Can you think of somewhere in your neighborhood that’s looking nasty and neglected?
Is your park, playground or beach looking less than perfect?
For less than an hour of your time, your family can make a big and visible improvement to your little corner of the world.
And you may just have some fun while you’re doing it.
In this article, I’ll show you how to inject an element of entertainment and competition into a dirty job—picking up trash.
You’ll see how easy it is to plan a community service project with a twist… or a list. A scavenger hunt list, that is.
Why Should We Clean Up the Trash?
We all teach our kids not to litter. We keep our homes and our yards clean and try to keep our neighborhoods nice. But unfortunately, trash tends to collect, especially in public areas.
I’ll bet you can think of a place right now that’s looking nasty and neglected… Got one?
There are lots of good reasons to clean that place up. It may not be your job, but it is where you live and helping to keep it nice and safe will benefit a lot of people. Plus, volunteering to clean it up sends a great message to your kids. Maybe it will motivate them to clean up their rooms (or maybe not!).
Beyond the obvious benefits to the community and the environment, cleaning up trash in your town is a simple community service project that your kids will really connect with. They’ll see the impact of their work immediately and notice it each time they return to that place, which will give them a sense of accomplishment, pride and stewardship.
A full bag of trash collected near his school = a sense of accomplishment and pride.
So, we agree that cleaning up trash in your neighborhood would be a good thing to do, right? But how exactly can we make it into a fun thing to do? Is that even possible? How could picking up trash ever be considered a fun family adventure?
How could this possibly be fun?
It’s simple. Everybody loves a treasure hunt. You can create a treasure hunt or a scavenger hunt around any theme you can think of—even garbage—and your kids will love it.
And so, I present to you the Cleanup Scavenger Hunt.
You Will Need
- Gloves—I found cheap gardening gloves at the dollar store. You could use work gloves, rubber gloves or even single-use latex gloves (though these tend to get a little sweaty)
- Trash bags—bring several plastic grocery bags for each treasure hunter and some larger trash bags to consolidate them
- A grabber (optional)
- Scavenger hunt checklist—print the PDF (below) or make your own customized list
- Pen or pencil for each treasure hunter
- Hand sanitizer
- A snack or other reward
- Maybe a quick phone call to arrange permission with the park authorities and few minutes to customize your treasure hunt checklist
Park, playground, beach, any safe place in need of a cleanup (please leave the sides of busy streets and highways to professional work crews!)
I have held three different cleanup scavenger hunts, twice with our Cub Scout pack and once with my two sons. I’ll tell you what has worked best and teach you how to avoid things that didn’t work so well.
A cleanup scavenger hunt is very simple to set up. Here’s how, in 6 easy steps:
#1: Find a Location
The first thing you need to do is find a place that needs cleaning up.
Think about places you visit or drive past frequently. Is there anywhere that makes you grimace because it’s such a mess? It could be a park or ball field, a vacant lot or fence that catches debris. You may need to go about your normal routine tomorrow and keep your eyes open for litter.
Find a place with lots of trash.
Ask your kids for input. They notice things that we may overlook. When I asked, my older son mentioned that the hill next to his school was covered in junk. He sees it from the passenger side of the car every day when we drop him off. I never noticed from the driver’s side.
My son sees something a lot different than I do from the car. Glad I asked him!
Choose a safe and accessible location. Stay away from busy streets or parking lots, steep hills or anywhere else you don’t want your kids to be wandering around. Check to make sure there are no fences, locked gates or “No Trespassing” signs to keep you out of the area.
Be sure to get permission. Check with the park ranger, school principal, business owner, etc. You may need to fill out a liability release form.
Not much trash here. Look for a different spot.
Make sure it’s dirty. This may seem obvious, but it happened to our Cub Scout pack. After one successful cleanup scavenger hunt, we planned a second annual event at the same park.
