Friday, October 24, 2014

Secret Codes and Language Games for Kids

Secret Codes and Language Games for Kids
by Susan Stephenson,

Do you have children or students who want to be cryptographers (i.e. those who study techniques for keeping messages secret)? Maybe you know youngsters who want to drive an elder sibling crazy by writing notes they can’t read, or have passers-by look askance as they communicate fluently (and loudly!) in Pig Latin. Whatever the motives, codes and cyphers or just speaking gobbledygook have been intriguing we humans for centuries, so why should kids miss out on the fun?

Written Codes

Probably the simplest written code for children to use is one where they substitute numbers 1-26 for the letters of the alphabet. A = 1, B = 2 etc. Once children can manage that, they can try starting with M = 1, N = 2 and so on. Friends can each have a copy of the code or perhaps a secret way of indicating which letter is 1.

The code my little brother and I confounded our (nonexistent) enemies with was one we called the box code. I’ve also seen it referred to as the TicTacToe code. Kids draw four grids. They add dots to the second and fourth grids, and set the alphabet letters into each grid slot. By recording the grid lines and dot (or no dot) near each letter, you get a representation for that letter. Here’s a diagram to help.

Here are directions for kids (and maybe a helpful adult) to make a card spy decoder at Frugal Fun for Boys.

Using small images or squiggles to stand for letters is one way kids can create their own code. Have them check out dingbat fonts or pictographs like Vincan symbols for inspiration. Install a dingbat font they can use, or have them create 26 tiny pictographs. Skitch has special characters under the Edit Menu. I downloaded Monsterz by Fonts of Chaos at DaFont to create the code below. In Word, students could make a table, and insert their chosen clipart or symbols for each letter of the alphabet.

Rebus is another way to write in code. With rebus, you need to use a combination of small images and letters to represent words or syllables of words. For example, if I wanted to write a sentence, “You are so wise.” I could write: U R (draw a small image of someone sewing) YY. Or “I see a donkey” becomes: (small image of human eye) C A don (small image of key). See image below.

You can find lots of rebus messages under these bottle caps. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has some trickier ones for kids to ponder. One other example is on Allen and Unwin’s website, supporting Ursula Dubosarsky’s The Cryptic Casebook of Carlo Carlomagno: The Perplexing Pineapple. This adds and subtracts letters from picture clues, perhaps making it easier for younger kids to grasp.

Don’t forget Morse code, a system where dots and dashes represented letters in Samuel Morse’s telegraph system. Kids can use a torch or flashlight to send a message with it, or use a sound maker like a flute or even try short taps and longer taps on wood. The Boy Scouts of America have a morse code machine kids can use. Here’s a great page (Flash) where morse code is linked to music.

Kids might like to make it doubly difficult for spies to decipher their words by writing them with invisible ink (lemon juice), or keeping the master code in a locked and cleverly hidden box.

Spoken Codes/Language Games


Gibberish isn’t a code at all. But it’s a great way for children to use all their skills to communicate without words. Basically, they must think quickly what they want to say and then “say” it in nonsense talk. So, one child might come up to another and offer to shake hands, saying briefly, “Ingaba”. The other repeats it, and shakes, fairly confident it’s some sort of greeting. Child 1 follows up with a question, “Zukela garba ding?” Child 2 answers with “Jenka willa ding dong” and holds his stomach as if ill. This makes a nice warm-up for learning the language-related games that follow.

Pig Latin

When I was young, many many moons ago, my friends and I became fluent in Pig Latin. We much preferred it to real Latin, and fondly imagined we drove passers-by crazy by so disguising our dialogue to each other. It’s pretty simple. Take the sound or sounds before the first vowel in a word and move them to the end of the word, adding an extra ‘-ay’. Dog becomes ‘ogday’, boy becomes ‘oybay’. If a word starts with a vowel, add ‘way’ to the end of the word. Apple becomes ‘appleway’, egg becomes ‘eggway’. Our teacher is great would become “Ourway eachertay isway eatgray.” (Spell check is fighting me on this!)

Pig Latin isn’t exactly speaking in code, but it’s close - a way of disguising your real speech so only those initiated to it can understand it. Kids do not need to know that sadly, most people DO understand it. I think it’s not only fun, but good brain training to have to visualise a word and change it before speaking.

Here’s an online Pig Latin translator that alters my rule above and adds ‘yay’ rather than ‘way’ when a word starts with a vowel. With this rule, “Bewilder your friends by speaking to them in Pig Latin” becomes “ewilderBay youryay iendsfray ybay eakingspay otay emthay inyay igPay atinLay.”

