Having recently become addicted to Stuart Gibbs’ Spy School series of books (they’re seriously discussing writing to Stuart begging him to write more books as quickly as he can!), the Beans have become obsessed with anything spy related. So, when a good friend laid out his idea for a secret spy mission which would see the children navigating their own way across the countryside on foot and by kayak, collecting important documents on route and liaising with “local rebels” (angry at the current regime…) at various checkpoints, I knew this was something they’d jump at. And oh, my goodness, did they enjoy themselves!
Entirely the brainchild of our friend, we’ll call him MrM, but with his permission to write about on here, the operation was designed to teach the children a whole host of competencies, such as map reading, independence, teamworking and basic survival skills, but all as part of an exciting game. The Beans and their friend, known on here as Bean8, have completed two different missions so far, but MrM’s intention is to set them a series of challenges, each one increasing in difficulty, with additional skills being taught along the way.
The missions make the perfect activity for the summer holidays – they’re fairly straightforward to set up; easily adapted to different ages; can be done in your local area, using equipment you probably already have at home; are excellent fun to complete, whilst at the same time teaching your children a variety of geographical and life skills. What’s not to like? In this post, I’ll share the first two of their assignments along with plans for future missions, and hopefully at the same time, inspire you to set up one of your own!
In anticipation of the mission, MrJ planned out a five-mile route, broken down into five distinct sections. The two men then walked the proposed hike to check the footpaths were still valid (some of them around here are very badly maintained) and note down any tricky sections they might need support with. Once this was complete, MrJ wrote out a plan for the parental logistics. Our intention was to have an adult trailing the children, just out of the sight, at all times, with the other adults either acting as one of the “rebels” handing over instructions at checkpoints, or driving to the next meeting place. In all we had four adults assisting with this operation, but only because everyone wanted to be involved! For the second mission, we managed with just two of us.
MrM then created the backstory, typing it up into an official document to be delivered to the children at the initial briefing.
On the chosen day, at 14:00 hours, the children were summoned to sit across the table from the three adults to be given their official briefing. Two of them carried a backpack with water, snacks, a penknife and a compass. A pair of walkie talkies was also brought along in case of separation. They looked ever so slightly terrified at the apparent seriousness of the situation, but also very excited, as MrM read out the following:
“You are a downed bomber crew. Your aircraft was on a secret mission and has been shot down, not in enemy country but across the border in possibly more terrifying neighbouring country. Your mission is to keep together as a single team and to evade capture. You will be extracted by helicopter at an undisclosed position tomorrow afternoon.
We here at HQ are unaware of how friendly the local population is; therefore, it is of utmost importance that you evade all contact with the locals. Our spies tell us that the enemy secret police and military personal frequently drive civilian vehicles and wear civilian clothing.
You will shortly be driven to your start point where you will need to find your map and your survival kit. Secret informants have told us that it is to be found down the barrel of a gun… You will be told to proceed to a number of checkpoints where vital equipment will be handed to you by local rebels angry at the current regime. Do not anger them or be late for your rendezvous with them; they are the only help you will receive in this hostile land. If they think their safety is about to be compromised, then they might surrender you to the police – there is a huge bounty on your heads, either dead or alive.
Friendly forces will follow your progress by aerial drone and local spies. You will only receive instructions to your next checkpoint once we are sure you are not being followed. If on your travels you see this symbol: $0$, then investigate the area thoroughly. Our contacts will have left you vital information to assist your survival in the field along with intelligence which we require you to bring safely to HQ for our field commanders.
Do not get caught by the secret police. If you are cornered by unfamiliar people, just walk and act normally and don’t say a word – the locals will not know you are enemies of the state by your attire, only by the language you speak.
Keep off the roads and the housing estates, stick to the fields and wooded areas. Move quickly and silently – do not bring attention to your presence. Medical assistance can be provided. Any team member that cannot continue can request a medic, but they will only be returned to the team at the next checkpoint.
- Stick together
- Follow your instructions carefully
- Do not litter
- Evade the local population
- Keep your eyes and ears open at all times to pick up further valuable intelligence.
You will be interviewed on your return to see what you remember.
Best of luck!”
