Escape Room, Kids, Puzzle Design

Writing Escape Rooms for Kids — A Perspective

So it’s been interesting. I’ve been working on two different “rooms” now for my kids and I’ve already found some roadbloacks as far as them making their own logcal leaps. There’s been puzzles that I’ve come up with that are diffficult for them to understand, even sometimes with plenty of hints.

For example, in this last edition of the “spy” series of challenges, there was an instance where they not only had to count the number of shapes around the room to get the numbers to use for a code but they also had to use another sheet with the shapes and smaller numbers inside of them to determine the actual order of the numbers from the shapes. For example, say they counted 2 triangles, 3 squares and 4 circles. The other related printout also had numbers inside blank versions of the shapes that indicated #1 was squares, #2 was circles and #3 was triangles. When these numbers were correctly aligned, they could open the next lock.

They seemed to really struggle with this one, though. They seemed to catch on quickly that there were different shapes up around the room but they seemed to get stuck there, even with a few other hints about order, number of items and even reinforcing the blank page telling them the order. I tried to make things a bit more challenging this time around and I think I ended up going too far. Even with my oldest being 11 right now, a logic lead like this seemed to be a bit much for him to gasp.

It’s an interesting balance, trying to find the right spot where the puzzles are easy enough for a younger person (11’s not really a child anymore) to understand and follow through on. It’s one thing when you’re in the middle of an escape room and you have an adult to work you through a problem. It’s another when you’re the oldest person in the room trying to figure out a puzzle. Ultimately, my oldest ended up a bit more frustrated with this latest spy puzzle set despite there being some new elements he didn’t quite grasp.

So, I’ve decided to give it another go and try something different this time. I’ve learned a lot from my previous two scenarios and I think I’m more finding my stride when it comes to kid-centric escape room kinds of games. I’m getting e better feeling for what they’re able to solve and what can keep them engaged in the game and wanting to figure it out.

It’s interesting to listen to podcasts (shout out to Escape Room Divas!) and read reviews of rooms with unique elements and fun twists and turns. I love hearing about their experiences and general details of what other rooms are like. I’m coming to realize more and more, however, that there’s a missing demographic of people that escape rooms are just too much for – our kids.

I’m not just talking about my kids here, I’m talking about kids in general. We as adults find it challenging to stretch our logic and work through these puzzles in order to make it out of the room in the allotted time. We reason through the puzzles given to us, using our own experience as a source for determining patterns and connecting random clues and items. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about kids though, is that problem solving and learning about these patterns and solutions is part of their normal process.

We all remember what it was like, trying to find our way and navigating the halls of junior high or high school. We know how hard it was sometimes to figure out what was the right way forward. We all remember how difficult it could be to just make it and come out the other side unscathed. This is the perfect relation to what it means to be a good “Escape Artist” and get out of a room in one piece. Finding the clues, reading the patterns and making the logic jumps are all required to make it through school and life after that successfully.

The only problem with kids is that it takes a while for their logic centers to kick in. They can make some connections but not all of them. A lot of this depends on the environment they’re in too. From early on I was a part of the “nerd” crowd and we valued knowledge as a way that we could have our advantage. We worked hard to keep our grades up and to learn as much as we could about the world around us. We worked out the parts of our brains required for problem-solving and making those same kinds of logic jumps. It wasn’t really until later on, almost college, that the kind of thought process that an average escape room would require began to develop.

Now we need to roll back the clock and take it back down to an 11 year old and what kind of logic jumps he can make. It’s considerably less than the average 18 year old making his way off to college. It has taken a time or two to figure out the right level of the puzzles that would match someone of his age, but I think I’m getting there. The logical leaps have to be smaller and the clues need to be more obvious than they would for an adult (or even a high school graduate).

Part three will be coming up shortly and I feel like, having undershot the first time and overshot the second time that this third time should be more of the “charm”. Hopefully, the puzzles will make more sense and the narrative will help drive the story a bit better so they connect into one more cohesive piece with one clue leading easily to another.

It’s a tricky thing, trying to figure out what’s the appropriate mental leap for someone younger than yourself without being an educator. Teachers create entire curriculum around the kids they’re teaching, knowing what skill level they’re at because they’ve been taught that. Someone on the outside like me only has assumptions to base it on but I’m slowly learning…I’ll get there…

Escape Room, Kids, Puzzle Design

Lessons Learned Making a Kid-Friendly Escape Room

In my previous post I mentioned my first foray into puzzle design and trying to create an “escape room” experience for my two kids, one 8 and the other 11. I’ve always been a puzzle lover and my kids seemed to have inherited that passion. I didn’t tell them before I did it — I wanted it to be a fun surprise for a cold winter day. It was something to do other than the usual and, fortunately, they were all in once I told them what was about to happen.