In Year 2, the Parks Department had sent a cleanup crew through recently, leaving very little trash for the kids to gather. It was frustrating. I’m glad I brought cookies! Take a quick walk around your location to make sure there’s enough trash to pick up.
#2: Create a Scavenger Hunt List
Turning a service project into a scavenger hunt makes it a lot more fun and exciting. A scavenger hunt requires a list of treasures (or trash, in this case) to search for.
Create a checklist of different kinds of trash. You can print this PDF or create your own list based on what’s found at your location.
This checklist will work anywhere. Or make your own customized scavenger hunt list.
Set the points structure. I awarded one point per item from the list that is found, a bonus if all 10 are found and another 5 points per bag of trash that is filled up. This last one is to encourage the players to keep picking up trash, even after they’ve found all the items on their lists.
Award points for finding things on the list, completing the list and also for collecting more than just what’s on the list.
Modify your list to include items frequently used at the place you’ll be cleaning up—energy gel packets near a jogging path? Yes. Cigarette butts and beer bottles at a school? I certainly hope not! Leave those off the list.
Make sure your location and list sync up. Kids love checking things off and will get frustrated if they can’t find anything on the list.
For older kids, you can include some more difficult bonus point items to the list, which adds an extra element of competition. For younger kids, you can plant some special prizes or clues ahead of time that they can find along with the trash.
Decide beforehand what you’ll award the winner. This is a community service project so you may want to reinforce the sense of doing good simply for the sense of satisfaction you receive. Or you may want to award the winner a prize. Here are a few ideas:
- Buy a small toy or gift card
- Let the winner skip one of their chores (e.g., “Dad will take out the trash for a week since you collected the most trash today.”)
- Give the winner some extra video game or computer time
- Play for bragging rights
#3: Gather Your Supplies
I saw this on Facebook and laughed because it could have been a picture of my own laundry room door.
Yes—I have one. Mine’s fuller! Doesn’t everyone?
Grab your own bag full of plastic grocery store bags as well as a few larger trash bags to consolidate them into later.
Each player in your cleanup scavenger hunt will need at least two of the smaller bags, one for trash and one for recyclables. My boys filled up four bags each in a half hour, so bring plenty.
My bag-o-bags. Grab yours and use it to collect trash.
Gloves are essential for each person picking up trash. Work gloves or gardening gloves are best, but you could also use rubber gloves or single-use latex gloves. These may get pretty sweaty and uncomfortable.
Gloves are a must. I found cheap cloth gardening gloves at the dollar store.
Everyone should wear closed-toed shoes. You may be climbing around on hillsides, maneuvering around rocks and reaching under sharp bushes. Flip flops or sandals could be dangerous.
Wear closed-toed shoes for collecting trash. No flip flops or sandals.
If you’d like, use a trash grabber on your scavenger hunt. This is optional, but a grabber makes it much easier to pick up trash. A grabber is an extension pole with a lever on one side that opens and closes a set of pincers on the other side.
Kids love goofing off with grabbers. Parents appreciate not having to bend down quite so far to pick up refuse. Make sure each child has his own grabber if you choose to use them at all. Trust me on this.
Bring water and drink often.
Make sure there’s plenty of water to drink. Your family will be doing hard work and needs to stay hydrated.
#4: Go Clean Up
Now it’s time for the fun!
Before you get started, explain the rules and boundaries for your scavenger hunt. Give each player a list, a pencil and 2 or 3 plastic grocery bags with handles. Designate an area where they can come back to exchange a full bag for an empty one.
Review the list so everyone will know what to look for.
If you have a large group or small children participating, split the players into teams. Teams of 2 work well. Put one person in charge of picking up the trash and the other to manage the list and scout out litter to pick up.
Ask your scavengers to head in different directions. If everyone goes the same way, there won’t be any trash left for the slower players to gather. They won’t find the things they need to check off their lists and they’ll get frustrated.
There’s plenty of trash out there in the world, so give everyone his or her own section to work on!
