Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Book Chook Bag of Tricks

Updated January 2017 by Susan Stephenson,

Every teacher, parent or anyone who deals with kids has a bag of tricks. My bag of tricks is ever-expanding. It has grown over my years as a teacher, parent, aunt and friend. In it I put language games, reading, writing and thinking activities I think kids will enjoy, and even some tips for doing things the Book Chook way.

It's my pleasure to share my bag of tricks with you. I'll add to it as time permits. If you need an activity to encourage the development of a communication skill in children, or have a problem you think I might be able to help with, Contact Me.

Now let's take a look at some tricks.

The Word Game

My husband and I both love word games. When we’re travelling vast distances, we use these games to while away the time, and keep mentally alert. One of our favourites we call the word game. It is a little like Mastermind, but with no equipment.

One person, A, thinks of a five-letter word. A tells B the first letter of the word. B makes guesses at the word and finds out if letters are correct and in the correct place, correct but in the wrong place, or not correct at all. B gets five chances to guess the word.

Here’s an example:

A – My five letter word starts with D.

B – Is it drive?

A - It’s not drive. There are no correct letters.

B - Is it donut?

A – It’s not donut. The N is correct and in the right place. The U is correct but in the wrong place.

B – Is it dunny?

A – It’s not dunny. The U is correct and in the right place, the N is correct and in the right place.

B – Is it dunks?

A – Yes! That’s it. The word is dunks.

This game is much easier if you're not driving, and can use pencil and paper to keep a record. But doing it mentally is very good memory training! We tend to play for fun, but you can keep a running score if you want – the guesser gets 5 points for guessing the word first go, four for guessing on the second go, three for third, two for fourth, one for fifth, and none for missing the word in five guesses. Try four letter words with younger kids.

I hope you’ll give it a try.

Oh, What Nonsense!

Here are some activities I use to encourage kids to play with language, develop their literacy skills, and have fun. All can be used by a parent, or adapted for the classroom.

Talk nonsense: Develop a conversation without real words between you and your child or student. Using only the letters of the alphabet, act out a meeting and a chat between two people or more. If someone doesn't feel comfortable with this, they might enjoy using puppets instead.

Here’s an example:

Person 1: A B!

Person 2: XYZ!

Person 1: BCD?

Person 2: OK. BCD?

Person 1: (holding stomach and making a face) O…LMNOP. BGQ.

Person 2: O! NFG. BQDFL. OK. TTFN. (waves)

Person 1: (waves) TTFN.

A similar activity is to improvise a conversation between two people or more using gibberish. Both exercises help children focus on non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, intonation and tone of voice to communicate meaning.

Look out for examples of gibberish in songs for kids to enjoy, too. A couple of old ones that come to mind for me are My Friend the Witch Doctor, (Ting Tang, Wallah Wallah Bing Bang) and Mairzy Doats. Older children might enjoy reading poems by Lewis Carroll such as Jabberwocky, or The Mad Gardener’s Song. Younger ones can listen to the Muppets do Jabberwocky on Youtube. If kids enjoy nonsense, another poet they might like is Spike Milligan, whose poem On The Ning Nang Nong has been made into a song. These in turn might inspire them to use nonsense words to write their own poetry. And if it’s nonsense you’re after, don’t forget the brilliant Edward Lear.


Substitution is more a habit of thinking than a particular activity. With read-alouds, poems and songs, or in conversation, watch out for opportunities to make substitutions. This is a great creative thinking activity, encouraging kids to focus on the structures we use in language, and to generate new ideas. If you're looking for a way to make drills more fun with younger kids who need to learn sight words or spelling words for school, again try a puppet who seems to stumble, and substitute crazy guesses, and have your children correct it.

Here are some examples:

When you’re reading aloud, or telling stories, substitute other words for well-known phrases. What about Snow White and the Seven Dolphins, or The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Banana? This can develop into a running gag, especially with a much read book, where Dad substitutes words every now and then, and needs to be corrected by his kids! It’s also a great way to generate prompts for story telling or writing.