The three children, in a state of high excitement, were then blindfolded and driven to their starting point 20 minutes away. This only added to their enthusiasm for the story, as they tried to guess exactly where they were as they went along. Bean9 had it spot on, so to try and confuse him a little, MrM did three loops of a roundabout, which disorientated him somewhat… At one point, MrM shouted out that there was a police car approaching and they all screamed at each other to duck and get out of the officers’ eyelines! He pulled over to let the imaginary police car pass and on restarting did a fast reverse manoeuvre which had the children in hoots of laughter!!
Once they’d arrived at their starting position after possibly the most fun car journey they’ve ever experienced (oh, the power of the imagination), the blindfolds were removed, and they were handed their maps. Almost straight away, Bean8 spotted a cannon monument with his rucksack hanging from its end. They all raced over eagerly to retrieve the bag and look down the barrel to find their first envelope.
Inside were details of where their first meeting point would take place with instructions to meet their agent at the pillbox in this next village. They were also advised that they would need to take care crossing a railway line (for a local miniature steam train that was closed due to the lockdown) on route. Also tucked into the envelope was what looked like a piece of part of a map with torn edges. MrM informed them that they would need to keep this safe as it was to form part of the intelligence they were required to gather.
So, off they went, and in all their excitement, they failed to look together at the map and plan a route! Bean11 took charge of the directions with the boys chattering away. But the initial part of the route was the most difficult to navigate with several footpaths all converging in a small area. Unsurprisingly then, they managed to take the wrong path and MrJ, whose job it was to tail them for this section, jumped out at them from behind a bush telling them that they couldn’t go that way!
Once they’d recovered from their fright, as a team they closely examined the map, and with a little hint from MrJ, they set off in the right direction across the fields, with Bean8 constantly checking behind with his binoculars to check they weren’t being followed! Bean11 cautiously helped the other two over the railway, taking charge like a mother hen. The remainder of the navigation for this section went swimmingly. There was apparently one point where there was a slight disagreement as to the correct direction, but they opted to try the most likely route and turn back if they needed, but fortunately this wasn’t needed as they’d selected the right course.
There was also lots of discussion about what a pillbox looked like. Bean8 knew and tried to describe it to the others. Finally, they spotted it and also MrM, and sprinted in their direction. On the stile just before the pillbox, they discovered another envelope with instructions for the next rendezvous point and a further piece of the map puzzle. In full story mode, MrM advised them that police had been seen in the vicinity and so they were to keep 10m behind him as they advanced into the village, proceeding with much caution. Together, they crossed a few roads and he left them to have a rest, snack and a drink in the church graveyard. After a while, Bean8’s older sister, MissA arrived to give them their next directions. Now it was my turn to trail them.
This however was easier said than done… I’d been tasked with following them across huge open and flat fields, with very few places to hide. Unfortunately, they kept spotting me and then tearing off at high speed to try and lose me. Thus, I had to resort to laying flat on the ground, and then sprinting short sections to try and regain some ground! But it was a beautiful day and having recaptured some of my inner child, I had a wonderful time tracking them across their route. At the end of this section, they were met by MrJ who questioned them about whether they were being followed. Despite all my best efforts, this they answered in the affirmative, so he hustled them behind a hedge to hand over the next envelope, with, yes you guessed it, another set of directions and more of the cut up map.
From here they made their way a short distance to the canal to be met by MrM, who gave them a further envelope. Their instructions: to cross the river and an agent will call you over to the other side at the correct point, but under no circumstances were they to use the bridge. This they were a little flummoxed by, but they wandered over to the canal and suddenly noticed their kayak bag! This elicited even more delight.
They quickly got to work pumping up the boat, deciding not to bother with the seats. I put the boat in for them and told them which direction they needed to proceed along the river. Unfortunately, I’d put the boat in the water facing the wrong direction. But, as there were no seats to guide them, they assumed I’d launched it in the correct orientation with the bow facing the direction of travel. Alas, what they thought was the bow was actually the stern, so the rudder was now at the front of their kayak!! This made their progress somewhat tricky as the wind spun them around and around, and even when they finally did get control of the boat and through brute force steered it, rudder first, through the canal, they kept on getting pushed into the reeds…As you can see, I might have been the weak link in the adult crew!!