Ubbi Dubbi

Ubbi Dubbi is a fun language I found out about at PBS Kids. Similar to Pig Latin, in Ubbi Dubbi, you must say “Ub” before any vowel sound. Therefore, “Kids will have such fun with Ubbi Dubbi” becomes “Kubids wubill hubave subuch fubun wubith Ububbubi Dububbubi.” After children have had a try for themselves, introduce them to the cheat’s way - a PBS machine that will translate for them!

If the language games above are too easy for your kids, challenge them with Tutnese or Double Dutch. Here’s a wiki entry that explains the rules. Wish them luck!

Link codes with even more reading! Keep an eye open for children’s books with a code theme e.g. Ursula Dubosarsky’s book, The Perplexing Pineapple: The Cryptic Casebook of Coco Carlomagno (and Alberta) Bk 1, Sally Rippin’s Biliie B Brown Mystery, Code Breaker and Graeme Base's The Jewel Fish of Karnak.

Apart from being lots of fun, learning to think cryptically is great training for the brain. One way to introduce children to this kind of sideways thinking, is to teach them how to play games like Hink Pink and My Aunt Likes. You’ll find descriptions of how to play both in the Book Chook Bag of Tricks. Older kids might enjoy an encounter with a cryptic crossword, a wonderful puzzle for exercising the brain.

{In conjunction with this article, I’m offering a free PDF, Secret Codes for Kids, via my website with some code-related activities kids can try. Mostly you’ll find grids for kids to create their own written codes, all mentioned above, along with brief explanations. Click here if you’re a parent, teacher or librarian who would like to offer it to your kids.}

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Children’s Book Review and Activities, The Storm Whale

Children’s Book Review and Activities, The Storm Whale 
by Susan Stephenson,

The Storm Whale is a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Benji Davies, and published by Simon and Schuster, 2013. You might recall I promised a review of The Storm Whale earlier this month when I reviewed On Sudden Hill. I’ve also added some activities below that might help parents, teachers and librarians extend the literature experience for The Storm Whale.

From the publisher:

Noi and his father live in a house by the sea, his father works hard as a fisherman and Noi often has only their six cats for company. So when, one day, he finds a baby whale washed up on the beach after a storm, Noi is excited and takes it home to care for it. He tries to keep his new friend a secret, but but there's only so long you can keep a whale in the bath without your dad finding out. Noi is eventually persuaded that the whale has to go back to the sea where it belongs. For Noi, even though he can't keep it, the arrival of the whale changes his life for the better - the perfect gift from one friend to another.

This is a gentle story in a beautiful children’s picture book. I know I tend to only review children’s books I really like, or, more importantly, think that children will really like, but The Storm Whale is truly becoming a firm favourite. Each time I look at it, I find something new to value. I know librarians and teachers will appreciate what The Storm Whale offers as a resource to support studies of the environment and the family. Kids will adore the illustrations and the story.


The Storm Whale is a great vehicle for developing children’s visual literacy skills. The first sentence tells us, “Noi lived with his dad and six cats by the sea.” Can kids find the six cats? How has the artist made finding them a little difficult? Can they make a picture for a friend to find several items with some almost hidden in the same way? We rarely see Noi’s mouth. Where do we see it, and why does the artist show us Noi’s mouth on that page? We read that Noi tried to make the whale feel at home. What might we infer from the illustration that he did? The end papers are both double page spreads of whales in the ocean. Can children see a difference between the illustration at the front of the book and the one at the back? What may have motivated the artist to make that change?

Older children could discuss whether it was the right thing to return the whale to the ocean. Is it always easy to do the right thing? Have they ever done something difficult that they knew was right? How would they go about getting a whale from a bathtub in a house to the ocean? Can they write a detailed plan? Do they think Noi might be lonely in the future when his dad must work such long hours? What advice would children have for the dad?

Here's a Pinterest board with activities, crafts and other ideas based on The Storm Whale.

You can find more Children's Book Reviews on The Book Chook by clicking Reviews in the right sidebar.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Children’s iPad App, Miximal

Children’s iPad App, Miximal
by Susan Stephenson,

A while ago, I saw that Miximal, a variation of the flip-book game we used to play as kids, was free for a time. So I downloaded it to see if it was something I could recommend here at The Book Chook.

