Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Spy School - STEAM Program

spy activities for kids, secret codes for kids, invisible ink for kids

Secret codes and hidden messages for kidsI was at a loss for a program idea when the deadline snuck up on me, so I took a colleague's suggestion to do a "Spy" theme as she had done it before at another branch and said it went over well. I decided to focus on cryptography, playing around with codes, invisible ink, and other ways of sending secret messages, plus a laser beam obstacle course just for fun. 

I got my ideas for hidden messages from WikiHow and ThoughtCo, and my codes from a book in our collection, Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janecszko (2004). If you're doing a similar program on cryptography, I highly recommend it.

Ages: 5-10 (5 was really just a little too young, those that didn't know how to read, or at least know the alphabet well, or do basic addition and subtraction got frustrated and bored during the code & cipher part, but the hidden messages worked well for all ages.)

Time: 1 hour and 10 minutes. To do everything I had planned would really require at least an hour and a half. So either allow more time, or do a little less.

Number: 15-20 kids is a good number, though it could work with a large group if all the kids were over 6.

Budget: Very low, most materials we had on hand, so roughly $10-15 for enough for at least 30 kids.


  • Paper
  • Ballpoint Pens
  • Pencils
  • Brad fasteners
  • White crayons
  • Washable markers or watercolor paints
  • Paint brushes
  • Baking Soda
  • Cranberry or Grape juice
  • Skim milk
  • Water
  • Q-tips
  • Dixie cups
  • 2 C measuring cup
  • measuring cup or spoon
  • red yarn or crepe streamer
  • masking tape
  • clothing iron
  • thick towel, preferable 100% cotton

We started off by talking about what spies need to know how to do, and right away someone said they needed to know how to be sneaky, they need to know how to blend in and not attract attention. Then someone said they needed to know how to crack codes, and we talked about how a big part of being a spy was getting information and relaying it back, and they had to find ways of hiding the messages, or encoding them. Someone mentioned using a language the other party wouldn't understand, which was a great segue to telling them about the Navajo code talkers, as well as codes, hidden messages, and invisible inks. One child mentioned dodging laser beams, which we were also going to be simulating. 

I had also pulled a number of books for them, a variety of non-fiction, historical fiction, and fun fiction that had to do with spies, cryptography, and espionage for them to look over and hopefully check out afterward.

Activity #1 - Simple Number Substitution Code

1. I gave them a piece of paper, and instructed them to write down the letters of the alphabet, then number them, starting with A=1, B=2, etc. I was a bit surprised that a few struggled with this, but it is early in the school year, so I guess the kindergardners hadn't all master it yet. I could have already printed it out for them to save time, but I wanted to include a little literacy and writing.

2. I then explained how you could use that to write things in code, by writing the corresponding numbers in place of the letters. For example, "CAT" would be "3 1 20" using that code. I said messages could be hidden in plain sight by disguising them as math homework, and gave them this list of simple addition and subtraction equations to solve, and then decode using the simple code they just created.

Secret message hidden as math homework

3. By solving the equations, and writing the letter that corresponded to the numeric answer for each one, they were able to discover this message "READ A GOOD BOOK".

Activity #2 - Pigpen Cipher

This one supposedly dates back to the crusades and was also used during the civil war. It is actually fairly simple, but it looks like alien writing. I showed them my name written with this code, and they couldn't believe it said anything!

1. I demonstrated how this code was formed, drawing the grids and filling them in, then showing how the portion of the grid around the letter is what is used to indicate the letter. Then I gave them a copy of the printed code charts, with a message to decode.

Pigpen cipher, Freemason cipher

2. Some were a bit confused at first, but once they got the hang of it, they quickly decoded it to reveal the message "I LOVE MY LIBRARY" (and no, I'm not above a little subliminal suggestion). I think they liked this code a lot because it looks so weird; I do, too.

Activities #3 & #4 - Take Home Activities

We didn't have time to do these in the program, unfortunately (I could've done the whole hour just on codes), so I sent them home with them. 

1. The first was a Greek Square coding activity, where the letters are arranged in a 5x5 chart ("I" and "J" share a spot). The letters are then indicated by a pair of number coordinates, the number of the row first, then the number of the column. So the letter "A" is indicate by the number 11 (1st row, 1st column), and the letter "Z" is indicated by the number 55 (5th row, 5th column).

Greek square cipher and message

When decoded, the message says "EAT YOUR VEGGIES"!

2. The second was a free printable decoder I found online from the blog "All For The Boys". You simply cut out the two circles, put the smaller one on top of the larger, and poke a brad fastener through the center to hold them together. You can then rotate the top disc to form a substitution code using the letters of the alphabet rather than numbers. For example, if you rotate it just one spot, then B stands for A, C stands for B, and so one, with ? standing for Z.