With a nursery rhyme like Hickery Dickery Dock, substitute different nonsense words that then generate a new rhyme:

Higgery Diggery Dig
My brother eats like a pig.


Have kids close their eyes, listen to you, and raise a hand as soon as they hear something out of place or changed.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great sneeze.

If you have any nonsensical ideas that contribute to kids’ literacy, I’d love you to share them in the comments.

Thinking Creatively

Before I became a full-time Book Chook, I used to teach Drama to kids outside school. I've always been fascinated by communication. Teaching drama to 7-15 year-olds showed me not only how inter-connected all the communication skills are, but also that effective learning best takes place when kids are engaged in a task.

I believed then, and believe now, that teaching children to think creatively is one of the most important gifts we can give them. Surrounding them with other people's creativity in the form of literature, art, media, theatre, and music helps to nurture the creative seed that lives within us all. By encouraging kids to be flexible, imaginative and original, to take risks, ask questions, and improvise, we are giving them a great preparation for whatever they choose to do with their lives. In Drama, my students had opportunities to develop skills needed by actors, window dressers, surgeons, - and parents!

You don't have to be a drama teacher to nurture creativity in kids. One of the best things you can do is use creative language when you're sharing a task, or playing together. An ideal time is after you've been reading aloud. Here are some sample questions you can adapt to help your kids think creatively:

After reading a picture book:

What are all the reasons the giant might have been sad at the start of the story?
What if the axe had been blunt? I wonder what might have happened then?
How could we change this book cover to make it more attractive?
What would you have done if you'd been the little dog?
Would there be any problems if we had wings?
When you're playing with building blocks...
What if we put this big one on top?
What could we use this for?
What would happen if we made this out of jelly?
Can we make an upside down one?
When you're waiting somewhere...
The answer is "red". What might the question be?
The answer is "sardine". What might the question be?
What are all the different ways we could get home fast?
What if the sky were pink?
What does "sad" sound like?

Butt In!

Butt In! is a creative story-telling activity for two, or a group. One person starts telling a story. Every so often, the other person (or go around the circle in a group) says a word that the storyteller must incorporate into the story. You can take turns, or have a time limit for youngsters who get really good at it.

Here's an example:

Trent: Once there was a pirate who was just about the meanest pirate who ever lived. He loved to sail the seven seas and...

Abby: banana

Trent: .and kidnap bananas so he could make them walk the ...

Marta: pyjamas

Trent: ...plank while he wore his pink pyjamas with yellow spots. One day...

Sam: savagely

Trent: ...the pirate saw a banana savagely beating up a purple hairbrush...

It certainly makes you think fast, and usually results in gales of laughter. Games like this are useful, too, when you're on a journey. You have the satisfaction of knowing you're banishing boredom, and encouraging creativity at the same time.

Parental Cheating 101

All parents are busy. I believe it's even harder on single parents because there's nobody else to share the parenting role with. I loved my son and genuinely wanted to be the best mother I could to him. Often, at the end of a long day coping with other peoples' kids, all I wanted was to collapse.

It was so tempting to dump him in front of TV, yet I didn't think that was in his best interests. He hadn't seen me all day and wanted interaction. How could I ensure the time after I collected Tim from the sitter was quality time, yet still meet my own needs?

I cheated. If Tim wanted me to play a game, I'd encourage one with a role I could adapt. I excelled at being a fantasy character stirring brew over the stove and muttering magical words. Being a Boss of some sort who gave orders and busied herself with tasks also tapped into my psyche. My favourite role was The Sick Mother who needed to lie down. Unfortunately my son became suspicious, and I had to use it sparingly.

If he wanted me to help him build with Lego, I'd start, then escape to preparing dinner for a while. I'd come back occasionally and add a brick here and there. I encouraged him to show me when he'd made something and praised his efforts. It mightn't have been as wonderful an interaction as those times when I was fully in the moment, but cheating got us by.

And after dinner, shower and homework, The Sick Mother always, ALWAYS made time for reading aloud.