As I started to think about the theme and what puzzles I wanted to incorporate into the storyline, I started to realize something. A large amount of the usual puzzles are more geared towards older players, usually adults. I found myself struggling to come up with something that wasn’t too challenging for the 11 year old but also wasn’t too hard for the 8 year old. They’re both pretty bright kids so I wasn’t worried about some things being a bit more difficult but it was still a tricky balance.

The Puzzles

In a typical escape room, there are clues hidden all over the place and different challenges to solve. I don’t have the resources (or location) to make a full-on room for them to escape from, so I just opted for a set of logic puzzles where some required searching in the house for the next clue. Ultimately, here’s what I put together:

It was a “secret agent” theme (pretty easy for a first try) and they had to help him escape by solving the puzzles and finding the final hidden message with the location of the base where he was being held. Trying to keep the challenge simpler, I opted for a single-path approach so they could work together to solve the puzzles and advance to the next clue.

Here’s the list of the ones I put together and a bit about how difficult they were for the kiddos:

  1. Hail Caesar!

The first puzzle was a Caesar cipher of a message at the bottom of the initial letter from the agent delivered to them in a manilla envelope. This envelope also included a paper cutout cipher decoder (doing this on the cheap, remember) I found and printed out. They weren’t familiar with how to use it, so I did have to give them a quick lesson. Once they got it, though, they figured out the message pretty quickly. The letter itself also gave them several hints as to what the offset was, bolding the same word each time it was used. This number is also used in a later challenge. I think this connection was a little vague and it tripped them up later trying to figure out the lockbox code it was a part of.

When the message was decoded, it directed them to the next location.

This same letter also included another clue that, when used with information in a later step, gave them one of the numbers they’d need.

2. Picture Puzzle

The next challenge was a picture puzzle, cut up into medium sized pieces from a letter-sized printout of the location for the next clue. They had to piece it back together and figure out exactly what was shown in the picture to find it. On this one, I think I made the pieces a bit too small for my younger kid. He got a little frustrated and wasn’t as engaged with this challenge. Thankfully my older son figured it out eventually and they made a mad dash off to find the next clue.

The envelope this puzzle came in also had a message on the outside, encouraging the players to keep going and providing another number (sort of hidden) they’d need later too.

3. The redirect riddle

The picture puzzle clue led them to the location of another manilla envelope and a lockbox with a keypad. The envelope contained only one piece of paper with one phrase on it. This phrase (in plain-text, no cipher) directed them back to the location where they found the picture puzzle — a book — but to look in a different part. They found this one right away as they’d already searched for the book earlier. This was a picture clue that leads them to the next manilla folder and the clue for the final number they’d need to open the lockbox.

4. The lockbox

Once they located the final manilla folder containing a clue, they opened it to reveal a picture of several differently colored objects but no additional instructions. This was one of the places where they were completely confused but I, a seasoned escaper, knew exactly what to look for. I guided them along the right path, showing them the method of counting the colored objects in the photo to give them numbers. This helped a little but then it required them to make another leap back to the original letter. Remember how I mentioned there was a color-related clue there too? I showed them how to apply this and they received the last number in the code to open the box. So, in this case, the numbers came from:

  • The number of offset for the Caesar cipher
  • The outside of the envelope with the message and “hidden” number
  • The color difference based on the clue in the original note

With these three items in hand, they could use them (in the order of discovery) to open the lockbox and find the final clue. This clue was just a line drawing of the location for the final letter and the information about the secret base.

This final letter congratulated them on solving the puzzles and finding the information before the “bad guys” found it. Mission completed, hooray!

The aftermath

So, after all this, I looked back and saw some of where things went well and where they were a little rocky. Most of the issues centered around their inexperience with the different types of puzzles. I was familiar with them because I’d done several before but they were brand new to it. This meant that I was following them around and giving them hints all along the way. In a typical escape room situation you’re only given a handful of hints — for them it was pretty much constant hints to keep things moving along.

The kids loved it, though, which is definitely a plus for me. It’s always nice to see when people enjoy something you’ve created, doubly so when it’s your own kids. I think in the future they’ll be better at solving some of these same kinds of puzzles based on their experience.

Would I do it again?

Absolutely! In fact, I’m already in the planning stages of Part 2 of the series. I’m sticking with the secret agent theme just because it’s easier and working up a series of puzzles that feel more like they’re trying to escape rather than just tracking down clues.

I learned a lot about what kind of puzzles are fun for the different ages in this first attempt too. While my younger son was often just happy to be there, he did get frustrated with some problems and disengaged. I had to rope him back in and even helped at some points to keep things going.

My plan for Part 2 is going to take a little bit different approach and try to create a setup where both kids can take on different challenges at the same time, each a bit more tailored towards their skill levels. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to push one in one direction and the other in the other but we’ll see…

Oh, and I’m a software developer by experience and so I’m also toying around with the idea of using a virtual keypad on a tablet/phone as the final place where they have to punch in codes for the escape.

Anyway, stay tuned! It was a great first trip into puzzle making and I hope the start of something cool!