Map Reading Treasure Hunt Game for Young Children

Map reading treasure hunt game for young children

If your family enjoy walking and exploring the great outdoors then it’s likely that at least one of you is a map reading buff. For the uninitiated though, map reading can seem utterly baffling. 

Teaching your kids some basic map-reading is a great way of engaging them on a hike, both before and during. That’s why it’s one of my recommendations on my ‘How to Make Hiking a Habit with Young Children‘ post. To do that though, children need a basic understanding of mapping – something I am currently building on with Roo.

This map reading treasure hunt game is a fun and simple way of introducing the concept of a map and how it correlates to a physical landscape to young children. You can adapt the activity depending on the age and level of map reading your child is comfortable with. We’ve been playing it in many different forms here!

The map reading treasure hunt game is a great outdoor activity for summer, with the treasure hunt element making it a fun activity for all the family. Use a container, sandpit, beach or make it into a rainy day activity using flour and a baking tin. 


Map Reading Treasure Hunt Game for Young Children Map reading treasure hunt game for young children

You will need:

  • A square container . We used a potting tray for gardening. A rectangular container works too (e.g. large roasting tin / washing up bowl) but squares are easiest to start. The younger the child, the smaller the container you will want. 
  • A small ‘treasure’  – e.g. a small Duplo brick, interesting stone, wrapped sweetie etc.
  • Sand. Garden compost would work too.
  • Paper
  • Coloured pens / pencils
  • A ruler 
  • 5-6 different ‘Landscape Features’ . These could be anything smallish – e.g. toy model animals/ vehicles/people, pine cones, rocks, twigs, toy houses, etc. The closer they are to actual landscape symbols e.g. buildings, natural features, roads etc., the better but it doesn’t matter too much for the basic principle. 

Map Reading Treasure Hunt Game – Symbols Version (For first time & ages 2-3):


  1. Fill your container with sand or soil. This should be deep enough to comfortably be able to hide your treasure underneath;
  2. Place the landscape features around the container. To start with it’s easiest if these are placed fairly regularly e.g. one in each corner, one or two in the middle. 
  3. Make a copy of the container’s shape on a piece of paper using a ruler and pen/pencil. You may need to do this for your children if they are pretty young. 
  4. Discuss with the children a good way of symbolising the different landscape features in the container for your map. This is a great time to get out a real map and show them the key and what a few of the easier symbols mean on it. 
  5. Draw the symbols on your map to correspond with the container. Again, you will need to do this bit for very young children. Older children will enjoy doing it themselves. Those able to write can make their own key.

    Map reading treasure hunt game for young children

    Use different coloured pencils or a sticker to avoid having to redraw the map lots of times.

  6. Now get one person to hide the ‘treasure’ by burying it in the sand. Get them to pay attention to where the treasure is in relation to the landmarks they have made. For young children it’s a good idea for an adult to do the hiding for a few goes until they have got the hang of the correlation between map and the sand landscape.
  7. The person hiding the treasure marks an ‘X’ on the map. 
  8. The other person uses the map to locate the treasure. 
  9. Swap over and repeat. You can use different coloured pencil crayons to make the ‘X’ s. Mix up the landmarks and redraw the map every now and then to keep it fresh.

Tip: For very young children struggling with the concept of the map, you can start by hiding the treasure and using verbal instructions to describe the treasure’s location. e.g. it’s between the tree and the rock.  


Map Reading Treasure Hunt Game – Coordinates Version (ages 4+):


Map reading treasure hunt game for young children

  1. Start with a full container of sand or soil. 
  2. Draw vertical and horizontal lines in the sand to create a grid. For a square, it’s easiest to start with the two middle lines. Then add in two more either side of of each of these to create a grid of sixteen squares.
  3. Draw a box on a piece of paper in the same shape as the container. Add in the same amount of gridlines. 
  4. Put coordinates on your map grid. Label with letters across the horizontal axes and numbers down the vertical axes. 
  5. Now get one person to hide the treasure by burying it in the sand in one of the grid squares of the container. It’s a good idea for this to be the grown up when doing it for the first time with younger children.
  6. The same person tells the ‘seeker’ the coordinates of where they have hidden the treasure. e.g. A1 or D2
  7.  Switch over roles of ‘hider’ and ‘seeker’.

Tip: For very young children, help them face the container the right way for interpreting their map. For those old enough, use a small north marker on the map and in corresponding place on the container sand to help orientate themselves. This doesn’t need to point to real north for the time being – it’s just a way to match up their map and the container the right way round and introduce very crudely why we use a compass with real maps. Using real north and a compass is an option to expand the game further though if your children are old enough and are already fully comfortable with basic map reading.


Ideas for expanding the map reading treasure hunt game further:

Map reading treasure hunt game for young children

Once kids have got the hang of the two exercises above you can make them harder and add in other mapping concepts. 

Here are some suggestions:

  • Try combining both coordinates and symbols. For this exercise it’s good to use some duplicate objects e.g. 3 stones  to help encourage children to use the coordinates as well as landmarks to describe the location of the treasure e.g. it’s by the stone in B2
  • Another fun game for little children who enjoy imaginative play is to give them an animal, vehicle or play person and getting them to help their play character on a quest by giving them directions to the treasure or landmark e.g. walk until you get to the big rock, go round the rock, walk to the tree etc. This helps to introduce the idea of directions and following a route based on landmarks. 
  • When slightly older children are comfortable with basic coordinates, you can try explaining 6 figure coordinates to them. Make your treasure much smaller e.g. a small piece of lego or tiny bit of stick. Use 6 figure coordinates to locate the treasure.
  • You can adapt the map reading treasure hunt game to explain the basics of contour lines to children too. Create different shaped ‘hills’ out of the sand and then recreate these on your paper map using basic contour lines to represent the hills. You don’t need to be too exact at this stage. Getting the idea of the shape of the contours representing the shape of the hill and the concept of close together contour lines representing steep hillside and wider ones the more gentle slopes is most important for this exercise. 

    Map reading treasure hunt game for young children

    Even the youngest of children will enjoy hunting for treasure although the one pictured here mainly enjoyed moving all the landmarks, eating the sand and dribbling on the paper map…

  • To play the map reading treasure hunt game with lots of children wanting to seek at the same time, try making flags from cocktail sticks and different coloured paper for each child. Then, instead of digging for the treasure, they can each place their flag where they think the treasure is. 
  • Expand the map reading treasure hunt game to a larger area. Try using a bigger container with more grid-lines and/or landmark features or expand the exercise making a map of a simple room in your house or the garden/area of the park. 
  • Use the idea of a treasure hunt on a real OS map. Instead of hiding a treasure, get the first person to secretly choose a landmark on the map and then use coordinates and other landmarks to describe its location to help the other person to guess what their chosen landmark is and locate it on the map. 
  • Introduce the idea of why you need a compass. Use the grid-line version of the map reading treasure hunt game, without any ‘landmarks’. This time, don’t explain which side of the map matches up to which side of the container. If you’re using a square container ask your ‘seeker’ how they know that they are looking at the container the right way round? How do they know that the coordinate is A2 and not C1? Draw an ‘N’ on both paper and corresponding corner of sand. This will help show which way round the map matches the gridlines on the container. This is a very crude and simple way of helping to explain why we use a compass with a map. 




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