As someone who had little time and even less money, hosting parties has been nerve-wracking. I wouldn’t have hosted any had I not had three kids. They do enjoy being celebrated and recognized, and very much like having friends over for various holidays and festivities.
Okay. I’ll be honest. Even if I did have a lot of time and a lot of money, party planning would still not be my thing. I do love the people in my life, though. I always want to do something memorable for them on their special day, whichever day was deemed “special.”
When the kids were little, summer parties at the public pool were easy and fun. I could always add an obstacle course in our yard, or an egg hunt, even a piñata from the dollar store. Since I have had one June and one August baby, the weather was generally cooperative. We could do mini-golf, a trip to one of a dozen local pizza joints, and a movie at the cinema or at home.
My minimalist parties were fun. They kept me far away from a Chucky Cheeses, a McDonald playroom, or an indoor jumping gym. I felt my values had not been even more severely compromised. I managed for the most part to avoid the panic attacks often at the forefront of my meager existence.
Somewhere along this not-so-linear timeline of raising kids, coaching and writing, I was invited to one of several high-school graduation parties, this one for twins Hudson and Madison Carroll. I’d spent years getting to know them, watching them grow up, and having the privilege of coaching them in swimming.
I wanted to give them something that was meaningful, although at 18, I’m sure cash would have been just as meaningful. But still I wanted to try. On my way to the party, I put together a small photo album of all the pictures I could get printed off my phone from the drug store and tried to shove them in the impossible plastic sleeves. From my car, I saw people flood towards their front lawn..
I imagined cute baby twin pictures of them being bathed in a double kitchen sink, one of the talented members of their family possibly strumming on a guitar, meeting second cousins and greataunts, making small talk. eating too many cookies, and likely spilling something on my thread-barren white sundress.
An unforgettable event
I didn’t know it then, but I was about to enter the most unforgettable party I had ever gone to (except the ones that you might not remember for less wholesome reasons). Kathy and Rich Carroll, their parents, had put together an extensive and detailed scavenger hunt. They had organized teams of seven with a list of rules, assigning points to each thing found (or created), and providing a hard and fast start and end time.
Extravagance doesn’t buy a good party any more than it buys happiness. The fact this party was low-cost and low-maintenance is proof of that.
The groups mixed parents, kids, friends, relatives and neighbors. I didn’t know everyone in my group, but within 20 minutes we were soldiers in battle together. We were gladiators. We were going to pluck those treasures from the sodden soil or photograph our entire team inside a soccer net, with a government official and playing a musical instrument next to a horse.
The adrenaline was pumping. Everyone was packed into a car shouting to go this way or that way. Where might we find a Prius and all lie in front of it? How can we engage up to 25 strangers in a conga line?
We were laughing and screaming. Everyone’s inner-competitor was transformed into an almost-instant team bond. Most of the items on the hunt required the participation of the entire team. There couldn’t be one star or one superhero. We were a team, a battalion!
The rules of engagement were specific. The team had to stay together for the entire hunt. The first team back would get a bonus of 2000 points. Those who returned later than the appointed time would have a 1000 points deducted for each minute they were late.
We were looking for the number 2014 (the year they graduated), an American $2 bill, a Harry Potter figure, two members of the team on a tandem bike, a picture of everyone checking out books at the local library, everyone swinging at the public park at the same time (except the picture-taker) eating a hand-cookie from The Bakery with the most icing on it, dancing with a stranger, hanging upside down, and lying on a sidewalk with a chalk bubble above our heads that said: “Class of 2014.”
I still remember hanging my head out of the window on the way back to the Carroll house, searching in vain for a horse while a teammate in her seventies made a sign that read “This is Spirit” to hold next to the mare if and when we located it.
We all filed into the house exhausted, dirty, chalk on our face, a crumpled list of things achieved or not. Camera rolls (from smartphones) were shown to the judges to prove the validity of our accomplishments. We swapped war stories. We heard tales of opposing team members tipping the balance on the human pyramid and everyone coming crashing down. One crafty team suggested that another team may have stopped at the home of one of its members (forbidden according to the rules) to pick up a Harry Potter figure or a $2 bill.
Even the judges were under pressure to tally those scores and make decisions as to whether something was verifiable or not.
Customizing the scavenger hunt
What had inspired Kathy Carroll (Hudson and Maddie’s mom) to do a scavenger hunt? She had designed one for the family camp program she ran in New Hampshire. “We were looking for fun activities that families could do together and did not require staff to supervise,” she explained.
The Carrolls also made sure to include local attractions and fun spots. Anyone could tailor a scavenger hunt for a particular area. This party had a real New Paltz theme, but could just as easily have included landmarks, businesses and attractions unique to Kingston or Woodstock.
Why did she think this a customized scavenger hunt might be a good choice for her children’s grad party? “Our kids didn’t like typical parties,” she answered, “and we wanted something that they would participate actively in. We also wanted something that the kids and adults’ could all participate in and have fun together.”
People (like me) still talk about that June-afternoon event to this day. Carroll remembers some “real hits like getting in the back of a police squad car” and “the ones that required getting strangers to join in.”
The Carrolls had made sure the event was specific to their children. “One great thing to do is to design it based on location. Hudson and Madison’s was based thematically on locations that were related to their growing-up experiences and likes.”
Madison said that she thoroughly enjoyed her grad party. “It was much more fun than just sitting around,” she said. “It was competitive and super-fun to see the team pictures at the end.”
The themes are endless
This event taught me a lot. I’ve always been a big fan of improvisation. I’m for doing things together rather than sitting around picking at finger sandwiches. For my daughter’s Sweet 16, instead of a banquet hall or a shopping spree I came up with a list of things that she and her friends, broken up into three teams, had to find or do or record in downtown New Paltz.
She’s a February birthday, so they had to be bundled up, make snow angels, sing a song in P&Gs, get a picture with a Starbucks barista, make up a protest and hold a vigil for it outside of the Elting Memorial Library, form a human peace sign outside Kontiki, all do a handstand at the same time in Hasbrouck Park, and ask a stranger where they would go if they could go anywhere in the world.
The kids were off their phones, running around, playing in a park, singing in a bar, making snow forts, and getting strangers to laugh. And they had to take pictures or a video as evidence of their achievements.
There are a host of ideas based on theme at Pinterest to draw ideas from. Her camp in New Hampshire loved the pictures and the memories of the fun they had. These tools helps people want to keep on participating. “We have had to do all kinds of variations because they want to do it the next summer and the summer after that!,” said Carroll. “You can do it with one group or 50, and the themes are endless.”
I hope this story inspires more scavenger hunts. When you have a tale to tell, let us know! We can feature it on HV1 Instagram.