How to Have a Rock and Mineral Treasure Hunt With Your Kids

Are your kids fascinated by rocks?

Want to get them outside and excited about nature?

Then take your kids sifting for gemstones.

First, you’ll make a gem sifter. Then enjoy the thrill of discovering rocks in nature and exploring basic geology. It’ll be a rock-solid experience you’re sure to remember.

In this article I’ll show you and the rockhounds in your family how to have an exciting mining adventure.

Do your kids love rocks? Discover their inner rockhounds with a rock and mineral treasure hunt. Make a sifter, salt the mine, and dig for nature's treasures.

Why Go Rockhounding?

Rockhounding, also known as amateur geology, is an excellent way to get your kids excited to explore outside.

Go on a hike and collect rocks along the way. Or sift through the grit and sand of mines to discover treasures.

Identify the gems and minerals you find. Display your treasure or make a rock garden to remember the experience.

If you don’t have gems that occur naturally in your neighborhood, don’t worry. There’s a workaround you can use to make it a successful adventure for all the rockhounds in your family.

The first amateur geologists were prospectors, searching for minerals, gemstones and gold. These days, people go rockhounding for recreational purposes. But it’s always fun to find treasure.

first rock find

Kids love to dig in the dirt and find treasures. It’s also a great way to sneak in learning about geology.

I remember mining with my grandfather in the woods of Maine when I was a child. We made sifters to dig through the “dumps” of World War II–era mine sites.

While miners in that era sought feldspar for fine china and mica for military radios or safety glass, they’d literally throw aside the gemstones in the “dumps.” As a result, these mine dumps became a treasure trove for children seeking adventure.

Here’s how to take your rockhounds on a mining adventure, teach them about minerals at the same time and create some cool mining memories like I have.

You Will Need

  • Shovel
  • Optional: Rock and gemstone kit, if you need to supply your own “treasures”
  • A sifter or large-holed kitchen colander

To make your own sifter, you’ll need the following:

  • One 6-foot (1.8 meters) 2 x 2 in (5 x 5 cm) piece of wood
  • One 6-foot (1.8 meters) 2 x 1 in (5 x 2.5 cm) piece of wood
  • Saw (if you cut your own wood)
  • Metal screen: 1/4 in (2/3 cm) mesh, 23 gauge galvanized hardware cloth (the kind used for making small cages)
  • 20 screws (2 in/5 cm)
  • 4 metal corner braces (2 in/5 cm)
  • Marker (optional)
  • Tin snips
  • Drill
  • Gloves

Preparation Time

2 Hours (less if you use a colander or premade sifter)

Activity Time

30 minutes – 2 hours+

Location

Your backyard, the beach or the woods

#1: Optional: Salt the Mine

When mine owners want to sell their property or mineral rights, the unethical ones “salt the mine.” This means they’d bury great gemstones in the mine. That way, when potential buyers inspected the property, they’d be fooled into thinking it had more to offer and pay a higher price.

Before your family sets out on your mining adventure, assess the place you’ll be searching. If you don’t live in a mineral-rich area, you’ll want to salt the mine to ensure your kids make some great discoveries.

If your location has plenty of interesting rocks and minerals to find, skip to step #2.

If you decide to salt the mine, you can either tell your kids or keep it a secret. I decided to tell my kids, because I didn’t want to come home one day and find they dug up the whole beach. By the way, it didn’t seem to take any thrill out of the find.

rock kit

If you don’t have rocks and minerals nearby, supply your own rocks.

To salt the mine, you’ll need to buy rocks and minerals in advance. Be sure to buy a kit that includes a lot of loose stones as well as a variety of minerals and gems.

The one recommended in the box above even includes a piece of meteorite, which is a really cool thing to discover on your rockhounding adventure. It also includes an identification sheet.

You can also find stones at your local toy, craft or hobby store. Just make sure the collection includes an identification guide/sheet, so your adventurers can learn about each stone they find. Or else pick up a guide from the library or look online.

Once you have your stones, salt your mine.

