A few weeks ago, I was asked to watch my niece and nephew for the afternoon. I was thrilled and had big plans to take them for hikes, jump on the trampoline, order takeout and other fun things only the “Cool Aunt” could provide.

But I was quickly reminded that I would have to compete against the Almighty Screen to play with them.

After a mild effort, I was ready to throw in the towel and be OK with making spaghetti and watching the kiddos “game” on their virtual devices. Their tablets were pointed at the ceiling, broadcasting voices of neighborhood children simultaneously plugged into the game and subsequently checked out of the present moment.

Then, a small opportunity presented itself — the tablet-encased voices were shouting, “We have to go and eat dinner!” This meant I might have some leverage to persuade my niece and nephew to play with me, a non-digital entity.

I quickly suggested a walk in the sunshine, which was ignored. Then I suggested riding bikes, which got me a “maybe.” When I brought up the idea of a scavenger hunt, I finally got a reaction! My nephew leapt off the couch and, ran upstairs to put on his adventure vest,which was full of pockets and made him look like he could have been Steve Irwin’s assistant.

My niece, who rarely wears shoes, was off the couch looking for her flip-flops. Although not true adventure wear, I wasn’t going to stop our progress into the outdoors.

One point for the Cool Aunt!

We ran around the front yard looking for clues and quickly putting them in a pocket of the vest. We climbed over bridges, stormed through gates, looked under rocks, and absorbed a good hour’s worth of vitamin D.

For our next go-around, my niece suggested a version of a scavenger hunt that would let us all play at the same time and, more importantly, would expand our adventure beyond the front yard.

As we made our way around the block, my nephew asked, “Can we go as far as we want?”

I gleefully said “Yes,” and the memories of trying to get him off the couch a few hours earlier quickly faded from all of our minds.

Later, I would hear things like, “I like looking closely at the tree bark because it is so interesting,” and “we may need flashlights because I don’t want to quit!”

Another point for the Cool Aunt.

The Cool Aunt A-Z scavenger hunt:

  • Create a list with all letters of the alphabet with a checkbox next to each.
  • Work as a team and have one team member check the boxes and write in the object that begins with each letter: A, annoying fishing line; B, ball; C, charcoal; etc. If the item is collectible (dinner wrapper, fish bobber, etc.) — you can have them collect it in a bag — this works great for trash. Kids can also sketch items they can’t find (make sure to have extra paper or small notebooks and pencils on hand).
  • If you have a few teams playing, whoever completes their list first wins and gets an extra dessert or some other treat.
  • You can also list some items to locate and observe in the area.

Here are a few ideas: tree bark, lizard/frog/bird, moss/lichen/crypto-biotic soil, mushroom/wildflower, pine cone/acorn, animal scat, animal print, squirrel/chipmunk/marmot, snakeskin, bird nest, natural object colored blue, four different shades of green, a heart-shaped rock, a piece of litter (pick it up and carry it out!), something made by humans.

Rules (designed from a 10-year-old’s perspective):

1. You can’t use the same item twice. (I was busted because I tried to use dirt for ‘D’ and also for earth for ‘E’.)

2. You can use adjectives if you need to for letters X, Z, and Q such as zany-shaped tree leaf.

As Michele Hart — the “Cool Aunt” discovered with the right enticement — you, too, can get those kids off the couch and their screens. From close-to-home forays to summerlong hunts, an outdoor scavenger hunt introduces a healthy dose of competition while giving kids a chance to explore and learn to observe.

There are all kinds of ways to set up a scavenger hunt for younger and older youth. Here are some additional ideas:

Clue and route-based teamwork: When you want to take a team-based approach, you can hide a list of clues or riddles, one leading to the next, with a prize waiting at the end. The kids work together to solve the clues; for example, “This tree has strips of bark that peel off and burn easily, making it an excellent fire starter. Go here for your next clue.” (Destination: juniper tree.)

And the next clue: “Now that you’ve found the juniper, look for the home of earthworms, vegetable scraps and grass clippings.” (Destination: compost pile.). Tailor your clues to your kids’ age group and interests — and get creative with your prizes: s’more fixings, fishing gear or simple bragging rights.

Seasonlong treasure hunts: These are the granddaddies of all outdoor scavenger hunts. These involve visiting a string of locations and/or accomplishing a certain set of activities within a season (summer vacation, for example) or beyond.

Items might include: spend the night out under the stars, catch and release a fish, go canoeing, reach the top of a mountain, build a shelter out of natural materials, spend the night in a canyon, etc.

There are more than 100 things every kid absolutely has to do before they are 12.

For instance, have you peeked under a rock in a creek to see what’s underneath, walked a tight-rope on a log, dug for worms, danced in the rain, waded in a stream or spotted the Big Dipper?

Need the list? You can download it from Generation Wild — The List. Most of these things you can do in a park or in your backyard. You don’t have to go far to have fun outside — you just need to go!

Start a summer tradition with your family — simple quests for the little ones and more complicated hints, possibly riddles, for the older kids — or have teams composed of multiple age groups for even more camaraderie. After all, no matter what your age, who doesn’t love a scavenger hunt?

Friends of Youth and Nature is a nonprofit that promotes opportunities for youth and families to get outside, experience outdoor activities, and explore nature:www.friendsofyouthandnature.org.