If you feed them, they will come … Cake Pops!

There is a phrase that is bandied about quite often when discussing teen programming: “If you feed them, they will come.” It is on message boards and comment sections and Facebook posts. It is the first response to anyone posing the question: How do I get teens to come to programs?

I am not denying its positive response. Snacks do bring in a bodies for programs, but I also want to have snacks make sense and make sure that my teens are engaged in the program. Creative food programs for the win!

This year, I had a cake pops program lined up as a part of summer reading. It sort of came as a suggestion from my TAB group. I say sort of because I was actually out sick the day of the TAB meeting and my substitute *cough cough, Annamarie* wrote down the suggestion of a cake pop program. It turns out it was actually a suggestion for a K-pop program. And while I still haven’t tackled a K-pop program, cake pops were definitely a hit regardless of how it came to be.

The original concept I was going to try was a Nailed It/Failed It style, and in fact it was even named Cake Pops: Nailed It/Failed It in the library’s program guide. However, when looking at the amount of tools each teen would need to try and recreate sample cake pops, I decided to scrap that and just let my kiddos play with their food.

By dropping the Nailed It/Failed It aspect of the program I was able to focus using my budget solely on basic cake pop supplies, instead of including any piping tips or bags. Changing how my funds would be used also meant that the number of participants could increase as I could buy more delicious supplies.

Now it was time to figure out a list of everything that would be needed to create cake pops and not make a giant mess in the process. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Disposable table cloths
  • Paper plates
  • Disposable bowls
  • Plastic spoons
  • Mini cupcake wrappers (completely optional, and I probably wouldn’t use them in the future)
  • Baggies
  • Sucker sticks
  • Almond bark (or candy melts, or tempered chocolate)
  • Slow cooker(s)
  • Food coloring
  • Sprinkles, mini M&Ms, chocolate chips, etc.
  • Donut holes

I went back and forth on what to use as the actual cake for the program; letting the teens make real cake pops by smooshing cake into balls or with donut holes? Ultimately, due to limited access to a sink and a freezer and the time constraint of the program, I went with donut holes.

On the day of the program I set up tables with groups of 6 chairs, had supply stations at the front of the room, covered everything with tablecloths, and put mixtures of the decorating supplies out on each table. After a brief tutorial on how to make a cake pop (directions in notes field below), I released the teens to gather their melted almond bark, donut holes, and sticks before having fun creating deliciousness.

During all the fun it came up that I had never had a cake pop before, even though I had made them many times in my former career as a pastry chef. So of course it was a momentous event when I had my very first cake pop during the program.

Note: Cake Pop Construction

  1. Dip the cake pop stick into the melted almond bark, wait 5 seconds and then place the stick into the donut hole. Patience is key! If you rush the dry time on the almond bark glue your cake pop can come off the stick very easily.
  2. Once the donut hole has adhered to the stick, dip the pop into the almond bark and gently shake or twirl off excess. Once the almond bark begins hardening you can begin adding your decorations. This part can sometimes be tricky – if you go too fast some of your decorations can slide off, but if you go too slow they could need more glue to adhere.
  3. Enjoy all the cake-y goodness, but remember to snap some photos first!

Escape Room Tips

If your teens are anything like mine, every escape room you plan gets filled in minutes and it is a perennial request during JTAB (Junior Teen Advisory Board) and TAB (Teen Advisory Board) meetings. 

The problem is, escape rooms can be labor intensive to plan and are really only fun when it is a smaller group solving the puzzles. And while there are a lot of escape room plans and packages that you an buy, they aren’t always able to be adapted to your room space or your teen’s interests and can get really expensive. So, to help save monies and because my themes always seem to be weird I opt to plan my own running the same room multiple time in a week. 

Here are my top tips, tricks, and cheats for help with escape rooms:

Crowd source your themes

You do not need to be the one that comes up with the fun theme of the room. in fact, they are better when the idea comes directly from your teenagers. Do they like Stranger Things or Riverdale or Sherlock? Now, you not only have permission to binge watch all the TV (in the name of research of course), but also have a LOT of solid and identifiable resources for clue plants or Easter eggs.

