and memorable birthday party to share with her friends.

I hope all the above makes sense – please comment below if there’s something further you need clarified.

Debsx

 

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