Word Game, Hink Pink

Whenever an opportunity arises, share the joy and fun of language with your child. Point out puns, ask and answer riddles, share a new joke. Read them and write them, too. Games are a great way to do this. One my students loved is called Hink Pink. It can wile away the kilometres when you're on a on car trip, or make a great brain sparker in a lesson break. Pop one on a note into your child's lunchbox and drive them crazy for the rest of the afternoon.

One person thinks of two single syllable rhyming words, like fat cat. She works out a clue that should lead (eventually!) to the answer "fat cat". One clue could be "an obese mouse-catcher" or "a pet that eats too much" , depending on the age of the guesser. The guesser tries to work out what the two rhyming words are. The game can be extended to Hinky Pinky (two syllable rhyming words), like happy chappy - "joyful fellow". Or Hinketty Pinketty (three syllable rhyming words, much harder), like mellower bellower - "less angry bull". Mix and match with Hinky Pinketty or Hinketty Pink!

Here are some Hink Pinks you can use to get you and your child started.

Clues 1. seafood platter 2. huge oinker 3. head cover that's been squashed by a truck 4. warmed up join between two ropes 5. rained on puppy

Answers 1. fish dish 2. big pig 3. flat hat 4. hot knot 5. wet pet

If your child has trouble working out how many syllables are in a word, play a game where you tap the syllables on her arm as you slowly say the word: “butt(tap)-er (tap)-fly(tap)”. Or march and dance the words, making strong body movements for each syllable. There is nothing more joyous than the sight and sound of thirty youngsters marching about, chanting the syllables in given words!

Once older kids are used to the game, it can provide a lead in to crossword puzzles, and then cryptic crossword puzzles. All of these activities are great for developing thinking skills, as well as giving the whole family a way of celebrating the joy of language.

Word game, My Aunt Likes

Children must determine the rule, and give an example to prove they've worked out the rule. They do this by discovering connections between the three examples you give them.

For instance, I tell you my Aunt likes fire engines, but not police cars, blood but not tar, and chillies but not peas. We know she likes fire engines, blood and chillies. What factor do those three have in common? They are all red. So a child who worked out the connection would offer an example of his own to show his understanding, perhaps “My Aunt likes ketchup but not mustard.”

Here’s one I shared with a group of ten-year-olds. I told the group that my Aunt likes chairs, but she doesn’t like birds. She likes cats, but not snakes. She likes coffee tables but not books. Merri thought she knew and offered an example: “My Aunt likes cauliflowers but not broccoli.” (Merri thought my Aunt only liked words that start with letter ‘c’.) I disappointed Merri by telling her that my Aunt doesn’t like cauliflower or broccoli. Eventually Tom offered that "My Aunt likes lions but not parrots." He got it! He explained to the group that my Aunt only liked things with four legs.

Sometimes, the rule is about the actual words, their spelling perhaps or something else about them. And sometimes, the rule is about the "thing" or concept the word represents. Tree" is a one syllable word starting with "t", and ending with "ee", but it is also something that grows in forests and could be classified as "green" or "natural" or even "shady". This makes the game interesting.

Here are some to start you off:

1.My Aunt likes cabbages but not kings. She likes elephants but not giraffes. She likes Portugal but not Spain.

2. My Aunt likes trees but not chairs. She likes dandelions but not butter. She likes your teacher but not your desk.

3. My Aunt likes bats but not balls. She likes dads but not fathers. She likes scabs but not harbours.

4. My Aunt likes glue but not milk. She likes honey but not apples. She likes gum but not water.

5. My Aunt likes butter but not margarine. She likes mummies but not monsters. She likes platters but not plates.

Even quite young children can play this if you make the examples much easier than the ones I chose. You could try three things that were big, or green, or have wheels.

Guessing Games

Here's a list and description of some favourite Book Chook guessing games:

Guess how many: Fill a clear container with objects like jelly beans or LEGO blocks. Kids must guess how many there are, then count. Start with a few, and increase over time. Have kids do this often do develop spatial awareness.

Guess how much: This is great to incorporate into water play with kids. Have them guess how many small containers of water it will take to fill a larger one. They prove it by pouring. Or have kids guess the weight of objects and then weigh them. Or have kids raise their hands when they think ten seconds/1 minute/two minutes has gone by.

