The author's daughter with her first find. Credit: Sara Lindberg
A few years ago, when my daughter and I set out in search of our first hidden treasure, I had no idea that the vibrantly painted ladybug rock we would find would have such special meaning to us.
Truth be told, I was disappointed that I wasn't the one to find it. After all, I was the one searching high and low — scanning the beach, the park benches and the playground. Just when I was about to give up hope, my quiet and reserved daughter belted out a loud "YES!!!," followed by a massive fist pump and a little dance as she set eyes on her first find.
Although Pokémon Go was all the rage a few years ago, and geocaching has its legions of fans, a more low-key, unplugged treasure-hunt trend has steadily grown in popularity around Western Washington: painted rocks.
Our little evergreen slice of heaven is becoming known as a hub of the painted-rock movement, which — with the help of community-driven Facebook groups — is spreading kindness around our state, one rock at a time.
Once upon a rock
A lifetime resident of Bremerton, I was first introduced to hiding and seeking painted rocks through Kitsap Rocks, a Facebook group created by a collective of women who wanted to do community art projects with homeschooled students. According to co-founder Cathy Tomko, Kitsap Rocks was Inspired by Port Angeles Rocks, one of the first such groups in our state, and the idea took off. Tomko notes that through the group, they have been able to "connect all of the cities in Kitsap County to encourage art and creativity."
The premise is simple: Gather a few supplies (flat, smooth rocks, acrylic paint, sealer, paint brushes), decorate your rock — getting as creative as you like — and seal it. Write instructions on the bottom of the rock that tell the finder which Facebook group to post a photo to once it's found. Then, hide. You can also post a photo of the rock on the page after it's hidden, giving clues as to its location. Popular hiding spots include parks, playgrounds and family-friendly hiking trails.
Some people will only choose to create and hide, while others will participate in it all; painting, hiding and finding. If you find a rock, you can either re-hide it or keep it. Lots of people choose to keep their first rock and then re-hide the rest.
Painted themes and messages are creative and wide-ranging: A small sample of photos posted to Kitsap Rocks include Willy Wonka chocolate bars, a toilet-shaped rock with a poop emoji, Dr. Seuss rocks and stones with inspirational messages such as "believe in kindness." And there is no minimum or maximum age: Toddlers, teens, moms, dads and even grandparents are enjoying painting, hiding and hunting together.
Find where your community rocks
Prospective rock artists are encouraged to join a Facebook group that has ties to their local community. In addition to Facebook groups in Kitsap County and Port Angeles, Western Washington areas with pages include Bothell, Edmonds, Grays Harbor, Kirkland, Mount Vernon, Mercer Island, Seattle, Snohomish County, Tacoma, Whidbey Island and many more. Just search on Facebook with the name of your community and the term "rocks"; if you don't find a page, consider starting one yourself (see below for tips).
Groups range in size from a few hundred members all the way up to tens of thousands for the Vancouver Rocks group. Administrators say they receive several requests daily to join, and if their group has been mentioned in a news story, the requests can increase to several hundred in a day.
Art, community and family time
Active members cite the joy of spending creative time with family and friends, of giving back and spending time in nature. And then there's the age-old appeal of a treasure hunt. Families are walking streets, scouring local parks, searching trails and even climbing playground equipment to find a certain rock that was posted with a clue.
Connie Quatermass, another cofounder of Kitsap Rocks, notes that families can use a painted-rock expedition to expand kids' sense of community and mindfulness. Parents, she says, can “tell their children that although they may not find a rock each time they go out to hunt, they may see wildlife and wildflowers, read a historical plaque, or pick up litter to help the environment.”
Some painted-rock groups use the activity's popularity to support local causes. Kitsap Rocks, for example, has participated in several community events, including a Batman-themed painted-rocks event to raise funds for a local boy fighting cancer.
At its heart, this quirky, unplugged trend is about finding happiness and joy in the simplest of things. It certainly felt that way when my daughter found her first ladybug rock: The sheer excitement and look of joy on her face meant as much to me as it did to her.
As Tomko says: "The rocks you put out there are gifts. Let them go and be a gift to make someone’s day."
Tips for successful painting, hiding and hunting
- Be mindful of the environment and respectful of the community guidelines that already exist.
- Seal each rock and do not add/attach anything to the rocks, as there is no guarantee that it will stay on and not become litter or a swallowing hazard for children or wildlife.
- Many Facebook groups remind their members that this activity is about gifting and not always expecting to find a rock or get recognition when yours is found.
- Do not hide rocks in national parks or state parks, on private property, or on Washington State Ferries.
- Pinterest and Facebook are great places to find inspiration for colorful creations and creative messages.
More nature adventures to try with kids
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated most recently for 2021.
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