How to Salt Your Mine

First, pick your spot. This can be a sandbox, a beach or a location in the woods you go to during a hike. Incorporate a scavenger hunt to increase the excitement. Wherever you go, make it a small patch of ground. We recommend 3 x 3 feet (about 1 square meter).

There may be logistic considerations if you do it after a hike. Adults can tag-team (one buries the gems, while the other leads the hike), so someone else doesn’t discover your treasure.

Next, dig the pit. How deep you dig will depend upon how hard you want your rockhounds to work. Dig a shallow layer for young ones and at least a foot (1/3 of a meter) for older kids.

bury stones

When you salt the mine, bury the stones shallower for young kids and deeper for older ones.

Bury your gems in layers. Place the coolest stones deep, then put a layer of dirt on them before placing smaller, less-impressive stones, etc. For each layer, put the stones down evenly across the pit.

Finally, cover the top layer of stones up with dirt.

Remember, you only have to salt the mine if you can’t find minerals naturally in your neighborhood.

#2: Make Your Sifter

A sifter is a key tool in digging for gemstones. It’s a wooden square with a screen base. On your adventure, you’ll shovel dirt into the sifter and shake it. The dirt falls through, while the stones (your treasure) remain.

For simplicity, purchase a sifter or use a large-holed colander from your kitchen. However, making the sifter is another part of the adventure.

If you do opt to make the sifter, you may want to divide the adventure out into two parts: make the sifter one weekend and go rockhounding the next. Most of the building steps should be done by an adult with help from the trusty rockhounds.

sifter tools and supplies

These are the tools and supplies you’ll need to make your sifter.

Cut the wood or have it cut at the building supply store where you purchase it. Cut each long wooden strip into 4 pieces. Of each board, 2 pieces should be 48 in (60 cm) long and 2 pieces should be 24 in (30 cm) long.

When you’re done, you should have:

  • 2: 2 x 2 in (5 x 5 cm) strips at 48″ (60 cm) each
  • 2: 2 x 2 in (5 x 5 cm) strips at 24″ (30 cm) each
  • 2: 2 x 1 in (5 x 2.5 cm) strips at 48″ (60 cm) each
  • 2: 2 x 1 in (5 x 2.5 cm) strips at 24″ (30 cm) each

Make a wooden box. Arrange the 2 x 1 in (5 x 2.5 cm) strips into a rectangle.

Using the tin snips, cut the screen to the same size as the rectangle. (Obviously, this part needs to be done by an adult.)

cutting the screen

Cut the screen to the same size as or a bit larger than the rectangle.

To simplify cutting the screen, use a permanent marker to outline the dimensions first. For best results, cut the screen a bit wider than the rectangle and fold over the edges to make it fit the dimensions. This reinforces the edge of the screen and reduces the chance that too much heavy dirt will tear the screen out.

Place the screen on top of the wooden box. Screw in one side of the screen on each side of the wood to hold it in place.

Arrange the 2 x 2 in (5 x 5 cm) strips into another rectangle. Screw the 4 corner braces into the 2 x 2 in (5 x 5 cm) wooden box corners.

finished sifter

Your sifter should look something like this.

Lay down the frame made from the 2 x 1 (5 x 2.5 cm) on top of the one made of 2 x 2s (5 x 5 cm). The screen should be sandwiched between them.

Screw them together, securing the screen in between. Use at least 3 screws on the long sides and 2 on the short sides.

Once your sifter is assembled, you’re ready to go rockhounding!

#3: Go Rockhounding

Grab your shovel, sifter and rockhounds, and go to the pit. Dig into the dirt and place it into the sifter. You may see some stones before you even sift.

digging for stones

Dig through the dirt to find stones.

While digging for the stones you buried, you’ll probably also find naturally occurring stones (ones you didn’t hide). Keep those stones too, so you can try to identify their composition later. This may also open a conversation about local mineralogy.

filling sifter with dirt

As your kids fill the sifter, they find stones already!

Before, during and after mining, ask your kids what they think they’ll find. Ask them to guess what the stones are and where they think the stones came from. This is an opportunity to be a little creative and tell stories while you mine.