Nevertheless, they were tenacious little souls and after a great deal of effort and some serious paddling, they finally reached the spot where MrJ and I were waiting for them on the other side. Now for the next challenge – the reeds were very dense at the point of exit and at first, they couldn’t seem to reach MrJ’s outstretched arms. Bean9 boomed out with a rousing voice, “let’s pretend we’re part of Shackleton’s Endurance crew and we’re trying to get the James Caird through the ice!” And with renewed determination they pushed their way through to reach the bank. Upon landing they were desperate to point out my error with the kayak launch – I’d missed the impact it had as I’d been busy rushing across the bridge to their exit point.
Their next instruction was to head up the hill to the point of a misspelled word. They were relatively close to home at this point, and along this steep footpath, there’s an amusing sign, which points out the “bridal path” as opposed to the “bridle path”. This particular section is always full of mud, and we have a good giggle imaging brides processing down it on their wedding day! They worked out the clue pretty swiftly and raced off up the hill, with me trailing them again. As they approached this homophonic error of a sign, they spotted MrM at the top of the hill. Forgetting to search the area, they hurried on past an envelope hidden on the fence and bounded up the hill. I had to call them back to ask them if they might have missed anything. They were very tired by this point, so the thought of going back down and up the incline they’d just summited was almost beyond them, but they encouraged each other and found the envelope with its scrap of map.
They were met by MrM at the top, with the last set of directions. He showed them a picture of an engineering brick with three holes in it and instructed them to find a similar one with five holes hidden on the highest point of the old airfield. Under this brick, they would find their final piece of intelligence. MrM offered them the help of one or all of his best three agents. Perhaps not surprisingly after the kayak incident, they didn’t opt to take me, instead choosing MissA!
In the middle of the airfield was a long mound, with a footpath running across its spine. They decided to split up with Bean11 taking one end and the boys the other. It was located on the boys’ end and they quickly found it, but failed to inform their teammate, leaving her searching carefully at the other end! Eventually she found them and together they pieced together the fragments of map, which had got a little damp from their kayaking endeavours (so many lessons to be garnered from this experience!).
This map, the required intelligence, highlighted the precise location in the enemy territory of the site to be bombed, with a date of two months in the future – the site was not to be targeted until this time… They solemnly handed it over to MrM. Their mission was successfully completed, but to wrap it up, MrM gave them a mini interview of their experience. He asked them a variety of questions, such as, “would the field just before the pillbox at the beginning of your expedition, be suitable to land a plane?” They answered in the negative, pointing out that there were a number of telephone wires strung across the field. I was impressed with their memory (especially as it was four miles back) and just how observant they’d clearly been along their voyage.
To wrap up the day, they were invited to shelter in some nearby woods and make themselves some hot chocolate over a camping stove as a thanks for their hard work. After this, they were advised they could set up camp for the night back at our house. They hiked home and were met by me and some pizza, which they gratefully wolfed down.
The rest of the early evening was spent toasting marshmallows over a fire, setting up an army shelter in our woods and hours spent whittling sticks into swords; knives; pistols; a spit and firepit; and a shoe rack. They were exhausted but oh so very happy! As night fell, they crawled into their sleeping bags in the tent on the garden and fell almost instantly to sleep.
For their second mission, MrM was working out of the country, so MrJ and I pulled together a new plan. It was in honour of Bean11’s birthday and as she’s a lover of mental challenges: codes, puzzles, and the like, this was to be the focus of the new operation.
As they were already quite a close-knit team and had an idea of what to expect, we could afford to give them a much briefer backstory. This time, they were taken to their starting location and given the following briefing onsite:
Following the success of your last mission, you are now known in the spy world as a team who can be trusted to deliver. As such, we have a second mission to test your mettle. This one is of critical importance. We have been given intelligence to say that an undercover French group who are trying to undermine Anglo-French relations have planted a bomb underneath the Channel Tunnel rail link. The timer is set to go off at 19:00 this evening. The bomb detonation team have been completely flummoxed by this new style of bomb and have not been able to defuse it. This is the worst possible time for the bomb to explode because it is one of the busiest times for the Channel Tunnel, as thousands of British holidaymakers flee the country now the Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted.
