How we made a 10-year birthday treasure hunt he’ll remember—with no guests and without leaving the house

How we made a 10-year birthday treasure hunt he’ll remember—with no guests and without leaving the house

How we made a 10-year birthday treasure hunt he’ll remember—with no guests and without leaving the house 1024 539 Looking out Loud
What you need:

  • 30 balloons
  • A printer
  • 10 “presents” (including little details and activities you do together)
  • 24 focused hours: 4 to prep, 8 to sleep, 12 to be fully present with your child
  • A chocolate cake shaped like a “10” (optional, recipe included)
  • P.S. This can be adapted for nearly any age, just substitute the numbers.

One decade. 120 months. 3652 days. 5,256,000 minutes. That’s 10 years.

A lot happens in the first 10. Your child learns to stand, walk, and talk. They start thinking, inventing, and attending school. They make friends, projects, and lots of messes. They become self-aware, learn who they can trust, and realize they’re getting older.

Those same 10 years change parents too. We become more selfless, take a renewed interest in legos and puzzles, and find energy reserves we never thought we could muster. Our faces also age 20 years in a single decade.

So when it came time to celebrate our 10 years of child-parent codevelopment, we wanted to make it special.

It started—and continued—with balloons. Lots of balloons. Stuffed balloons.

Little brother stuffing balloons with clues for the treasure hunt.

Laser tag Fill balloons with notes, photos, and clues

The original plan was to invite 10 friends to play laser tag, then go to a park to run around and play soccer. But a couple of his close friends were out of town, so we postponed the party until the following weekend.

So what do we do to make the actual day memorable—with no friends, a small budget, and without leaving the house?

We spun the whole day around air-filled rubber: 30 balloons, divided into 3 groups of 10 balloons, each with a different purpose.

The first balloon was waiting on the breakfast table with the following message:

How do I get this thing open?

He grabbed a toothpick, there was a loud pop!, and the treasure hunt began with the first clue:

1) A treasure hunt: 10 balloons for 10 presents

The first clue sent him to the toy room, where the one thing he really wanted was waiting: a new desk. Something about being 10 triggered the need for a space that’s his and no one else’s. The day could have finished there and he would have been ecstatic.

On the desk was a second balloon, which tipped him off to the plan that would unfold as the day progressed.

He randomly popped 4 more balloons, following the instructions and decoding the riddles he found inside. Throughout the day, in between games and activities, more balloons were popped. Like when he got to pop 10 balloons, 1 every 10 minutes, starting at 10am.

A good treasure hunt starts with good clues. And that starts with thinking from your child’s perspective. What would be fun for them? How can you make it really special? How do you get them to the right place in a way they’ll remember?

Here’s a few of the clues he found throughout the day.

That sent him to his bookshelf, where his Dog Man series was lined up in order. The last book in the series, which he didn’t yet have, was wrapped up at the end.

Another balloon was a bit heavier than the others. Inside was small key and a note:

Getting real mail isn’t something that happens often these days, so it’s always exciting to have an actual letter waiting in the mailbox (that isn’t a bill). My sister also sent a birthday card that arrived after I made the clue. So he had two actual letters waiting, something that doesn’t happen like it used to.

We also live in an apartment, so getting the mail means running down a couple flights of stairs. Luckily he wasn’t used to the small key, so I had time to catch up and take a pic.

In total we made 10 clues pointing to 10 “gifts.” This included the letters in the mailbox, family activities, and a few smaller items. Plenty of action, without breaking the bank.

2) A trip down birthday lane: 10 balloons for 10 years

Being alive ten years is a pretty big deal. That goes for the birthday kid and parents too. That’s 10 years over which your life has been fundamentally transformed.

We thought it’d be fun to see that time in one visual overview. So we printed photos of his 9 previous birthdays, plus a pic of his actual birth day: Day 1 in the hospital.

We rolled up each photo and stuffed them into 10 more balloons. These were all scattered about the floor with the treasure hunt balloons, so popping one sometimes revealed a clue, and sometimes triggered a past birthday memory.

It took a few balloons before he realized what was going on. But then it quickly became fun to line up the different birthday photos in order as they appeared.

3) Just to bop, not to pop: 10 balloons with 10 numbers

How long can you keep a balloon in the air without it touching the floor?

Kids love to bounce balloons around. And chances are, you do too. So we blew up 10 balloons and wrote the numbers 1 – 10 on each of them. (tip: use a permanent marker, or you’ll end up with ink on hands and sofas).

No magic here. This was just to leave the kids with something to bop around. Because at the end of the day, all the other balloons got popped.

The icing on the (pan)cake

On their birthdays, the kids set the meal plans.

So as requested, Daddy made pancakes for breakfast. Different shapes are a must, and letting kids decorate their pancakes with icing added another layer of fun.

For lunch we invited the local grandparents and cousins over. Mommy made some nice quiches and salads for the adults. Kids opted for spaghetti, chicken nuggets, and croquettes. Everyone wanted the same dessert.

For 10 years in a row, we’ve made the same birthday cake. It’s a simple chocolate cake recipe we got from a friend. You can download the chocolate cake recipe here (I’ll add it very soon, promise). It’s so simple, the birthday boy made it himself, kind of.

While the recipe’s the same every year, there is a difference: the shape and decorations.

We make it in a normal rectangle baking pan, then cut out the number of years. If you’re nervous about freehand cutting the numbers, draw or print the numbers out on a piece of paper, cut out the number, then put it over the cake and cut out around it. And let the kids decorate. Yes, it will be too sweet. It’s a birthday cake.

In the evening we were still stuffed from the big lunch. So we had a light dinner consisting of popcorn and a movie: My Neighbor Totoro. It’s an animated, award-winning Japanese film released in 1988. I hadn’t heard of it before that night, but it was beautiful, and highly recommended.

And then it was time to call it a day. But not before he found a last little gift waiting under his pillow: one more pack of futbol cards, what kids collect here in Spain.

10 tips for a great birthday party

Here’s a few things we did that really made a difference:

  1. Stretch it out. Start celebrating the day before, it’s the last day being single digits after all.
  2. Be present, all day.
  3. Plan and prep as much as possible beforehand. It helps with being present.
  4. Let them pick the food. Spaghetti, pizza, AND chicken nuggets? Whatever. Cut some apple slices and let it be.
  5. Let them decorate the cake. And don’t freak out when every other M&M goes missing.
  6. Get them that special present, within the limits of your budget and values. A new desk, okay. A Nintendo Switch, sorry bud.
  7. Make it unique. Look for ways to add that little something extra, so it doesn’t feel like all the other birthdays.
  8. Involve everyone. Let siblings participate in planning, prep, and decisions. It means a lot to them, and gives them a special role when the rest of the attention is on brother or sister.
  9. Adjust your speed. Have a plan and stick to it. Unless you need to adjust it. Don’t rush, and don’t have them waiting on you. Go their speed.
  10. Be present. Yeah I said that one already. Just making sure you caught it.

“Today is the best day of my life”

We heard that a few times during the day. My wife and I did little self-congratulatory first pumps each time, but it really was all for him. There’s nothing like seeing your kids happy on any given day, but it’s especially the case on their birthdays. It took some planning, but in the end it was worth it.

Notice there were no friends, no expensive gifts, no elaborate parties. All of those things have their place, but none are needed to make a child’s day. Kids need attention, care, time, and love.

And just before the lights went out that night, I overheard our new 10-year-old saying, “Mommy we love you. Thanks for doing such good things for us.” Like helping our kids turn into real people, starting 10 years ago.

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