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When we hear the terms “virtual learning” or “remote learning,” it’s easy to imagine students spending eight hours a day in front of a screen. However, as educators, we know that this approach isn’t developmentally appropriate. Children need to move around and interact with their physical world. They need to explore new learning in a way that is hands-on and tactile. This is why we need to craft virtual lessons that take students off-screen and get them moving and making.

Teachers all over the world have been incorporating movement into virtual and online spaces through the use of scavenger hunts. I love how flexible the scavenger hunt structure can be. You might design a simple scavenger hunt around a child’s home or you can design a more complex and elaborate scavenger hunt within the larger community. A scavenger hunt can help a kindergarten discover shapes in their world or find environmental text. However, a high school senior can use a scavenger hunt as an ethnographic study of the structures and systems in one’s community.

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The Power of Scavenger Hunts in Distance Learning

A scavenger hunt is pretty much what it sounds like. Teachers give students specific clues or items that they find from their homes or around the larger community. This works well as a video-conference activity, but it can also work as a series of photos that students take and upload to a shared file. Students can work in teams using the breakout room function, or they can work independently. The following are a few scavenger hunt ideas:

  • Math scavenger hunt: Students find specific items in their homes that connect to core math concepts. They might even measure certain items and report back to the group. I’ve seen this as a simple second grade geometry but also as a more advanced lesson for proportional reasoning or to prove the Pythagorean Theorem.
  • Maker scavenger hunt: Teachers give students a list of item specifications. It might be something soft, something elastic, something round, etc. After they have found those items, they get a set amount of time to create something new with those items.
  • Science hunt: When students are learning about natural environments, they might use their phones to take snapshots of different environments in their neighborhood. I’ve seen teachers go as advanced as birding, with key coordinates and pictures or using this process with astronomy or meteorology. But it can also be something simpler, like finding predators and prey.
  • History hunt: Students can do a walk of their city and find elements of culture or find identifiers of history (such as street names or plaques). This is often a chance for students to explore some of the hard questions around who is and isn’t represented in history.
  • Language Arts scavenger hunt: At a younger age, students might explore environmental texts. They can search for sight words on something like a cereal box. They might take a picture of that word and upload it to the class LMS or a teacher might give them the challenge to “find a word that ends with a silent-e.” With older grades, students might find themes or genres on the larger community.
  • P.E. scavenger hunt: Students might have a set of challenges where they have to hop to certain items and then do a series of jumping jacks when they find another item. Students can record their movements on a phone as evidence of their exercise.
  • Music scavenger hunt: Students can do a scavenger hunt where they have to record certain types of music that they hear in the environment. Or a simpler version might involve finding something that can create a percussion, a string sound, etc.

3 Ways to Structure Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts can be synchronous or asynchronous. Here’s a quick refresher on what those terms mean and when to use both types of communication tools.

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The following are a few ways you might structure your scavenger hunt.

  1. Synchronous: With this model, you would typically begin with a class video chat using your preferred video conferencing platform (Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, etc.) and share the scavenger hunt directions and parameters. This is also when you might remind students of norms and procedures. For example, students can leave the computer but shouldn’t carry their laptops around with them or students should let members of a household know about their scavenger hunt in order to respect privacy. You might place students in small groups using the breakout room features and allow them to interact with one another, finding various items in their own locations. When you begin the scavenger hunt, you’ll typically include a time deadline for the entire class.
  2. Asynchronous: With this model, you will typically post the scavenger hunt directions on the class LMS and provide students with a longer time deadline. For example, they might have a week to find all of the items. In some cases, you could make it a contest and post the winners in real-time as they complete it. However, you might want to avoid competition and instead focus on mutual sharing of items as a group. This is especially true in something akin to a photo walk.
  3. Hybrid: In a hybrid environment, you might have students working at home and in school together on a shared scavenger hunt. Students in school might decode a set of clues or do a puzzle and then relay that information to their classmates who are at home and have to find those specific items.

It’s critical that we keep equity in mind as we design these scavenger hunts. If students need to find items at home, we should keep the items common and consider categories that are broad (something flat, something blue, etc.) This allows every student to participate without depending on economic privilege.

The Divergent Thinking Scavenger Hunt

A divergent thinking challenge is similar to a design sprint, but it’s built on the idea of creative constraint. With limited resources, students must then use items in new and unusual ways.

Step 1: In a video conference, provide students with a divergent thinking prompt. One option is to create a scavenger hunt in which students find something fuzzy, something large, and something small. Or, they might find something sticky, something round, and something flat. You might include a time deadline, ranging from 3-5 minutes.

Step 2: After finding those items, they can then brainstorm all the things they can make with these items. This brainstorming phase is often hands-on. Students might work individually or in a breakout room in the video chat. Their brainstorms might be in the form of a list or in a web.

Step 3: Students analyze their ideas, combine any that seem similar, and scratch out any that you want to abandon. They might also mashup any unrelated ideas that might work well together.

Step 4: Students choose one main idea from the list and make a product with it. You might provide a specific time constraint to push their divergent thinking even more.

Step 5: Students go through multiple iterations until their product is done.

Step 6: Students create a video demonstrating how their product works and an explanation of their ideal audience. I highly recommend using Flipgrid for this particular approach.

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I have a virtual learning hub with resources, articles, and webinars. I’m also working on the finishing touches on a book about empowering students in distance and hybrid learning. I can’t wait to share it with you!

If you’re a district or school leader and you’re interested in student-centered learning in virtual, hybrid, and blended environments, please check out my speaking and workshops page.

If you want to take a deeper dive into empowering students in distance learning, please check out my course. It’s fully self-paced and on-demand, which means you can work on it at your own pace. It’s packed with videos and practical resources. The course is designed to take 15 hours and I offer district and school bulk license discounts.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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