Who doesn’t love a surprise? Good ones, I mean. Kids love fun surprises and our family has a great tradition I want to share with you. We call them Mystery Rides. Adults, sometimes with the help of older kids, plan a fun place to take the kids. The mystery? Don’t tell the kids where they are going.

Make it a Mystery Ride!

Our family can thank my dad’s sister, Barbara, for all of it. She has been taking individual members of the family for Mystery Rides for as long as I can remember. In fact, one time, she took the entire family, which filled a large school bus, for a hike and picnic. My kids have great memories of family time thanks to those rides.

Our rides have rules, well, guidelines. It makes for more fun, engages the entire family, makes the best memories, encourages thinking and even builds a sense of direction. I could go on about all the life skills or educational benefits, but I will get on with the rules (no electronics is a must). Here are the basics. The rest is up to you and your imagination.

Choose kid-friendly locations.
Nobody thinks a ride to get the oil changed is fun. Rides to do everyday errands are not good mysteries. Think zoo, park, trip to Grandma’s house (if that would be a big deal). I will share some of our faves later.

Choose free or low-cost venues. 
You will be surprised at what you can find within driving distance that costs little or nothing. Not everything is free, but look for coupons or discounts, check online for specials or family events. You don’t always have to go free, but if you’re like me and have literally half a dozen kids, you’re frugal.

Choose locations that build on your kids’ interests and hobbies.
Then choose ones that none of you would ever do. Enrich when possible, then think outside the box and try something totally out of your comfort zone. Auntie Barbara once took my Gram to see cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and if you knew my Gram, that was outside the box! Inspiration could strike anytime, any place.

Kids can ask questions to get hints during the ride.
But our family only allows yes-no questions, so parents give tiny bits of information. Here are some examples: Have we been here before? Is it a public place? Is it a private home? Will we look at objects or people? Will we touch or make something? Kids, even the youngest ones, can get really creative with their thinking and questioning.

Hints may come before leaving home.
depending on your destination, it might come in the form of telling kids what to wear. For example, if you’re going to a park to hike and have a picnic, kids need to wear proper footwear and you might need to pack food. Here is where you make use of your spouse, a discreet older sibling, or another adult helper.

Bring a friend or another whole family.
The more the merrier, really! If you have room in your car, take a friend along. If not, invite the entire family to join in the fun in their own car!

Don’t give it away.
The idea of the mystery ride is, you guessed it, a mystery. It is to build suspense and engage the family in a common task. As the kids ask questions and you answer, one might actually guess your destination. As much as possible, don’t show it, unless you’ve arrived, or you are prepared to give instructions on what to expect and so on.

Obviously, some Mystery Rides work out better than others. If you repeat a ride, that can flop, unless they love it. If you can afford it, make one a family vacation or even a short weekend away. That would be cool, but most of ours are day trips to places we haven’t been before.

Local fairs, seasonal events and places where kids can touch and do are more successful than places kids just watch a show of some sort, at least in my experience. Overall, food destinations have been duds for us, but every family is different. That is the beauty of the Mystery Ride.

Here are my kids’ top few favorite destinations over the years:

  • Local school playground near our house (not their school)
  • Roger Williams Park Zoo (you can feed giraffes or sea lions!)
  • Paint Night (where an instructor does one and you each do your own)
  • Hiking at cliffs nearby our home

Can’t wait for you to try it out with your crew.

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