Guess my name: This is like the drama activity "Hot Seat". Have one person in the middle of a circle who thinks of a character from books, movies or TV. Others ask questions e.g. "Are you an animal?" which may only be answered with yes/no. Questions should help narrow the search down. Another version involves head bands (or sticky labels on the person's back) with famous characters written on them. As children mill around, they ask questions to try to determine the character's name.

A guessing bag: Like my story box post, only this time, kids need to guess what the object is inside a bag.

Guess what I'm thinking: Make it specific - guess what fairy tale character or spelling list word I'm thinking of. Kids ask questions to help narrow it down. Does the word have two syllables? Is the character poor? Option: Person who's "in" may only give yes/no answers.

Charades: This is a wonderful guessing game. Someone acts out/mimes a word and others guess that word. Words can be broken into syllables and then each syllable is acted out. Here are some online rules.

Guess the picture: In this simpler version of Pictionary, have kids draw something for a friend to guess. For a change, have kids "draw" letters of the alphabet with a finger on each others' backs.

Guess the taste: Have blindfolded kids guess what food they're tasting. (Be careful with allergies.)

Guess whose voice: Have kids close their eyes and teacher indicates one child who says a given phrase. Kids must determine who spoke.

Guess what's different: Have one child go outside and change something about their appearance. When the child returns, kids must guess what the change is.

Guess the animal: Give children a rhyming word and have them guess the animal. "I rhyme with log. I am a …"

Guess the number: Give kids clues about a number. "Some people think I'm unlucky." "I am more than eight but less than twenty." "I am made up of one ten and three ones." "I am a factor of 25."

Guess the questions: Give students an answer eg 6. Have them generate a list of questions that 6 might be the answer to: 8-2=? How many legs does an insect have? 2x3=?

You might also like to read 10 Fun Word Challenges for Kids, Secret Codes and Language Games for Kids, and Book Chook Favourites - Word Game Apps.


  1. andy fisher06 May, 2009

    Nice word games here thanks - things I had known and forgotten - I'm looking forward to using them as starters with my groups this week!

    Recent blog post: Standing on the shoulders of giants

  2. bookchook06 May, 2009

    Word games are my passion, Andy. I must post some more soon.

    Recent blog post: Review, Pearl Verses the World

  3. Hi Susan,
    I visit your site regularly. I feel honoured to have had you post a comment on my blog.

    I adore your bag of tricks. Some of them gave me a good giggle; I could imagine myself acting them out with the kiddies.

    I'm a Wildlife Education Officer at a zoo and just finished my teaching qualifications recently. I haven't yet decided if I will pursue a regular teaching career because I love the job I'm already in. If I do, I will be coming back to steal these little tricks of gold for my classroom!


  4. Thanks for commenting, Penny! I didn't know about the comment either as this is an older part of the blog so ID didn't send me an email. Looking forward to more wildlife wonders from you!

  5. Hi Susan. I have dropped by your blog a few times but was able to spend a little more time today. I love your bag of tricks. I am actually going to use your Butt in! exercise for my next writing workshop. Plus I will see if I can adapt it as part of my own brainstorming exercises for my own writing. Helen

  6. @Helen RossHelen, sorry it's taken me so long to reply. Just discovered your comment. Glad you can use some of the material in your writer workshop.

  7. I love BUTT IN! We play a story telling game where one starts the story and it goes around the group... this would add a whole new level! Thank you!

  8. @Jill @ A Mom With A Lesson Plan Yay! Story telling is a much underrated activity but I love it too, Jill. Glad you like Butt In!

  9. Hi Susan,
    I love your bag of tricks. I used Butt In the other day and it was so much fun and there was so much laughter. I also had to laugh when I read your Parental Cheating 101 because my eldest sister used to play 'sick sister' with me and I had to go and get her things while she rested on the couch!
    Thanks very much

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Amelia! Your sister sounds like my kind of gal!

  10. These ideas are fabulous. going to try them with my kids. Great for the future when I'm a teacher (and on prac). Thank you


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