Letterboxing is a popular recreational pastime that involves following clues to find a box stowed in a scenic or interesting place. The hook? Searching for 'hidden treasure!'
A letterbox is simply a weatherproof box, such as Tupperware, containing a logbook and a rubber stamp. A letterboxing enthusiast carries his own logbook, pencil or waterproof marker, stamp pad, and stamp (often of his own design). When he finds the letterbox, he stamps the logbook in the box with his personal stamp and uses the stamp in the box to mark his personal logbook. This confirms that the letterboxer did indeed solve the clues and find the 'treasure.' Whoever hid the box (the 'planter') maintains the box and keeps track of how many people have visited. You'll find everything there is to know about this family-friendly pursuit at the Letterboxing North America website.
Some teachers use letterboxing as a fun way to have students apply their skills and knowledge across disciplines by constructing clues that challenge them to use what they've learned in classes. This activity offers suggestions for devising garden-, plant-, and nature-related clues for letterboxes hidden in your garden, schoolyard habitat, outdoor classroom, or even inside the school.
If you and your students really enjoy letterboxing, make it a quarterly activity and increase the complexity of your clues with each one. This added challenge keeps things fresh for students (and for you!).
Tips for Devising Clues
1. Create a single set of clues, or hide clues along the way for students to find. Sometimes having multiple goals can build more enthusiasm.
2. If you include instructions to take a certain number of paces or steps, define these clearly in the instructions, and make sure they match the pace or step of your students.
3. Construct clues appropriate for the ages and abilities of your students. For example, if you haven't yet exposed students to using a compass, tell them to go right or left, or turn to face a specific landmark in the garden rather than use cardinal directions (north, east, west, south). As you can see, letterboxing is a great way to introduce the use of a compass.
4. Involve all the senses. Base clues on textures (smooth bark), scents (minty), flavors (sweet), and even sounds (water trickling).
5. Develop garden- and habitat-related clues. To start, you can keep clues straightforward and simply make a game of following the clues through the garden or schoolyard habitat. But teachers who use letterboxing say that students are more engaged and get a greater feeling of accomplishment if you challenge them a little by basing clues on things you've studied. Here are some examples to get you started.
If you've explored pollination, relate clues to the topic:
"Find a crop in the north end of the garden that's wind pollinated (corn), and stand at the east end of the patch. Turn and look south to spot an herb favored by black swallowtail larvae (dill). Walk to it and count the number of plants in the patch (4). Take this number of steps west and look down. You will find something there (a stone). Look under it for the next set of clues."
Relate the next set of clues to a different subject — math skills, say:
"Measure the perimeter of the two beds in front of you and calculate the area they each cover. Add these numbers together and divide by 5. Take this number of steps east and look under the shrub there to find your next clue.
Base your clues on a garden or nature book you've read in class:
"In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter is attracted to the garden by which crop? Go to that crop in the garden and stand at the end of the bed closest to the school building. Face the garden. How many letters are there in the main character's name? (11) Take that many steps into the garden. At the end of the book, where are Peter's jacket and shoes? (On Mr. McGregor's scarecrow) Turn to face this character in your garden.
Use new vocabulary words related to your studies. For instance, if you're studying plant classification, you could use words like angiosperm, deciduous, perennial, vine, shrub.
6. Do a test run. Have a fellow teacher or other adult use your clues to find the letterbox. Are your clues clear and easy to follow? Adjust as needed.
7. Give your letterbox a name and use a related stamp. For example, "Peter Rabbit's Carrot Cache," might have a carrot stamp in the box. (For the activity below, we recommend keeping the inkpad in the box rather than having students carry it on their quest.)
To hone skills in observation and following directions, and to exercise accumulated knowledge and skills.
- Small weatherproof container
- Stamp pads
- Index cards
- Printed clues
- Compass (optional)
- Any other tools they'll need to solve the clues you've devised (e.g., measuring tape)
Laying the Groundwork
1. Ask students if they have heard of or have participated in letterboxing. If a student can describe it to the rest of the class, invite them to. Otherwise, explain how it works.
Maintaining the secrecy of a letterbox location is crucial to the success of the activity. If you give up the location, it ruins the fun for others! As you supervise this activity, alert students to be discreet about their search so others can enjoy the hunt. Suggest that they avoid 'beating a path' to the letterbox, and try to make it look like they've never been there!
2. Divide students into teams of three or four, and give each team an index card to use as a log sheet. Students can use their thumbprints with their names written beneath as personal stamps. (If they are bitten by the letterboxing bug, you can extend this activity with an art lesson where they can design and create their own stamps.)
3. At recess, take groups one at a time to the garden or habitat and give them the tools (compass, measuring tape) they need to solve clues. Instruct them to take turns reading clues and using the tools. (Read clues to students who can't yet read.)
4. Use your judgment in guiding students. Let them solve problems on their own. If they do need some guidance, give them small hints. Too many hints will take the fun out of it.
5. After students find the letterbox, celebrate! Before returning to class, remind students of the letterboxer's credo: Keep the location of the letterbox a secret!
You can make the search exciting for each group by asking students to leave something new in the letterbox -- perhaps something they found on their search, such as a stone or an acorn -- for the next group to find. call such an object a hitchhiker. Letterboxers who take a hitchhiker from a box are supposed to leave one behind, and so the surprises keep getting passed along. This keeps participants interested even when they're not searching!
History: Learn about the history of letterboxing, which originated in a remote area of Dartmoor, England. Students might compose a play based on this history to present to other classes to introduce them to the hobby.
English: Learn letterboxing vocabulary. Like many hobbies, it has a jargon all its own that continually evolves. See the Letterboxing North America online glossary.
English: Have students write creative stories about letterboxing adventures, real and imagined.
English: Challenge students to hide letterboxes and craft their own clues for others to follow. They can provide straightforward clues rather than content-knowledge clues you've constructed (most hobby letterboxers don't "code" their clues). For students, the goal is to write clearly and provide accurate directions.