Send the scavengers in different directions so they can all find lots of trash. He found a snack package.
Debris is dirty and some of it may be dangerous. Teach your kids about no-touch items: broken glass or sharp metal, anything that comes from the body of an animal or human (poop, carcass, anything bloody, etc.). If they find anything questionable, they should get an adult’s help or just leave it alone.
And he found a snack package in the opposite direction.
Set a time limit and set them loose. 15 minutes, 20 minutes or a half hour work well. Set your time depending on the size of the location, the amount of trash there and the ages of your kids. Be sure to grab some gloves and a bag for yourself to clean up, too!
#5: Tally the Results and Celebrate
When the time’s up, tell everyone to return to the starting point. If they’re spread far apart, you may want to blow a whistle or send a text to alert them.
Have everyone count how many bags they filled and complete their lists. Then you can collect the lists and tally the points.
The hardest part of the activity was checking off the list with gloves on!
It’s fun to stack all the trash bags your group collected into one big pile. You’ll be amazed at how much you were able to clean up in a short amount of time and it will help the kids visualize the impact they made on their community.
Quite a haul in 20 minutes! How much will your family clean up?
Ask each person or team to share something about what they found. What did they see a lot of? What surprised them? What was the most unusual thing they collected?
My 13-year-old was shocked to have found a beer bottle alongside the middle school where we collected trash. It was a proud and relieved moment for me.
My younger son thought it was funny that he found a toothbrush and we talked about ways it may have gotten there. What will your family find?
The trash you find may stimulate conversation. He’s never seen this flavor of soda.
Pass around the hand sanitizer, announce your winner and celebrate a job well done with a special treat.
To stay with the theme, you could bring a dump cake or dirt ‘n worms, but the kids will be just as happy with cookies from the grocery store or a trip to the ice cream parlor.
Celebrate with a cool reward for a job well done.
#6: Talk About It
A cleanup scavenger hunt provides an opening to many important or meaningful conversations you can have with your kids. Keep your eyes and ears open and take the opportunity to talk and teach.
Here are some topics that may present themselves as you do this activity:
- Community service—Talk about what it means to be part of a larger group, the responsibilities and contributions we need to make to our society, taking pride in your community and doing your part to make it a nice place.
- Family values—Discuss the different values and character traits that you’re demonstrating through this activity: volunteerism, helping others, selflessness, cleanliness and hygiene, service and stewardship, hard work, taking pride in your surroundings.
- Curiosity and creativity—Find something unusual, unexpected or completely out of context? Ask your kids to think of how or why it may have ended up there or to make up a story about it.
- Widen their world—Your kids may find some things they’ve never seen before. This is your chance to teach them something new (or to show them how to research a question).
- Difficult subjects—Some of the things your kids find may be scary or uncomfortable (adult items, drug paraphernalia, dead animals). Be prepared to explain things like this and take advantage of the teaching moments. When my son found the beer bottle, it was a good opportunity to praise him for thinking the right thoughts and making good choices.
- The environment and recycling—This conversation is a given!
We have never done another service project where so many complete strangers have stopped to thank us. Their words and the feelings those words evoked in my kids along with the boasting by my 9-year-old that he filled up FOUR bags of trash are the true reward for this adventure—the rewards that will last a long time.
He was proud of filling four bags. What will your kids remember?
The ice cream’s already gone!
Some Final Thoughts…
A cleanup scavenger hunt is a very easy and quick activity that has tremendous benefits to the community, the environment and especially to your kids.
Making a game out of picking up garbage—turning trash into a kind of “treasure”—is a great way to get the kids involved and keep them motivated. But the true value of the cleanup scavenger hunt is the lasting impact it can have on your children; the undeniable, visible proof that they can make a difference in their world.
What do you think? What kind of community service projects have your family done? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen littering the ground? I hope you’ll give the cleanup scavenger hunt a try and come back to tell me all about it and post some pictures. Have fun!