Poison in Princeton: A Sherlock Holmes Escape Room

sherlock holmes escape room

You might recall the sneak peek of our Sherlock Holmes escape room. Now it’s time to unveil all its secrets! It all started when our gang did a professional escape room for my birthday weekend. Katie and I thought the puzzle-solving premise of the escape room would pair perfectly with the literary world’s master of deduction.

bottle solvingThis entire escape room – the research, the puzzles, the narrative, the props, the logistics – is all Katie’s doing! Her preparations were extensive. She watched escape room videos, visited escape rooms, and had a meeting with game master Rebecca Ross from “Epic Escape Game” in Greenwood Village, Colorado. She bounced clue ideas around with Princeton University student Anna Leader (she of Victorian Tea fame) and pretested everything on a group of 6th graders at the Saint Paul School of Princeton. The logistics were pretty staggering too. We ran 3 identical escape rooms simultaneously for 5 hours,180 kids total.

solving pop sci

The premise of the escape room was that a poison had been released into the water system of Princeton, and Princeton University asked Sherlock Holmes to quickly find an antidote. He did, but a nefarious group of business men were trying to capture him, steal the antidote, and sell it to the infected populace. Holmes escaped and hid the antidote in a room with clues on how to find it. Kids had 20 minutes to solve the clues and identify the antidote.

The escape rooms took place in East Pyne Hall on campus. Its beautiful wood-paneled classrooms with leaded windows were the perfect setting for a Victorian caper.

east pyneUpon entering the room, kids found a large wooden desk with a number of items scattered on it. A teacup, teabag, an old map of London, a magnifying glass, books, photos, trade cards, a key, and an issue of Popular Science.

desktopAs I mentioned in the sneak peek, the trade cards, Popular Science, photos, and books are real objects from that period (sooooo cool). Also in the classroom were 8-10 Princeton University test booklets…

test bookletsFive bottles on the windowsill with scientific labels (Katie filled the bottles with items from her pantry, and hot glued the corks in really, really tight!)…

bottlesThere was a padlocked wooden box, which was in turn chained to a radiator grate…

locked box and keyAlso chained to the radiator (and far, far out of range of the box) was a key that had an unusual letter lock.

letter lockAdditionally, the room had two signs posted on opposite walls. An alphabet:

alphabet cipherAnd a figurine code. Holmes fans will recognize this as the famous “Dancing Men” cipher.

dancing men cipherThe blackboard also contained some clues…

clues on blackboardFinally, we had “Do Not Touch” signs posted in the room for over-eager investigators. You’re definitely going to need these…kids tear the rooms up looking for clues!

do not touch trapdoordo not touch flatscreenHere’s how all the clues worked, and the final solution. Hidden inside (and on) the various objects were Dancing Men clues. There was one inside a book:

book clue

One spread across the back of 2 test booklets…

test booklet clue

There was one on the back of the tea bag…

tea bag clueOne on an old map of London (you needed the magnifying glass to find it):

map clueFinally, there was one in a dyspepsia ad in Popular Science.

popular science clueThe last two clues were a little hard to find, so we left hints on the blackboard…

scotland yard hintdyspepsia hintThe Dancing Men clues corresponded to the 2 signs on the wall. Each figurine matched a different letter of the alphabet.

dancing men cipher

alphabet cipher

However, the signs were posted on opposing walls. So the kids had to cooperate to solve them. Teamwork! Did you notice the Roman numeral on each Dancing Men clue? Those were the order in which you dialed the letters on the letter lock.

letter lockOnce the key was released from the letter lock, it opened the padlock on the wooden box.

solving box clueInside the box was an old-fashioned periodic table with the words “I’ve found it!” scrawled on it. Elements hydrogen (H), sodium (Na), oxygen (O), and phosphorous (P) were circled as well.

periodic table clueKids matched the circled elements to the correct label on the antidote bottle. And we made sure it was an actual antidote. Sodium hydrogen orthophosphate is a saline laxative agent (something Katie’s 11 year-old finds endlessly amusing).

final solutionThe kids took the bottle to the game master, who confirmed that they had solved the escape room! We had a game master in each room, dropping hints when needed, preventing parents from solving puzzles, and generally keeping kids on task. Here are our 3 amazing game masters, Princeton University students Anna Leader, Anne Merrill, and Erica Choi.

game mastersAs kids exited the room, the game masters awarded them their choice of a souvenir key to take home!

key prizeBut wait, you say, what about the photographs, the trade cards, the key on the desk, and all that other writing on the blackboard? Hah HAH! Those are all red herrings, added to throw kids off. Because it wouldn’t be an escape room without red herrings!

red herrings

And how did the escape room go over? Very, very, well! There was excited screaming, running, urgent problem solving, clever work-arounds, and hilarious dialogue. Two of our favorites as heard through the door: “For the LOVE! Will someone please FIND Scotland Yard?!?” and this one (presumably when the periodic table was discovered): “Oh my gosh…guys! We all got Ds in science class!” Most kids finished the room right at the 20 minutes mark. The record? 12 minutes, my dear Watson.

To conclude, here is a list of hints for running the room. If you have any specific questions, or want to know where we found/ bought our items, feel free to e-mail Katie: zondlo@princeton.edu

  • Our room was designed for ages 9-14. A maximum of 6 kids participated per room.
  • Make sure participants arrive at least 10 minutes before the game begins. We were very clear in all promotional and registration material that late arrivals would not be admitted.
  • Have a waiting area for participants, and try to keep it away from the the actual escape room so no one overhears the puzzles being solved.
  • Make sure all clues are printed. Not all kids can read cursive. We learned this the hard way.
  • Test everything in advance! Make sure the locks slide into the objects they’re supposed to lock! Again, learned this the hard way.
  • Make sure you have backups of every clue and object in case something breaks or wanders away (scotch tape for paper repairs is a good idea too).
  • Make sure the game masters know the game. We ran them through the room once, and we gave them cheat sheets on event day.
  • Bring cell phone chargers. Our 20 minute game timers were our cell phones. Woe to ye who runs out of battery!

