Monday, September 29, 2014

Mystery Party: Detection Kits

I'll come right out and answer the #1 question I suspect everyone has: where we got these little suitcases. They were from Target. They were on clearance, way back in April, and they were $2.48 each. I bought them right away, simply because they were so absolutely perfect for... anything. And at that price, it would've been a crime not to have bought them.

Now, way back then, Jenna had already been talking about her party, and her idea that it should involve solving mysteries with clues.  So even while I was loading these suitcases into my shopping cart, I was almost certain we'd use them for detection kits. And yes, they are as sturdy and as beautifully made as they look. 

Let me show you what we filled them with.

Detection aids,

specifically, a paper measuring tape for measuring footprints (from Ikea); a little notebook (dollar store bulk pack); a book of secret codes that we printed and folded; a ball-point pen (dollar store bulk pack;, a UV pen and a real magnifying glass (dollar store or Walmart).

Here is that book of secret codes. Emily and I compiled some of the more well-known codes - Pig Pen, Substitution, Morse, Cipher Wheel - onto letter-size sheets, and folded them into 8-page books. We love this method of making booklets! You'll see it again at Emily's Science Party later. 

The UV pens are from here

The kids loved them because they were like magic. You write (invisibly) with the nibs, and then reveal the writing with the light in the cap. It works even after the ink's been dried on the paper for days. 

I put the girls to work, filling the suitcases, assembly-line style.

Everything had to be QC-ed first, of course.

We also made stickers to decorate the kits on the day itself. We printed them out on colored printer paper

and used our sticker maker to make them adhesive.

On the day itself, we set out the kits and baskets of markers and stickers 

so the kids could personalize their own.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mystery Party: Setting the (Crime) Scene

Welcome behind the scenes at Jenna's Mystery Party! Here is where we share all the individual party elements - decorations, food, activities, take-home goodies etc. so that you can adopt them for your own parties or crafts. Click on the links throughout the posts to go to the places where I've bought my supplies and various knick-knacks.

This first post is all about how we set up for the day. 

As with all our parties, we kept the decoration sparse, and saved all our energy and time for the activities (and food). 

We decorated the outside of the garage (our crime scene) with crime scene tape,

and hung, with clothespegs, a line of brown paper packages 

containing individual dollar store kits as prizes for solving The Mystery. The kids got to pick one each at the end of the party. These are two of the three -or four? I can't remember- different kits we bought. 

The brown paper bags were an inexpensive way to wrap them so the kids didn't know which ones they were getting.

Completing the garage door decor was a Facts Of The Case poster. We made up the suspects and gave them identities.

Here is Jenna's birthday poster. Birthday posters are one of my favorite birthday traditions. I don't remember when or how they began but I've drawn them every year since, for every child, and they've become a photo prop as much as a way to announce and celebrate the birthday kid. The yellow "birthday tape" is just printer paper cut and joined into long strips, and wording hand-printed on them.

While on the subject, I've often been asked how or where I learned to draw and do my lettering. I don't remember; it feels like I've always done silly drawings. As for the lettering, I have several "natural" handwriting fonts that I use without having to think about them. But sometimes, when I need to print a special lettering for a poster or card, I'll look up a font on my word processor and copy that. When I was a little kid, Dad owned a catalog for a French dry transfer lettering company called Mecanorma, very similar to the UK company Letraset. For years, I used that catalog as my font reference manual to hand-print block lettering for my posters.

The other thing I will share about ink lettering (pastels and crayons are another story) is to use the broadest, fattest marker you can find. Don't bother with the pointy-tipped regular Sharpies or even kids' markers. Buy the square- or chisel-tipped ones and be confident with your strokes. I've even painted mine with a brush just to get the thickness I want. Draw pencil lines to help you keep your letter heights consistent if you need to, but when actually drawing the letters, print them without being tentative or hesitant. It sounds weird, but you will see the difference immediately.

Theme food next. This being Jenna's party, there had to be cookies, because Jenna is the baking enthusiast in our family. We made sugar cookies - simple round shapes frosted to look like thumbprints

and magnifying glasses. 

These latter ones were rolled extra thin, cut out in circles, and baked in pairs, sandwiching popsicle sticks between them. We found this method preferable to cutting out thick cookies and shoving a popsicle stick into their middles, which would've resulted in the dough being all smooshed and deformed (ask me how I know). 

This way, they kept their perfectly round shape. Find our recipes for the cookies and frosting here.

