Whether you're new to a city or want to discover new-to-you gems in a place you've lived for years, a city scavenger hunt is just the ticket.
Not long after my friends Lauren and Rory moved to the small-town Atlanta suburb of Woodstock, Georgia, they discovered that Woodstock is serious about making people fall in love with it. Exhibit A: Every year, the town hosts the Discover Woodstock scavenger hunt, a week-long competition that pits teams of residents against each other in a race to snap photographs of themselves doing up to 100 essentially Woodstock-y activities. For instance:
Jumping rope in front of the gazebo at the park
Posing in front of the Woodstock Visitors Center
Watching a train pass through downtown
Eating at a downtown restaurant
Hanging with cast members of the local theater production
Attending a concert at the Woodstock Summer Concert Series
Scavenger hunts were a staple of the my childhood birthday parties, beloved by parents for getting sugar-hyper preteens out of the house for an extended period and adored by us kids because it gave us an excuse to roam the neighborhood begging for pennies and rubber bands (because who doesn’t love that?). The goal was to collect as many of the random items on the scavenger hunt list as possible, stuff them in a paper sack and run home again. It was busywork for kids.
A community scavenger hunt may have similar roots, but it serves an altogether more elevated purpose. Consider it the gamification of place attachment, a fast-moving, self-directed city tour that motivates residents to explore where they live and make themselves feel more at home in the process.
Most cities have their secret spots, their hidden paths and unspoken history that only the old-timers know about. When I lived in Ames, IA, I didn’t hear about the beautiful off-the-map lake with a swimming beach full of families until 6 weeks before we moved away. I like to tell people that cities feel more welcoming to newcomers when they share their best stuff, and scavenger hunts are an easy way to deprivatize that knowledge, making most of the town’s secret beauty spots and random statues a matter of public knowledge.
Companies like StrayBoots and UrbanAdventureQuest are crossing scavenger hunts with walking tours in big cities. If you live in an urban metro, google the name of your city and “scavenger huntâ€ and chances are good you’ll get hits. But let’s say you live in a city without a scavenger hunt of its own. Why not make one as a Love Where You Live experiment?
Invite your kids, your friends, your neighbors. Start the way we did back at the elementary school birthday parties with an all-purpose list of stuff to find and photograph in your town. Here’s my city scavenger hunt list, applicable to basically any town in America:
The tallest building in town
A piece of public art
A restaurant that serves something chocolate-y
A hiking trail
Something red for sale at the farmers’ market
A house with a gnome in the yard
A poster advertising a local play or concert
A body of water, any size
A form of public transportation
A police officer
A dog in your neighborhood
If you’ve been in your place for a while, customize it. Go on a nature scavenger hunt looking for birds and leaves, or a neighborhood scavenger hunt looking for vegetable gardens and red front doors, or a downtown architecture scavenger hunt looking for cornices and transom windows. The magic is in the exploration.
Anyone who completes Woodstock’s list of 100 scavenger hunt challenges has roller skated, bowled, canoed, found historical markers, deciphered clues, chatted with hotel clerks, and posed with every manner of tree, statue, bench and sign known to Georgia. At the end of it all, the team with the most points wins a $100 gift certificate to downtown Woodstock. And if all goes well, they’ll love their town more than they ever have before.