Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Creative Nanny: Letterboxing!

by Tara Lindsay

I can’t wait for spring, and neither can my three young charges (ages 3, 3, and 4). We’ve been cooped up most of the winter, either trapped inside by snow too deep for their tiny legs to wade through, weather too cold for their sensitive preferences, or various vomit viruses. We’ve had theme days, playdate parties, field trips, art projects, baking projects, and lots of other indoor fun but we’re ready to be back outside every day.

And mostly, we are ready to pick up where we left off with our adventures in letterboxing . We took up letterboxing last year when I went searching for an all ages outdoor activity that would demand my charges (then 2,2, and 4) work together as a TEAM rather than as competitors. It was love at first hunt.

Described as “an intriguing pastime combining navigational skills with rubber stamp artistry in a charming treasure hunt style outdoor quest,” letterboxing is simply one of our favorite group activities. When we letterbox, we are pirates hunting for treasure, detectives solving clues, explorers seeking adventure in new lands.

Letterboxing first began as early as 1854 in England in Dartmoor when a gentleman place his calling card in a glass bottle and hid it. As others found it, they placed their own calling cards within and a sport was born. It wasn’t until over a hundred years later that it really took off. After a 1998 article about the sport in The Smithsonian, letterboxing spread across the North American continent.

In the modern day version of the sport, letterboxers go out armed with a clue, a compass, an inkpad, a rubberstamp, and a notebook or journal. Clues are obtained on the letterboxing site, where they have clues conveniently grouped by geographical area. You pick your state, your county, and then scan through for one that intrigues you. Then print it out and start solving the puzzle or following the instructions to find the letterbox! Most letterboxes are in small plastic or weatherproof containers and are often wrapped in duct tape or plastic bags. Then they are hidden in a public area out of public view. Inside each one is a logbook and a rubber stamp. When you find it, you mark the logbook with your own stamp, then mark your journal with the stamp from the letterbox. When you’ve made your mark in the logbook, you are also expected to date it, sign your trail name (you can use your real name or a trail name you’ve invented), and what city/state you are from. In your own logbook, record the date and the name of the clue you solved. Then you return the original items to the letterbox, reseal it, and hide it exactly where you found it for the next letterboxers to uncover!

Tips for safe and fun letterboxing with your charges:

READ READ READ! Read up on the Letterboxing, North America website. There are lots of handy tips, safety tips, rules and code of conduct pointers, and explanations. Being informed is part of being well prepared.

STAMPS: Stamps can be purchased or made. There are several clever cutting tool free ideas for homemade stamps in the kids section of the website. I chose to purchase our stamps and allowed my charges to each pick out their own individual stamp at a local craft store. It took them about thirty minutes to carefully make their choices, but it was worth the time to allow them the independence and pride of personal expression. Don’t forget a stamp for yourself, too!

TRAIL NAMES: Depending on their ages, help or allow your charges to decide upon trail names that do not reveal their actual identities. Explain to them that this is their code name, and that they will use the same name each time they letterbox. My two youngest charges were fairly predictable in their choice of trail names: Princess Mermaid and Princess Butterfly (charmingly pronounced, at the time, as “Pincess Buttpie!”). Their brother hemmed, hawed, and deliberated right up until he hopped out of the car at our first letterboxing hunt and announced, “I, I will be Frank!” We have no idea where he got that, but Frank he is! Because I love bumblebees (and chose a stamp to reflect that), the children helped me pick “Nanny Bee” for my trailname.

TRAIL JOURNAL: A spiral bound book works best, as the book can be laid fully flat for stamping. We chose a spiral bound art journal with 5x7 inch pages. I surprised my charges by decorating the front of the journal and making scrapbook style pages that explain the sport. I left blank pages in the beginning for each of them to stamp their own stamp (a good way to practice stamping, too, for smaller children!) and to put in their pictures and trail names. Older children might enjoy helping with this or doing it themselves.

EXTRA ITEMS: We use a small simple backpack that is our designated letterboxing bag. In addition to the stamps, journal, and inkpad we have a couple of pens, some extra large Ziplocs (sometimes the one protecting a letterbox is in need of replacing), and unscented baby wipes (for cleaning off stamps, unscented so as not to attract animals to the letterbox once we’ve cleaned off the stamp inside), bugspray, bandaids, and sunscreen. I like to take along my camera, because most letterboxes are hidden in parks, nature preserves, and along hiking trails so there is ample opportunity for photos.

LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES: Learning opportunities abound in letterboxing, so take advantage! It will vary according to the ages and interest level of the children involved. Many clues involve counting off steps to the next landmark, making sense of tricky clues, puzzle solving, etc. Our first adventure was to a local nature center. Our clue included instructions such as “Follow the trail named for a nocturnal predator” and “When you reach the next intersection, follow the predator not the prey”, which gave me the chance to teach my charges about the natural cycle of life in the woods. When we were on a trail named for rabbits, we hopped like bunnies, when we were on the trail named for the Great Horned Owl, we hooted and stretched out our wing to fly. My charges also like to carry along their own little bags in which to collect random items of interest: sticks, rocks, leaves, acorns, pieces of bark that have fallen on the ground, etc. We use those at home for art collages, nature lessons, even nature based math activities! I carry an extra bag to pick up trash…and to teach my charges the importance of keeping our environment clean. We also like to flip through the journal in each letterbox to see the various stamps, trail names, and messages from other letterboxers. It’s fun to see familiar marks, and even more fun to find a mark from an out of towner and then go home and look up their hometown on a map.

BE PREPARED BEYOND THE TOOLS: Sometimes, letterboxing is disappointing. Clues get misinterpreted and a letterbox isn’t found. Worse, a letterbox has been stolen or vandalized. Sometimes animals will find it and tear it apart. Know what your charges can and cannot handle…although they may surprise you. When we first started, I made a habit of checking out each hunt before I took my charges. I’d follow the clue and make sure the letterbox was still there before setting out with the children. Then, one day, we spontaneously decided to go out and I quickly printed off two local clues I’d found that seemed simple enough to follow. The first was at our favorite playground. We found it easily enough…shredded and in pieces. I had a moment of horror, expecting three tiny faces to flood with tears. Instead, they took it in stride. When offered the choice of playing at the park or testing out the other clue they unanimously and enthusiastically chose the clue! I was so proud of their resilience and sense of adventure.

NETWORK: Take advantage of online letterboxing communities, particularly those letterboxers who are in your area. I have several friends who letterbox and it has been very helpful to be able to get their input on tricky clues.

STEP IT UP A NOTCH: If you have older charges, try creating and hiding a letterbox of your own! Help them be creative when writing the clue, then register it on the letterboxing website.

Letterboxing has given me endless learning moments with my charges and plenty of outdoor fun together. Most importantly, my highly competitive trio learned to work together as a team. Better, they have learned to love being one team, together…whether it is letterboxing, cleaning the playroom, or turning the couch into a pirate ship. As springtime approaches, they are excited to try new clues. Our letterboxing bag gets inspected regularly, “just to be sure”. As much as I love taking them on these unpredictable adventures, I also love knowing that they’ll be able to letterbox long after they’ve outgrown the need for their Nanny Bee, and hopefully their spirit of teamwork will last a lifetime.

About Tara Lindsay:

Tara currently is a full time, live out nanny for an Oakland County family with a preschool age boy and toddler twin girls who keep her active, alert, and laughing.
Tara is a Co-Founder and Co-Director of MPNA. At the national level, she serves as Secretary for the Professional Nanny Association and offers advice to nannies and parents as the PNA "Ask Nanny". Tara volunteers with Be The Match, a division of the National Marrow Donor Program, as an Ambassador of Hope and is on the Detroit area Be The Match Leadership Committee. In her free time, Tara enjoys a variety of other volunteer activities, scrapbooking, singing, sporting events, and social activities.


Anonymous said...

Very neat idea. I don't know how you take care of 3 little ones all at the same time; and twins! Just having two boys keep my hands full! As you know, I posted a topic on nannies, and I was just curious… Do you take your charges for play-dates with other kids in the neighborhood? Does your employer treat you with respect? Have you had mean employers? I ask because I constantly hear other mom at school talking about their nannies… As for me, the main reason I opted for daycare instead of nanny was because I was (am) too cheap. =)

Tara said...

Hi Jersey Mom...

I hope other nannies will answer, too. I do take my charges on playdates with other kids in the neighborhood, as well as have playdates over to the house. Sometimes, we just play outside with the kids right in their cul de sac even though those kids are all older. My employer treats me incredibly well and very respectfully...but part of that is that I treat her (and her husband) the same because respect is a two way street! I've been with them for 3 years, so that says a lot about how we treat each other I think. I have had mean employers in the past, but I left those jobs fairly quickly.

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