To welcome and accommodate our guests during their staggered arrivals, we had two activities. The first, which was Emily's idea, was to have them create their own fingerprint cards. She created a 5-cell grid on the computer and printed out enough copies for everyone. Then we provided a fingerprint pad (far superior to a stamp pad, and worth every cent) and pencils for the kids to write their names on their fingerprint cards and Emily ran this station downstairs while I welcomed guests (and visited with their parents) upstairs.

The second activity was personalizing ID tags. We don't own a Polaroid camera, but if we did, we'd have taken pictures of each guest as they arrived. Instead, we assembled the ID tages beforehand: we printed out photos from the school yearbook and our home photo library 

and stuck them on white cardstock. We bought our lanyards here, because it was part of the fun of party-supply shopping, and because they were quite inexpensive, but you could just as well use ribbon and omit the snap hooks altogether.

We made sure to include one for Bunny.

We set these IDs out with a basket of markers for the kids to choose their detective names.

In the next post, we'll unpack the colorful Detection Kits. 

See you back soon!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mystery Party

We threw a Mystery Party for Jenna earlier in the summer.

Although it could have also been renamed Detection, Whodunnit, Spy, Secret, or Crimebusting Shindig.

Jenna adores mysteries. Her favorite board game is Clue (the version of which I played as a child was Cluedo). She loves Enid Blyton's The Five Find-Outers (and Dog), and the A to Z Mysteries and Capitol Mysteries. And games like Guess Who. And logic puzzles of all kinds. So it wasn't a surprise, really, when she asked for a party theme that involved solving a crime.

There had to be plenty of clues, she said. In fact, she had grand plans for a clue tunnel which, she explained, was dark and mysterious and replete with all kinds of Things To Find By Flashlight. Fingerprints! Footprints! Cigarette ends! Scraps of clothing! Handwriting! And it was very important that this treasure trove of clues be the main highlight of the party, never mind that the clues themselves were staged, or completely out of context; it only mattered that they would be there waiting to be dramatically uncovered and exclaimed over.

Clearly, these were fabulous ideas which had to be harnessed. So, sprawled on deckchairs at the water park, which is the best place in the world to plan parties, we brainstormed and sketched and scribbled and conceptualized her party. Let me tell you, it was loads of fun. And Jenna was thrilled to be in the director's chair, setting up cliffhangers left, right and center.

Nail-bitingly suspenseful though the premise was, this was, ultimately, a party for eight-year-olds (and a couple of kindergarteners), not an Agatha Christie novel. We had to make it kid-friendly, time-sensitive and, most of all, feasible. It had to make sense, there had to not be death, and it had to be manageable in a group setting. Practical, in other words.

"But exciting!" Jenna reminded me. "Don't forget Exciting!"

We did our best.

We started with Background Checks-cum-Training: Emily ran a filler activity in which everyone got to make their own fingerprint card. She printed out the blank strips and organized the station all by herself. Hurrah!

Then we had exciting food.

And gifts

(which are always exciting),

also exciting cookies - thumbprints

and magnifying glasses.

After lunch, the kids were herded to the Recruiting Station, 

where they were supplied with ID tags,

which they personalized

and decorated.

Then everyone was ushered to the crime scene,

and briefed on the Facts Of The Case: two mysteriously missing cars and four suspects - the Highly-Strung Husband, his Exhausted Wife, the Helpful Mother-in-Law and the Intrepid Garage Repairman.

We raised the portcullis... er, I mean, the garage door,

and invited the detectives in to search for clues. This Garage Of Incriminatory Wonders, we felt, was a happy compromise: it kept the essence of Jenna's Clue Tunnel, while staying relevant to the context of the crime (missing cars). Plus, it was nice not to have to hunt in the dark with torches.

There was a ludicrous amount of clues,

which we enthusiastically gathered before returning to Headquarters to analyze.

The kids were split into two teams (because even Sherlock Holmes had his Dr. Watson) and they worked those clues

with the contents of their kits,

using a combination of applied forensics,


The goal was to deduce which of the four suspects Did The Deed.

Three of the envelopes were decoys.

But if they guessed right, they got a letter, a photo of the vehicle they had to find, and a jigsaw puzzle photo of the neighbor's house outside which we'd hidden the car (the lovely neighbors were in on the game).

The race was on!

And we are happy to report that both teams solved the crime within minutes of each other and recovered the missing cars. There was much back-slapping and celebration after.

We sent everyone home with their kits and other detective paraphernalia,

along with a mystery gift -

fun detection activity kits we found at the dollar store.

Some weeks later, we sent out our thank-you cards. 

Case closed.

We'll be sharing all the various party elements in individual posts - stay tuned!

Updated 2017: Many readers have written to ask if the materials used in this party are available for sale. I am happy to say that they are, and you can find more information in this post.