By Ann Shields
Updated: February 02, 2017

Over the cold MLK weekend, my kids and I headed south to meet some cousins in Washington, D.C. and had the chance to test-drive a Smithsonian Art Adventure mobile-phone-based scavenger hunt from Stray Boots.

On Sunday morning, bundled up and armed with instructions for the hunt (the company’s website calls them “interactive walking tours” and “urban games”), we headed to the designated starting point, the Smithsonian Castle, punched our confirmation code into the phone, and the questions started coming.

Players participate via text message or, by using a smartphone, type answers into a web interface.  Points are awarded for correct answers and hints are available for incorrect ones, and additional interesting trivia is served up with each answer.  The cost to play is about the same as joining a human-hosted walking tour, but the phone-delivered narrative allows for more pausing, food breaks, and general messing-around, which suited our group better.

To be honest, we’re old hands at D.C. sightseeing and I didn’t expect any big surprises, but happily, I was wrong.  By engaging the kids in the game, the hunt led us to galleries and museums they may otherwise have ignored and made them look a little harder at artwork that may have escaped their notice on any other day.

The downside was that as soon as they discovered the answer to the current question, the kids’ interest in lingering and checking out anything else waned.  (Adult participants may not experience this same drop-off effect, of course.  Stray Boots’ scavenger hunts are designed to entertain all ages, not just kids.  They even offer an adult-centric Perfect NYC Date game.)

After a stop for lunch, we voted whether to continue the game or return to the hotel to swim in the indoor pool (a critical test for four 10- to 12-year-olds) and they unanimously chose to finish the game, a stunning success for Stray Boots’ game design.  The pool could wait.

Stray Boots currently offers tours in New York, Washington, Boston, Seattle, Nashville, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Portland, San Diego, and London. Games cost $12 for each participating adult and $6 for children.

Ann Shields is a senior digital editor at Travel + Leisure.

Photo: A “fantasy coffin” from Ghana, depicting a Nokia cell phone, in the National Museum of African Art.