It is! While I advocate that young kids not spend too much screen-related time, Miximal is one of those apps that’s perfect for when your preschooler or Kinderkid wants a “turn” on the iPad. Basically, it’s a digital toy. The screen is divided into three and children can swap heads, upper bodies and lower bodies with a simple swipe. Each part comes with a little animation that’s fun to watch and hear. Once a child is happy with the visual combination, he can press play to see the resulting animal name in chunks. So, if he chose an elephant head, a chimpanzee upper body and a flamingo lower body, he would see and hear “e-pan-go”. Isn’t that a nice way to incorporate word play into the fun?

From the developers:
Kids! Mix animals, mix syllables.
Parents! Over 1000 unique combinations filled with handcrafted animations and sounds.

MIXIMAL is an entertaining game based on the traditional flip books we all know from our childhood. We have taken this old-fashioned model and generated sweet handcrafted animations and sounds to compliment it. Each animation is created frame by frame to give MIXIMAL a warm and organic aesthetic. The sounds are taken from analogue sources.

MIXIMAL is a tactile experience, as we think our kids should play with quality toys.
What I liked: I love to find apps that support early literacy. With so many garish apps out there, I find myself constantly drawn to apps that have beautiful, gentle art work, like Miximal. Our children deserve to interact with excellent graphic design. I also liked that the app is intuitive, works well and easily from the start, and has lots of combinations available.

Follow-up: Miximal would be a fun activity to follow up as a family or class group. Older siblings will enjoy designing head and body combinations, and younger siblings will enjoy mixing! Add an element of chance to the game by asking children to choose parts with their eyes closed! Another literacy-based idea is to have children experiment with breaking animal words into syllables - el-e-phant, ti-ger - and then create new animals from mixing syllables - eleger. Keep it simple for younger kids by only mixing heads and bodies, and dividing animals and animal words into two. Issue older primary/elementary children with a challenge: what would a Tyrannophantazee look like? What sort of habitat would you expect it to live in? What would it eat? Describe its predators.

Check out my other iPad App Reviews on Pinterest

Friday, October 17, 2014

Creating with Kids and Apps

Creating with Kids and Apps

by Susan Stephenson,

I love to find ways for children to think creatively and express themselves. If I can find an activity that combines technology with creating something, I’m also pleased. That’s because I believe not only in limiting screen time for children, but encouraging them to use screens creatively where possible. In today’s post, I’ve gathered together all the apps (iPad and one Mac app) that I’ve tried out and reviewed so far that have potential for children to create something. Whether the creation process involves digital art, writing, photography, presenting information, making digital stories, or making music, it offers children ways to express themselves and think creatively. I've also added articles I've written about creative apps. I plan to update this list every couple of months. 

NB: This is a Listly list, and that means you can interact with it should you want to, share it, and also embed it on your own blog. Be aware that once you get past 25 thumbnail images, you need to navigate to the next page of apps. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Children’s Book Review, Lucas and Jack

Children's Book Review by Susan Stephenson,

Children's Book Review

Lucas and Jack is a children’s picture book written by Ellie Royce, illustrated by Andrew McLean, and published by Working Title Press, 2014.

From the publisher:

Every week Lucas's mum visits Great Grandpop at the nursing home. And every week Lucas waits for her outside. Waiting is boring! Until Lucas meets Jack.

A book to bridge generations.

I always appreciate finding gentle, understated children’s picture books. Royce presents us with a young character, Lucas, who like most kids thinks he has nothing in common with the older folk he sees while visiting the nursing home with Mum. Through meeting Jack, Lucas slowly realises that people like his great-grandfather -  Jack who once farmed the land under the nursing home, Leo the ex-detective, and Evelyn the the ballerina who danced for the Queen - all have stories to tell. They like some of the things Jack likes too, and Jack slowly changes from a bored kid to a youngster keen to return to the nursing home next time. Royce uses lots of dialogue to advance the story, and her characters all have the ring of authenticity attributed to a true storyteller.

McLean’s illustrations are perfect for this story. His charcoal and watercolour sketches complement the gentleness of the tale, and his clever use of colour really enhances the vignettes of residents’ earlier lives. Working Title have added great value to Lucas and Jack with habitually excellent teacher notes from Janet McLean.

With Grandparents Day coming later this month on October 26, and lots of teachers, librarians and parents wanting a focus resource, Lucas and Jack would be an excellent picture book choice to share with kids. Students could share information about their own grandparents, perhaps interviewing them first to make sure the information is accurate! Grandparents and great-grandparents could be invited to the classroom to participate in a shared read-loud of Lucas and Jack, and to tell children a little about their lives now, and when they were young(er).

Find more Children's Book Reviews on The Book Chook by clicking Reviews in the right sidebar.
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