For most home school families, education is not confined to a specific time and location; it’s part of a lifestyle woven into every grocery store visit, car ride and family outing. Every experience is a self contained classroom.
A few years ago my family stumbled upon an activity that spotlights the heart of education as a lifestyle — offering cross-curriculum education at a very low cost. It’s called letterboxing, and it’s become a favorite activity that inspires creativity, an appreciation of the outdoors and quality time together.
“Letterboxing is an intriguing pastime combining navigational skills and rubber stamp artistry in a charming treasure hunt style outdoor quest,” reads the North American letterboxing hub, www.letterboxing.org. “A wide variety of adventures can be found to suit all ages.”
The goal of letterboxing is to find a plastic box hidden somewhere in nature. It begins with a set of clues gathered online; two popular sites are www.letterboxing.org and www.atlasquest.com. Search your area, and you’re bound to find a multitude of clues; there are letterboxes all over the world! Some clues are riddles, others are orienteering exercises that will have you dusting off your compass, and others are straightforward directions.
Before our family set out on our first letterboxing mission, we spent a Saturday afternoon creating our own rubber stamps, which became our letterboxing signatures. It started with a short brainstorming session around the computer. I asked each person to think of something that represents their personality, and I searched Google Images for easy-to-trace clip art. It was as simple as typing “Frogs Clip Art.”
Once we printed off the chosen images, we were ready to make our stamp. I found inexpensive rectangular wooden boards in the craft section at Wal-Mart, and my husband sawed them in two and sanded the edges — a perfect backing for a rubber stamp. I also picked up a bottle of rubber cement, an inkpad and an X-Acto knife. Then I headed over to Michael’s craft supply store for the rubber. I found a large sheet of pink rubber (eraser material) in the drafting supply section, and we cut it into eight pieces (one for each member of our family, plus one to make a family stamp). Detailed instructions on how to make the stamp can be found at www.mitchklink.com/letterboxing/carving.htm.
The last step was to choose our trail names and write them on the front of the respective stamps. A trail name is a letterboxing alias. Since my stamp is a picture of an owl reading a book, my trail name is Biblio Dona (book woman). My husband’s is E Minor to accompany his music note stamp. We even created a trail name for our family stamp: Eagle Sprouts.
When the stamps were dried, we packed a letterboxing bag. I put all the stamps into a plastic container, along with an inkpad and a pen. Another container houses each family member’s sketchpad for recording their letterbox findings. The bag has its own supply of sunscreen and bug spray, along with a compass, binoculars, a magnifying glass, field guides, pencils, and a few empty jars and zipper bags for any nature treasures found along the way. All we need to grab on our way out are some water bottles, a camera and a set of clues, and we’re ready for a letterboxing adventure at the spur of the moment!
Most letterboxes are hidden somewhere in nature. Once found the stamping-up ritual begins. Every letterbox has its own stamp, note pad and ink. To stamp up, letterboxes use the box’s rubber stamp to record their finding in a notepad. Along with the stamp, the letterboxer records the name of the letterbox and the date it was found. Then each person uses their own stamp to leave a record of their visit in the box’s notepad, along with their trail name and the date.
The educational opportunities of this hobby are vast. It can encompass physical education, orienteering, problem solving, arts and crafts, geography, writing, computer skills, nature study, and safety awareness.
In addition to finding boxes, families can create and place boxes, challenging older kids to write clues in a variety of ways. You can practice rhyming skills and write a cryptic poem. You can learn how to use a compass and write orienteering clues. Once the box is placed, you can log onto a letterboxing site and post your clues for others to find.
Learning doesn’t have to stop after the box is found. Study cartography and have the kids make a map of their search area. Have students write an article about their experience and submit it to your support group newsletter or even to the local paper. Kids can teach a class in their co-op or at the next support group meeting on how to make a rubber stamp. Teens can blog about their experiences. Study photography by having kids couple a letterboxing hunt with an outdoor photo shoot. Raise the stakes and challenge them to enter the county fair.
Before heading out, stress safety precautions. Boxes are often hidden in holes and underbrush. Make sure kids use sticks, not their hands, to probe a pile of leaves or scoop out a hole in a tree. Look over field guides to learn about venomous reptiles and bugs, as well as injurious plants, and teach students to hike cautiously.
Geocaching is the high-tech younger sibling of letterboxing. A handheld GPS unit is used to place and find boxes that contain small treats, or caches. When a cache is found, the geocacher logs the visit, takes a treat from the box (usually a small, inexpensive toy or trinket) and leaves a treat in return.
Written by: Jenni Stahlmann, Sarasota, District 9
She is a mom of five, including one on the autism spectrum. She is the co-founder of Generation Harvest, a new nontraditional private school, and a writer and speaker. For more information, visit www.generation-harvest.com.