How to Have a Rock and Mineral Treasure Hunt With Your Kids
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.
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.
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.
#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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Ben Lichtenwalner »