Release the Sweets! Or how I was converted to the idea of escape room activities for library inductions and beyond

pencil case with three digit combination padlock

Confession and conversion

Confession time.  I thought that there would be no way that any fancy new fangled escape room idea would work for my inductions.  I’ve done an Escape Room, it took an hour.  And that was with loads of hints from the bored 20-something who spent a large part of that hour on his phone dejectedly arranging a night out.  I don’t have the time or energy to create anything that elaborate and how could any of that count-the-pirate-ship shenanigans translate to six back to back 15-minute slots on a cohort’s first day on campus?  I could go on, you know that I could go on.

What changed my mind is taking part in a locked box activity.  In this activity we were set some library based puzzles. The answers to the puzzles were digits that could be used to unlock a combination of a lock that secured a chain around a biscuit tin.  In the biscuit tin was a chocolatey prize – many a library workers prime incentive for any activity.

It was fun.  I learnt some things.  This could totally work.


The power of showing and not telling!  Or maybe to be more precise, for me, the power of showing and doing and not telling.  Once I’d had a go at working in a group to solve a 20 minute puzzle I could immediately see how this would translate into an induction setting.  Not the massive one shot lecture theatre inductions but definitely the smaller postgraduate and partner college inductions.

Plans were hatched.  Amazon was trawled for suitable locks*.

*other massive online retailers are available

letter combination padlock

My setting

In my postgraduate and partner college inductions the students are divided into groups of between 8 and 25 and they have a timetable of events spread out over a day.  The Library has a ’20 minute’ slot within this timetable and, as is the way of these things, it’s best if this slot can be fluid.  It’s not unusual for one set of students to arrive 10 minutes late followed swiftly by the next group that’s conveniently running 5 minutes early…  It’s helpful for everyone if you are a relaxed library person able to adapt your session to the time that you have rather than the time that, in an ideal world, you would like.  Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to design something:

  • relevant
  • useful
  • interesting
  • that has multiple stepping off points

I aim for 10 minutes of content that can comfortably be expanded to 15.  There are emergency back-up extension activities should I unexpectedly have to fill 20 minutes.

Locked box plans

I began to think about Russian dolls.

Russian nesting dolls with cat decoration

{Yes those are cats.  Best not to ask.  Certainly best not to dwell on the state of the woodwork on the blanket box in the background. I mean, now that I’ve mentioned it, obviously I can’t see anything else.  Hopefully you’re getting the metaphor rather than despairing at the state of my furniture.}

The other thing that came to mind was pass the parcel.  Layers of activity that could be uncovered with rewards at each point.  We’ll have to save the conversation about the point at which pass the parcel evolved to have a prize under each sheet of wrapping for another time.

Suffice to say, I felt that my guinea pigs, audience, students would need to know that within the session there would be some interconnected tasks.  Coupled with this, there would need to be a hierarchy of information that I wanted the students to know.  What was essential, what was bonus material?  I didn’t aim too high.  We all feel/know/could point to evidence that suggests that students retain very little of what we bombard them with in the first few days anyway.

I based my activity around these pieces of information:

  • number of libraries
  • how many items they can borrow
  • the classmarks of subjects relevant to them
  • room numbers
  • numbers of rooms

You might be surprised by the classmarks? I had no expectation that they would recall the classmarks, but I hoped that they would remember that they were a thing that was relevant and useful.

What I actually did

I devised a two stage activity.

Stage One – answer the questions to find a combination to break into a padlocked pencil case.pencil case with three digit combination padlock

Stage Two – use the material locked in the pencil case to answer some more questions.  The answers to these questions would be a combination that would open a padlocked suitcase.  In the suitcase were some books and the all important prizes.

4 digit combination lock on small cabin bag
combination to crack


I didn’t feel the need or have the time or imagination to build a complex narrative for the session.  It needed only a few words of introduction:

“The aim of the exercise is to release the books* locked in the suitcases.  The information that you need to break into the suitcases is locked inside the pencil cases.  The information that you need to break into the pencil cases is on the table.

Pencil cases first, suitcases second.  Go!”                                       

*and sweets and pens

Given the size of the groups I divided the activities into groups using images stuck to both the pencil cases and the suitcases.  There were four pencil cases, all with different combinations.  There were only two suitcases, so each of the four pencil cases had clues for only one of the two suitcases.  Only the fastest groups got the break into the suitcases.


pencil drawn picture of pencil cases and suitcases
You probably don’t want me in your team for competitive Pictionary

In the photos above you might have spotted images of an owl, a clock and some books?  These were how I identified which clues matched which object.  So, for example, you might be in the clock group with the clock clues which enable you to break into the pencil case labelled with the clock, and from there to the suitcase labelled with the clock.  It would be so much easier if you could have a go yourselves.  If you’ve got this far without giving up, thank you.  Here are some tips that I think might be of use if you want to have a go yourself:

Learn from my mistakes

  • Test.  Test.  Test.  Use colleagues, friends, neighbours, family.  Testers will help you to get your questions clear and unambiguous.  They’ll also spot when you have set your combinations incorrectly.
  • Label everything that moves.  Label the locks, the pencil cases and the suitcases.  As things get competitive, things quickly get separated and discarded.  Labelling things enables you to reset the stage and match the correct lock with the correct object quickly.
  • The students on my first day found questions relating to ‘how many rooms’  alongside questions about the number of a room e.g. H123 confusing.  For the second run I changed this question to one based around phone numbers.
  • Don’t hand your locked things to the groups.  Have them placed on a table near to you and have them approach when they think that they have the combination.  Why?  Well, let’s just say students on the Cyber Security Masters had cracked the three digit combination before I’d even finished my introduction and engineers won’t hesitate to use destructive methods if it means beating their mates to the sweets.
  • Think carefully before ordering a letter combination lock. The one that I bought doesn’t have all of the letters of the alphabet and that will impact on the answers (and so the questions) that you can set.


I was surprised by

  • How interested the students were in the books that I had locked into the suitcases.  At the last minute I decided to put relevant reading list titles into the suitcases – rather than say, withdrawn sale books.  More than one group of students spent some time leafing through the books once they had been released, and more than one group asked if they could keep the books.
  • The time it took to re-set the stage between groups.  You’ll need a good 5 minutes and if possible a buddy.
  • How competitive it can get.  Be prepared for lively engagement!


Would I do it again?

Yes!  I would.  I did.  I have.  I’ve used ‘Release the Sweets’ locked pencil cases activities in a handful of training sessions since the rush of inductions at the beginning of semester.


I’ve even had a go at using the to-me-seemingly-random set of letters on the letter combination lock.  After some initial bafflement I decided to set a question around missing letters in the names of key databases.  Took them about 2 minutes to solve including the time it took them to get out of their seats to get to the pencil cases.  But!  They were chatting to each other.  And chatting to me.  Mostly about library stuff, and that felt positive.

Call me fully converted.




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