Once the sifter is filled (be careful not to overfill it), lift the sifter and shake it side to side. The dirt will fall through, while the beautiful stones remain.


Carefully sift the dirt. Shake the sifter from side to side.

Fill and sift as many times as you’d like. Depending on the location of your dig, you may just want to sift for a little bit each day.

#4: Identify Your Stones

Take your stones back to the house and rinse them off. If you have a lot of stones, lay them out on the sidewalk and hose them down all at once. Just make sure the water pressure is low, so they don’t spray off into the yard.

Lay the rinsed stones out on a paper towel and decide which one to identify first. Take turns choosing which stone to identify.

rinse stones

Rinse off the stones and place them on a paper towel.

Compare each stone to the stones on your identification sheet. If your box of stones didn’t include an identification sheet or if you’re identifying naturally occurring stones, get a book from the library. Or use an online source, such as How to Identify Minerals in 10 Steps, Mineralogy for Kids or this Pinterest Board for Semi-precious Gemstones to identify your treasures.

identify the stones you found

Identify each stone using a chart, a book or a source online.

Talk about each stone as you identify it. Look at the shapes and colors. Make up stories about the stones’ origins. Or look them up online and get more history behind them.

Save your stones in a special place. And keep track of your rockhounding adventures through stories and pictures in a journal.

#5: Graduate to Advanced Mining Adventures

If your kids have so much fun that they want to become full-fledged rockhounds, plan more advanced rockhounding adventures. Forget about mine salting. Take them to a real prospector’s pit or mine!

Search online for a local “rockhounding” group, mineralogy club or even a fossil-hunting group. A simple search that includes your state, country or province is probably the best way to get started. Find a club and email them about their meetings and field trips.

Once you catch the rockhounding bug, you’ll notice rocks everywhere. During road trips or hikes, point out interesting rocks or rock formations like road cuts (where mountains and hills were cut into to make flatter roads). Ask questions like “Do they look like the rocks you found?” or “Can you see the layers of different stones?”

Even better, have your kids point their discoveries out to you.

Some Final Thoughts

Whether or not you had a rockhounding experience as a kid, enjoy the excitement of the treasure hunt along with your kids. They’ll learn about mineral identification and geology, as well as the joy and pride of finding what they seek.

It warmed my heart to see my kids’ excitement as they discovered each stone in the dirt. The sparkles in their eyes matched the reflections from the shining gems.

Rockhounding is a wonderful form of exploration. If your kids get excited over finding naturally occurring stones, encourage their curiosity. And enjoy the experience of having such a fun, shared hobby with your kids.

What do you think? Have you ever been rockhounding? Did your kids enjoy the search? What tips do you have that will help others with their own rockhound adventures? What other things do you talk about on these trips? What’s the best place you’ve searched for rocks and the coolest stone you found? Please share your thoughts and pictures in the comments.

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About the Author, Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner advocates servant leadership awareness and social media action at ModernServantLeader.com and in his book, Paradigm Flip. When not wrestling his boys, he works in eCommerce at Herman Miller. Other posts by »


  • http://www.mykidsadventures.com/ KJ Ammerman

    Thanks for the awesome ideas, Ben! I’m wondering if I could get a colander from the Goodwill and use that instead of making a sifter for the first go-around to see if the kids are into rock hunting? What do you think?

  • http://modernservantleader.com/ Ben Lichtenwalner

    Great idea, KJ. Just make sure the holes are pretty large – especially if you’re sifting dirt (sand passes through easier than dirt). As an alternative, you could drill large holes into a small-holed colander.

  • http://www.fineartmom.com/ Crystal Foth

    I tried to like the post – but the liked don’t change. Great post Ben – I love the idea of salting the mine… so much fun for the little ones 😉

  • http://modernservantleader.com/ Ben Lichtenwalner

    Thanks, Crystal! Salting the dig is a great way to ensure they find something. However, my 5 & 3 year old boys quickly started pulling out stones I didn’t plant and they seemed equally thrilled.

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