Many thanks to everyone who helped us put this escape room together! Thank you Rebecca Ross from Epic Escape Game for fielding our endless questions. Anna Leader, thank you for helping with the puzzles! Thank you to Anne Merrill, Erica Choi, and Anna for being such excellent game masters. To the young investigators at Saint Paul School Princeton, thank you for enthusiastically testing our room. And finally, a BIG tip of the deerstalker to Katie for putting this all together. You are an escape room MASTER!

Projects Projects Everywhere, Redux

the project projectQ: What do I do with my kid’s art projects? They’ll be upset if I toss them out, but I’m being squeezed out of the house by an army of cardboard creations!

No, this isn’t a question from a blog reader. It’s the question I ask myself the eve of every curbside recycling pick-up. You see, our home studio overflows with art projects. Which I consider a very good thing. Bring on the creativity!  But eventually, space runs out and reality rears its ugly head. My house overflows with paper, tubes, and boxes connected with sticky webs of tape. The shelves are packed, and I haven’t seen the top of my coffee table in 7 days. Worse, we don’t have any room to make new projects!

Alas, I have a few unpleasant options to choose from:

Option 1: Toss the projects. This usually backfires because my kids routinely root through the recycling bins for building materials, resulting in “MOM! Why did you toss my 10 car tissue box train!?!?” Or they catch me carrying the stuff to the trash and plead with me to keep the 45 pieces of pipe cleaner jewelry that have been hanging on the living room doorknob for 5 weeks.

Option 2: Have the kids decide which projects they’re ready to toss. I sit the kids down and tell them how proud I am of their projects. I explain that it’s time to let the shoe box fire station go because we all need to be responsible and keep the house orderly. My kids of course understand and don’t argue with me. They dispose of the projects and even offer to tidy up their rooms as well. Um…in the spirit of full disclosure…I must admit that I’ve never actually had any success with Option 2.

Option 3: Wait until they’re not looking / asleep and sneakily dispose of the projects. This is what happens most often I’m afraid. However, it’s surprisingly difficult to turn your back on an oatmeal container cat staring dolefully at you over the rim of a recycling bin hidden in the backyard. And then there’s the inevitable “Hey, where’s the swimming pool I made for my Shopkins?” A ferocious interrogation ensues until you finally confess you tossed it because you had to clean up. Even while you’re rationally defending the tidiness of your household to the indignant artist, you secretly feel like a horrible monster for tossing your child’s creative vision. Sigh.

In 2014, I blogged about one solution to project clutter. It’s a customized project book made out of an inexpensive photo album. You can read about it here.

project bookLast weekend, however, I came up with another solution! I created an Instagram account. Now, anytime a project needs recycling, I just upload a photo of it to my Instagram.

the project project screen shotThere the project remains, forever validating my kids’ imaginative musings. It’s a fun gallery documenting their tremendous creativity AND a digital representation of one less job for Mom the Recycling Cop. Bonus! Grandma and Grandpa can follow our Instagram to see what those clever grandkids are up to.

the project project train table

The Project Project hasn’t been running very long, but I can already see and feel a difference in the house. Projects are recycled without a fuss because they’re not getting tossed out. They’re simply changing into something that can be seen and shared with others. Also, I love these projects! I honestly feel bad when they have to go. Now I can revisit them all the time.

Want to see a truly FANTASTIC Instagram art project? Check out this fashionista mother and daughter crafting team!

Stroller Parking

stroller parking Today, I will address an issue that affects anyone who coordinates programs with children – be it in a library, children’s museum, or activity room. Like silent pack animals they wait, blocking doors, tracking mud, and leaving behind a smatterings of Cheerios. The issue of which I speak, of course, is strollers.

Strollers are an essential item in parenting life, especially when siblings are at different stages of crawling, walking, and dodging up mall escalators. Strollers are a one-stop shops for snacks, naps, diapering necessities, and sanitation rituals.

The problem, however, begins when strollers start wandering into areas that need to be kept clear. Our gallery is small, so we mounted a sign asking people to leave their strollers by the front door (strollers carrying sleeping occupants being the exception of course). The sign sort of worked. But when bad weather set in and muddy slush was being tracked to the back of the gallery where babies were crawling, we realized we needed to strengthen our front door message.

That’s when I hit on the idea of stroller parking.

First, I purchased a 3′ x 22′ non-skid rug runner (it’s rubber backed for those inevitable wet stroller wheels). With shipping, it cost $256. Then, Marissa and I made parking lines with yellow masking tape. It was that simple.

stroller parking rugWell, it worked like magic. Immediately, strollers started parking in tidy little lines at the front of our gallery. And it’s still going strong! Since stroller parking started over a year ago, we haven’t had any strollers wandering into the gallery. Here’s a shot on a busy Monday morning, all parked and proper.

monday morning stroller parkingEvery once in a while a masking tape line gets ripped and we have to replace it. Otherwise, this little parking lot takes care of itself! Mind you, we still have a sign up. I think you need both the rug and the sign to get this to work. Recently, we re-purposed an old gallery element as a new sign post:

lamp post signBest of all, the lamp’s sign holder is open on both sides. So as you’re exiting the gallery, you can read the final sentences from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

lamp post back