Round out your story

Regardless of where you start in the escape room planning process remember that you need to have a set story line for it to make any sense. Why do you need to get out of the room? What happens at the end of the time limit? How did the group of people escaping all wind up here to begin with? These are all important parts to address before you begin to build the fun puzzle parts.

Map it out

The most exciting part of building an escape room is creating puzzles and clues, but before you start buying and building all the locks and ciphers that you’ve seen on Pinterest you need to map out what steps your players are going to need to accomplish in order to escape the room. I like to keep it as a simple flow chart with 3-5 steps.

Do this > then this > then this > then do this thing > and now you escape!

This same step should be used when you decide what puzzles you are creating to make sure that they flow into each other well. Unless your goal is see how fast people rage quit your escape room, you want your puzzles to make sense with the story and how they should be progressing in the escape of the room.

Invest in your stuff

Do you see yourself running more than one escape room at your library? If you do put the time in to buy some items that can be reused. Buy some locks that let you reset the combination or pattern, get some that have keys and ask around for a whole bunch of random keys as well (co-workers are great for keys of no known origin or use). See a cheapo toolbox that has a latch? Nab it! Quality pieces that can take a lot of wear and tear or a little bit of a beating are your best friend for clues and puzzles.

Speaking of puzzles…

Everyone has a few that are beat up and can’t circulate anymore or maybe are missing a piece or two. Recycle that puzzle! Cover the top with a new picture or clue that can only be solved when put together. Put a whole bunch of numbers on the puzzle backboard and when the pieces you have are placed the missing pieces highlight certain numbers needed for a code.

Be vaguely specific

Keep in mind that most escape rooms run for an hour. That means that they need to feasibly be solved within that hour, so the more obscure your puzzles are the harder they become to solve and more time is taken off of that countdown. Puns, double meaning words, or even a bad descriptions of how to accomplish the puzzle are great ways to be vaguely specific. And remember to practice and time completions for puzzles and clues before you open it up to the public whenever possible. The number of problems to solve and how they link together is just as important as how difficult they are.

Get crafty and make your own props

Some clues you just need to create yourself. If you are like me and those weird themes just keep getting inspired by your teens or popping into your sleep deprived brain there are not going to be easy to change up clues that others have already created and given up to the library collective or Pinterest. But even if you aren’t a crafty person by nature there are a few websites that I love that help you in creating the props that you need.

  • Festisite – update a template or create your own IDs, money, credit cards, or concert tickets. You can even edit company logos to become clues or better fit your themes
  • Fantasy Map Generator – randomly created maps for your fantasy and sci-fi needs. Easily customize your map
  • Newspaper Clippings – create a quick newspaper article and have it actually look like a newspaper
  • Receipts – spend some of that money you made on Festisite and buy some cool items…or at least create a basic receipt for that hoverboard
  • Phone Conversations – create a fake text conversation and attach it to a toy phone from Dollar Tree. Fastest prop ever!
  • Blueprint Creator – there are tons of opensource materials for building floor plans for rooms and buildings, but I really like the simple click and add function that this one allows.

Mix up the challenges

Not everything needs to be a thinking puzzle. The fun of escape rooms is the overall experience so throw in some physical challenges with your puzzles. Things that the players will need to DO to solve the problem. Getting through a maze, moving an obstacle in their path, and retrieving items from other areas of the room are easy ways to incorporate a physical challenge in your escape room.

Note: My current work in progress escape room is Schrodinger’s Nyan Cat. Nyan Cat has been captured and placed in Schrodinger’s Box and only by solving puzzles and challenges can Nyan Cat be freed before the universe implodes in Pop-tart rainbow-ness. I have 2 days of escape room fun using this as my theme and slowly driving my kids nuts by playing the Nyan Cat song on a loop for the hour that they are finding their locks, combinations, and clues. Oh yes, there will be pictures.