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Family fun by the letter

Gina Roberts-Grey has contributed to more than 100 parenting, health and women's issue publications. She lived with her family in upstate New York, and can be reached be reached via her website: .ginaroberts-grey.com.

Imagine an alternative to a school break filled with video games and "I'm bored" waiting for your family in hidden messages that spark the exploration of some of the most scenic and eclectic locations. Now imagine this activity also promotes your family stretching their legs and minds at the same time. It's time to stop dreaming and starting exploring, because we've got a great hobby your whole family is sure to enjoy.

Supplies needed:
Hiking boots or comfortable shoes
Pen or marker
Rubber stamp & ink pad

Packing a letter boxing bag -- Don't forget:
Sunscreen
Insect Repellant
Bottled water to keep everyone hydrated
Birdseed to feed the feathered friends
Snacks for your hungry little letter boxer and a bag to store trash in until you reach a waste receptacle

Giving kids and parents alike the chance to don the role of a secret spy or super sleuth, letter boxing is a relatively new activity that combines navigational skills, rubber stamp artistry and the thrill of exploring a variety of terrains. Quickly becoming a family favorite pastime all across the country, searching for a letterbox takes kids on an adventure they don't realize can be just as educational as it is fun.

"One added benefit is that this gives everyone a fun way to release energy stored up during the school year and gets everyone's muscles moving," says Cyndi Johnson of Overland Park, Kansas. The veteran letter boxing family expanded their letter boxing travels beyond their home state to track down locations in Colorado this past summer.   

Letter boxing uses clues provided by creative individuals, whose identities remain a secret, but, who have carefully selected a safe, out-of-the-way location surrounded by flora and fauna to tuck a letterbox, or journal, along a path, near a rock, or under a tree. It requires minimal supplies and, other than checking the weather forecast and possibly packing a picnic lunch, virtually no advance preparation. Unlike geocaching and similar activities, letter boxing does not require a global positioning system, maps or previous knowledge of the terrain. 

Setting out on an adventure is as easy as downloading a few clues, packing the kids in the car and heading over to the first clue marker.

"I like to go letter boxing because it's a new adventure every time," says experienced letter boxer, 9-year-old Danny Bridge of Baldwinsville, New York. "Each person takes a stamp and ink pad or colored pen to 'sign' the journal at the end of a treasure hunt."

One key aspect that sets letter boxing apart from other outdoor family activities is, unlike biking, swimming or soccer; participants can vary in age and level of ability.

"I like to take our three boys letter boxing because it's a great way to show all of them different parts of the area, that might not otherwise visit," says Danny's mom, Ann, whose sons' ages range from 6 to 11.

"Another benefit is that letter boxing creates the opportunity to teach children how to decipher riddles and clues, navigate their way through the wilderness and pay attention to their surroundings," says second grade teacher Marni Reilly of McKinney, Texas. 

Reilly has taken her class on field trips to different letterbox locations to reinforce working together in small groups or pairs and the importance of paying attention to detail.

"The kids learn to look for slight changes in the terrain, specific noteworthy branches or types of trees," she explains. 

Cuing in on clues
Clues to locate the hidden letterbox treasures located throughout the country can easily be downloaded for free at www.letterboxing.org, and range from easy to expert. They usually include a brief overview of the area where the letterbox is located. Although some of the clues are in the form of riddles and prose, most are relatively easy for kids to help decipher. 

"I always keep a few clues in the car in case we stumble upon the chance to go on a spontaneous letter boxing adventure," says Johnson who also keeps a letter boxing backpack packed in her car at all times. "It helps that most clues include driving directions, and occasionally, have information on navigating the terrain."

Most clues also include driving directions, and occasionally, have information on navigating the terrain. The clue to locate the letterbox tucked away at the William Memorial Park says, "Find the first aid station in the park. The letterbox is tucked under the stairs that face the playground, on the side nearest the water. Really reach for it. Make sure to tuck it back under the stairs, completely out of sight, after logging in."

Clues range in difficulty from easy to challenging, and many are often cleverly phrased similarly to this one, which leads to a letterbox located in McHenry County, Illinois. It reads:

May there grow here, the rack of the buck, the reach of the pine, the mind of man, and the spirit of our community. If there are choices always stay on the Main Trail. Follow the Main Trail down and up a small incline always staying on the main trail. Through the crossroad still heading North into the woods. Follow the trail up a small incline.

See the tall bench? Sit and ponder, "Which way should I go? Up or down? Look for 'The Rolling Stones'. Once you find them, walk 50 paces. On your left you should see a down tree. 'Don't assume the obvious.' If you go to the end of 'The Rolling Stones' you have gone too far.

Letterboxes are typically be tucked in safe areas that do not require digging, traveling off typical paths and trails, or entering dangerous or private locations. Many are found in places such as under the bough of a distinct tree, near a large boulder, or within sight of a rolling waterfall. 

Arriving at the spot
After you've decoded the clues and arrived at the letterbox's location, your family's creativity can direct the style of your signature.  Some families opt for using the same color ink, while others choose themed stamps.

"After we sign them, we take pictures of the places we've found the letterboxes for our scrap book," says Bridge. 

Once the journal is signed, you simply reseal it in the waterproof container, replace it in its location and continue on the quest to the next letterbox. Or, you and your family can revel in the thrill of finding soak up the atmosphere of the surrounding scenery. 

With over 5,000 letterbox locations throughout the country, your family can chart its own course of fun based on the ages of your children and your family's interests.   

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