On the trail for clues

Introduce children to the excitement of discovering ‘hidden things’ and link picture books with a discovery theme to events in their own life. Can they understand how one clue leads to another?

Concealment is a great narrative theme which children can develop
Concealment is a great narrative theme which children can develop

There is more to our world than meets the eye and for young children, these discoveries first take place in the form of hidden things, hidey holes and treasure hunts. Concealment of one sort or another is a common narrative theme. The ending of a story is a ‘hidden surprise’ in itself, and there are also many picture books that revolve around hiding, searching and uncovering secrets.

Percy the Park Keeper's The Treasure Hunt offers both the excitement of finding out what happens to the animals in the story, and the fun of a treasure hunt. Lynley Dodd's My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes takes the much-loved activity of hiding and turns it into a cheerful rhyming tale. Using these two books as a starting point for activities helps the child to explore the theme of ‘hidden things’, and also offers ‘text-to-self’ experiences through linking the stories with events in the child's own life.

Have a go at laying clues

Using The Treasure Hunt as inspiration, create a scenario where the animals are hiding and the children have to help Percy to find them. Lay a trail of picture clues, as in the story, and hide a model or picture of an animal with each clue. Give the children a photo of an item, such as the climbing frame, and explain that they will find their next clue and one of Percy's animal friends hiding on or near the climbing frame.

Share My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes and focus on each box as a hiding place for the cat. Check the pictures to see which parts of the cat are concealed and which can be spotted. Link with the children's own experiences of hiding, and talk about why cats (and children) like hiding games. Introduce boxes in a variety of sizes and shapes, and with different types of lid. Add toy cats, ‘fillings’ such as cushions and shredded paper, and encourage the children to create different hiding places for their cats.

Treasure hunts can be adapted to suit the age of the child. Make hiding places obvious for two-year-olds, and focus on searching for the animals. Create increasingly subtle hiding places for the three-plus age group. Let two-year-olds freely explore the cats and boxes, while challenging the three-plus age group to find the boxes that best fit their cats.

When turning a box into a hiding place for a toy cat, encourage children to explore different shapes and sizes. Let them choose other items to work with and decide which are easier or harder to hide.

Enjoying discoveries

Help children explore the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘hidden’. Talk about how we can't see something when it is hidden, and how we have to look behind and underneath things to find it. Encourage children to keep searching when they can't find a clue immediately, and look for visual hints – such as a tail poking out from behind a bush. Help them to stay focused on their task by giving tips where necessary. Include some clues that are camouflaged – the animal and clue hidden in the soft toy box, for example.

When turning a box into a hiding place for a toy cat, encourage children to explore different shapes and sizes. Let them choose other items to work with, and decide which kinds of objects are easier/harder to hide in a box. Show them how to set up group games where they have to guess which box a cat is hiding in. Provide large boxes for children to hide in themselves.

Do children show signs of understanding that something can't be seen when it is hidden? Can they spot the link between the hidden clues in a treasure hunt, with each clue leading on to the next? How well can they focus on searching for a hidden item, and persist with their search when they don't immediately spot an item? How effectively are they able to hide their toy cat in a box?

Linking their own ideas

Once children have grasped how a treasure hunt works, encourage them to create their own (see Resources). Support them in finding new hiding places for the clues and planning their treasure hunt in advance. How many clues will they have? Should they place each clue near to, or far away, from the next one? What ‘treasure’ will they place at the end of the hunt? Once they have chosen a hiding place for their clue, help them to stand back and imagine that they are the child hunting for the clue. Encourage them to think about whether a hiding place might be either too easy or too difficult. Ask ‘hunters’ to give feedback on their favourite hiding places.

As children hide their toy cats in boxes, encourage them to think about the following questions. What kind of box makes a good hiding place for a cat? Is it a better hiding place if it has a lid? Would boxes with lids work for real cats? What can you do if the box is huge and the cat is tiny, and vice versa? Encourage the children to test different boxes and decide which ones make the best hiding place for their cat. Encourage the three-plus age group to predict whether or not their cat will fit into a particular box, and try hiding their cats inside other items.

Secrets – why this can be a sensitive issue

Treasure hunts and hiding games depend on a clue, person or place remaining a secret until discovered. ‘Secrecy’ is a sensitive topic in relation to young children because it can lead to safeguarding issues in the wrong hands.

The pre-school age group is not reliably able to distinguish between ‘safe’ secrets, such as a birthday surprise, and ‘unsafe’ secrets, such as inappropriate touching. Where possible, avoid using the term ‘secret’ and focus instead on ‘hiding’ and ‘hidden’. If you want to start addressing the issue of safe and unsafe secrets, try Jennifer Moore-Mallinos’ Let's Talk: Have You Got a Secret? (Book House).

Put out laminated photos of different items in the setting for children to create their own treasure hunts. Include pairs of laminated shapes, colour cards, letters and numbers for treasure hunts with a theme.

Provide props such as rucksacks, magnifying glasses and blue or grey ‘park keeper’ caps. Stain paper with tea, scorch the edges to create an ‘ancient parchment’ effect and put out alongside black, green and red pens for children to make their own treasure maps. Create ‘hidey holes’ and dens throughout the setting for children to retreat to, and provide materials such as soft play blocks, throws, string and large pegs for making impromptu dens.

Set up an interactive display of containers and toy cats for free-flow exploration. Include large boxes and ‘cat’ dressing up clothes.

Key points

  • Children explore the concept of surprises, clues and hidden things through picture book narratives
  • Children enjoy working collaboratively to solve the clues and find treasure
  • Treasure hunts provide opportunities to focus on new vocabulary, particularly position words such as ‘on’, ‘under’ and ‘behind’
  • Using actions to perform with each clue gets children moving
  • Introducing themes such as shape, colour, letters or numbers by giving the children a shape, colour, letter or number card with their picture clue, supports counting and number skills
  • Inspired by Percy's chocolate coins, make gold card medals to be used as treasure (EAD). Make a poster, like Percy, to advertise the treasure hunt (EAD, L). Check out YouTube re-tellings of My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes and The Treasure Hunt (UW).

Useful resources

  • Many boxes will be readily available in the setting or from homes, but if you want to purchase additions, The Consortium has a huge selection. Visit www.educationsupplies.co.uk and search for ‘boxes’. www.earlyyears.co.uk/inspiration/outdoor-play-5-den-building-ideas/

  • Duo Spy Marker Pens – write invisible messages and use UV light to show up: www.smiggle.co.uk/shop/en/smiggleuk/Party-Duo-Spy-Marker


  • We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxendale (Walker Books)
  • The Treasure Hunt (Tales from Percy's Park) by Nick Butterworth (Harper Collins)
  • My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes by Eve Sutton and Lynley Dodd (Puffin)
  • Who's Hiding? by Satoru Onishi (Gecko Press)

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