By Emily Harrington
Have you ever heard of “letterboxing”? What about the term “geocaching”? Think treasure or scavenger hunt with an educational twist.
According to Judy Miller, environmental program manager for the Urbana Park District, letterboxing has been around for quite a while and happens worldwide. Lucky for us, there are organized “quests” or letterbox hunts happening in Urbana as we speak.
I went to the website and downloaded the Quest Booklet so I could see for myself what this was all about. The Wild About Parks Quest booklet leads you through a series of quests to find boxes in various parks in Urbana.
Armed with my son, all-terrain stroller and bug spray we headed to the Crystal Lake Park Lake House to find one of these boxes. This particular quest was labeled as “Easy” with a time of 20 minutes. Well, 30 minutes later I was still looking at my phone to find pictures of oak trees so I could identify the species of tree the box was hidden in. I thought to myself, “If kids can do this, surely I can find a knobby-oak tree in a cluster over the bridge.”
I think the letterbox may have been taken. That’s one of the tricky parts—you really have to trust that the public will leave the boxes alone if they find one. As a safeguard, Urbana Park District employees do check and replenish the boxes once a month. Heck, maybe I was looking at a maple tree, who knows. For my pride I’ll say it wasn’t there.
Undeterred, I found another quest that was close to Crystal Lake Park. It was at Leal Park on University Avenue. We followed the clues VERY CAREFULLY, well I did—my son watched me thinking, “What are you doing crawling under that tree, mom?” Yes, I had to crawl under a prickly tree with low branches on my hands and knees, but alas, we found a box. I was elated. It was genuinely exciting. The letterboxes are essentially food-saver containers. Inside them you will find a pencil, historical/educational information about the area you found the box in, a rubber stamp, stamp pad and log book. I flipped through the log book and found notes and signatures of kids who had found the box before me. As an adult impostor I put back the contents and went on my way still feeling accomplished for finding the letterbox.
If you want to attract your kids to the idea of the quest and the value of education and learning is not enough, you can always bribe them with prizes. If you find 10 letterboxes you earn a prize, redeemable at Anita Purves Nature Center at 1505 N. Broadway Ave. in Urbana. If your child finds all of them they earn another prize.
The Wild About Parks Quest is perpetual while there are limited edition quests periodically. Currently, the limited edition quest is I Speak for the Trees. The quest takes place in conjunction with the Neighborhood Nights Concert Series. Print a bingo sheet for your kids and bring it with you when you attend the concerts (or get one there). At each concert venue there will be trees that are tagged with information.
“The quest gives kids something to do at the concerts. They can wander around and look and learn about the trees,” Miller said.
When your kids find them they mark it on their sheets. If they get a BINGO they get a prize redeemable at the nature center. In addition to a possible BINGO, participants can also win a raffle prize awarded at the final neighborhood night. The more trees identified at the concerts, the more entries in the raffle. This quest’s prize—a private meeting with the nature center’s new owl!
Prizes, education, community, fresh air—this activity has it all. I can promise you as an adult you will have as much, if not more fun than your child on this adventure.
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie that left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job to be a 24/7 mom to a dreamy son. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Oh, and let’s not forget her other son, a degenerate canine named Heppenheimer.