Remember the Pokémon Go craze in the summer of 2016? Kids and young adults were going outside in the fresh air and sunshine, getting exercise, and meeting new friends and neighbors as they searched for new Pokémons to “capture” on their smartphones. That craze seems to have died down, but a new, low-tech craze has taken over in communities across the country: painted rocks.

It all started in a small rural community in the U.K., where folks painted rocks with inspiring messages, then hid them around town. People would find them and re-hide them elsewhere. Some while later, a group in Los Angeles became the first to incorporate social media into the fun by creating a Facebook group for people to post pictures of their finds and hints about where to search for newly hidden rocks. It’s a community-wide treasure hunt that’s interactive fun for kids of all ages. There is no age restriction, although little kids get the biggest kick out of finding rocks. Toddlers, teens, adults and even grandparents are enjoying painting, hiding and hunting together.

I first heard of this craze from a local news piece on Santee Rocks, one of the largest groups in San Diego County. They’d held a painting party at a park and were showing off their latest creations. A while later, I was invited to join a Rocks group, Julian Rocks, in my neighborhood but it didn’t seem very active. I forgot about it for some time.

Then one day I was doing my weekly errands in Alpine. I walked past a storefront window, and on the ledge sat a green- and red- painted rock that said “Keep Fun Going.” It was obviously painted by a little kid. Instructions on the back identified it as an Alpine Rock. I took it home and posted a picture on the Alpine Rocks  Facebook group (after being approved to join), and that was the start of my current obsession.

The goal is to spread kindness and joy to strangers, one rock at a time. Parents and kids spend quality time together painting rocks, then going out to hide them and hunt for others. There are a few rules: Don’t use rocks to air your political ideology; Post a picture to the appropriate group if you find a rock; If you choose to keep a rock, you should replace it; and Don’t leave rocks inside stores or on private property. Popular hiding spots include parks, playgrounds, shopping centers (exterior areas), parking lot landscaping islands, and hiking trailheads.

Themes and messages vary widely, but should all be positive and uplifting. They can be artistic, funny, cartoons, images from pop culture, or inspiring messages. The possibilities are endless. I get a lot of inspiration for (or flat-out copycat) ideas from my Alpine group, which is very large and active.

Want to join in the fun? First, check Facebook to see if there’s already a rocks group in your neighborhood. Just type “[town name] rocks” into the search bar and see what comes up. If there’s no group, you can start your own! Group membership counts can range from a few dozen to tens of thousands. My Alpine Rocks group has 2,100 members – a lot for such a small town.

Then, gather some rocks to paint. Medium-sized, smooth river rocks are ideal, but people paint on flat slate slabs, too. Take a cue from the shape of the rock – if it’s shaped like a sneaker, paint a sneaker! Wash them thoroughly and let dry. Then start painting! Acrylic paints are best, as they’re water-washable and quick-drying. I also use some leftover house paint, and spray paint for all-over coverage. Some people use paint pens because they offer a lot of control for detail work. (Walmart sells them for two bucks apiece.) Then write instructions on the back — for example, “Julian Rocks! on Facebook – Post Pic & Re-Hide.” Fine point Sharpie markers are great for writing messages or instructions, but they must be sealed properly.

Once your artwork is completely dry, it’s time to seal the rock. First, paint the rock in a coat of Mod-Podge Hard Coat. It looks like thinned Elmer’s glue – it goes on white but dries clear. This will waterproof and seal the artwork, especially any Sharpie work. Then finish it off with spray-on gloss coat to give your rock that wet-look shine.

Note: if you skip the Mod-Podge, any Sharpie work may run with the gloss coat.

Pro-tip: Let the seal and gloss coats dry thoroughly before turning the rock over to do the other side. If you don’t, the weight of the rock will make the tacky surface stick to and transfer from whatever it’s sitting on. I wait a full 24 hours for the gloss coat to dry before doing the other side. It might feel dry to the touch, but be patient.

A painted rock expedition expands kids’ sense of community and mindfulness. Parents should tell their children that even if they don’t find a rock every time they go hunting, they might see wildlife and wildflowers, meet a friend, or pick up litter to help the environment.

Some painted-rock groups use the activity’s popularity to support local causes. Alpine Rocks, for instance, helped spread awareness about opting for organ donation with their “Kidney For Kassidy” rocks, benefiting a local child in need of a new kidney.

The rocks you set free should be considered gifts to the world. Let them be a random gift to make someone’s day. Many rocks are never seen again. Accept that that is part of the giving.

Tips for successful painting, hiding and hunting:

  • Be mindful of the environment and respectful of the group’s guidelines.
  • Don’t add/attach gewgaws, or anything that could fall off and become litter or swallowing hazards for children or wildlife, to the rocks.
  • Pinterest and Facebook are great places to find inspiration for artwork and creative messages.
  • Throw a rock painting party! Some groups organize events at which members can gather in a social environment, and paint together while sharing art supplies and ideas.

Fredrika Syren

Fredrika Syren is an environmental activist and writer. In 2016, she founded the website Green-Mom.com where she shared her family’s journey of living zero waste. She lives in San Diego, California with her husband James and their children Bella, Noah, and Liam. Fredrika and her family were recently featured in the documentary Zero Time to Waste. Fredrika is also the author of Zero Waste for Families - A Practical Guidebook (which you can buy on this site)

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