We have been able to discover that this evil French group left clues to the deactivation code for the bomb hidden across the nearby countryside. They have tried to negotiate with British officials, offering them details of these clues in exchange for £1,000,000. However, our secret agents have discovered some information about the clue’s whereabouts. It is now your mission to use this information to track down the clues and find the code to deactivate the bomb. The code is formed of two numbers and four letters. People’s lives are at risk here – your job is of the utmost importance. There is not a moment to lose; the bomb needs to be deactivated by 18:00 or we’ll have to revert to Operation Evacuate Channel Tunnel. Here is your first set of directions. Good Luck!
They were handed a map and the first set of instructions. For this mission all the directions were written in the form of a clue. They had to first solve this to work out the location of the next checkpoint before planning their route on the map. For example, they might be asked to “head towards a farm named after a pig and a Scottish mountain” as a clue to meet at Hogben Farm. Additionally, at this initial briefing, they were given the instruction to count the total number of electricity cables they passed under and bridges they crossed as they proceeded through the entire mission. Although they didn’t realise it at the time, these were to be the two numbers required for the deactivation code.
For this operation, MrJ acted as the secret agent handing them additional clues at each checkpoint and I was responsible for trailing the children. This allowed me to watch how they behaved as a team more closely. Throughout the second assignment, their navigation was significantly improved and almost faultless. For the last few years, we’ve been teaching the Beans how to read maps, plan and navigate a route, but with the best will in the world, when we’re walking a path with them and they make a mistake with their navigation, it’s hard to just let it happen and watch them get lost. Furthermore, if they really get stuck, they know we’re there to help. With this approach though, the kids were completely in control and it certainly raised their game. What I did notice though was that Bean11 took the lead with the navigation. She tried to include the others and give them a chance to plan the course, but they were keen for her to take control of this aspect. It’s a lesson for future missions, where MrM had already suggested that we ask them from the outset to rotate the leadership for each section.
At each checkpoint, as well as the directional clue, they were also handed a puzzle to crack, which, once solved, would leave them with a letter. The letters from the four sections combined with the numbers from the electricity cables and bridges were to form the full deactivation code for the bomb. I have to confess to being a little lazy in the preparation of these. Rather than create my own, I bought an online escape room from The Panic Room. I’d highly recommend these – they’re excellent fun to do with a few friends over a Zoom call and perfect for lockdown. I’d planned for us all to do the full online escape room later in the day, but for now, borrowed four of their puzzles for the mission, adapting them slightly, so that the answer would result in a single letter. They all got involved to decipher the puzzles, working efficiently as a team. It was an adult game, so I thought they might find them a little tough, perhaps needing some prompts. The first they found quite tricky, but after this, they flew through them, cracking them faster than I would!
Finally, after successfully navigating themselves across the course, solving all the clues and puzzles along the way, they arrived at their final checkpoint and the location of the bomb, ready to punch in the correct deactivation code! Mission accomplished!
There are many plans afoot for future missions for these three. Here are some of MrM’s ideas to further develop their survival and navigational skills:
- Give them grid references for checkpoints, to practice using 4-figure and 6-figure references
- Rotate the leadership to challenge the younger ones
- Increase the complexity of the routes and thus the navigation
- Include demonstrations and mini lessons at each checkpoint, such as:
- how to make a fire if they have only one match, encouraging them to collect suitable dry tinder along their route
- how to make a fire using a hand/bow drill
- using an axe safely in the woods, including different types of axe heads and weights
- a knot demonstration and practice session, helpful for their later building of a tarp shelter
- an introduction to map reading, including, for example, taking a bearing off a map and adjusting it to a course line to follow
- first aid and CPR
- Carry out the missions in the dark!
- Include tricky river crossings
- Cook their own meals over a campfire or gas burner
- Include an element of finding and purifying water
- Hunt and forage for food
So, there you have it. A hands-on, extremely fun way to develop some important skills over the summer holidays. At the end of the day, all you need is time in beautiful countryside, a good challenge and a bit of imagination to have the perfect summer’s outing! Cost – zero, gain – endless!