DIY decoder for kids to make

Activity #5 - White Crayon Hidden Message 

1. First I instructed them to write a simple message or image with white crayon.

2. Then they colored over it with a washable marker. Voila! The invisible message is revealed! It helps with the marker to go over it in two directions to get the best result (watercolor paint is another option).

hidden message
(The message is referring to the method used.)

We discussed how crayons are made of wax, which is hydrophobic and repels water, so the watercolor or water-based ink doesn't stick to it like it does to the paper, revealing the message.

Activity #6 - Impression 

If you've watched any cheesy detective/mystery shows on TV, you'll be familiar with this classic trick!

1. Put one piece of paper on top of the other (in TV it's always a notepad), then with heavy pressure, write a message or draw an image on the top piece of paper.

2. Set the written message aside, then take a pencil and lightly go over the blank paper underneath, like doing a rubbing, and eventually the original message will be revealed, if enough pressure was used. 

Activity #7 - Invisible Inks

There are many types of invisible inks, and they generally fall into 3 classes: those revealed by heat, those revealed by reacting with a second reagent, and those revealed by UV light. We did one of each of the first two types.

1. Make a concentrated baking soda suspension, 1 part soda to 2 parts warm water. It won't really dissolve, so you have to stir it well and keep it suspended as you use it. Using a q-tip or fine brush, use the baking soda solution to write a message or draw an image. Let dry.

2. Paint over the message with cranberry or grape juice, and the reaction of the baking soda with the with the acidic juice causes a color change, revealing the message.

Baking soda invisible ink

3. Next they used skim milk to write a message, and let dry. Once dry, an adult used a hot clothes iron on high (hair dryers, light bulbs, and hair straightening irons do NOT work) to go over the paper. The sugars and proteins in the milk will scorch before the paper does, revealing the message. (A sugar solution will also work, though the oft touted lemon juice doesn't work nearly as well).

milk as invisible ink

Activity #8 - Laser Maze!
What spy movie would be complete without a scene of someone trying to make their way through a labyrinth of laser beams without breaking one and setting of an alarm, or worse, a booby trap?

My wonderful coworker who suggested this theme graciously set up the laser maze for me and crawled through it to test it out. We used red yarn, but I've also seen crepe streamers used as well. The kids had a blast!

laser maze simulation for kids

How It Went
Other than planning too much and having some of the younger ones struggling a little, it went really well. I always under-estimate how long it will take the kids to do things, and it took way longer for some of them to write out the alphabet than I would ever have expected, and some needed more help and individual explanation catching on to the whole code thing.

Then on the other hand, there were a few older ones who zoomed though all the coding super-fast, so they started writing coded messages for each other to figure out while we waiting on the rest. It's hard to accommodate such a wide age range, from age 5 to 10, as the kindergartners are still working on their ABC's and counting, while 5th graders are reading novels and doing simple algebra! Though I think 3rd grade was the oldest I had today, and this program was perfect for them.

I'm glad I tested all the invisible inks I was considering in advance, become some didn't work at all as described, but the ones I chose to use worked very well for those that followed directions (some didn't keep their baking soda suspended). 

I was disappointed that only 1 person took one of the books to check out. At the previous location I worked, it seemed like people would checkout books related to the programs if we had them on display, but here for some reason they seldom do, even though this community in general have a much stronger reading culture.

Hidden messages and invisible ink for kids
   "Sneeky Spys"   "I Have A Evil Plan!!"    "Love" & "Cat"    

It was interesting to see what they put in their "secret" messages.

What I Would Do Differently
In an ideal world, I would lengthen the program and narrow the age range to ages 7-10, because kids really needed to have mastered their letters and numbers, and be able to read and do basic math to understand the coding. I think it would be neat to have a "training" session where they learn the codes and hidden message techniques, then have an activity that combines it all to solve or find something.

But, since that really isn't a possibility in my current library, I would have cut out more and sent more home. Even with sending home two activities, we were really rushed and didn't spend as much time on each as I'd like. I could honestly do an entire hour just on coding, or just on hidden messages. I wish now I had just gone ahead and printed the alphabet out for them, with corresponding numbers, as that took way too much time. I would also cut out the rubbing/impression hidden method, because while it works, there just wasn't time for that many, and they'll see it on television or in a movie eventually.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Fractured Fairy Tales - Family Storytime

Fractured Fairy Tales Storytime, Fractured Fairytales Storytime

I changed my mind several times about the theme for this storytime! First, the new Pete the Cat book gave me the idea to do a pizza storytime. But, as I was looking for ideas, I found out a colleague was already planning a pizza storytime. So then I decided to do "Big & Little", but not as an opposite concept, rather looking at relative sizes. For example, a 10 year old child may be big when compared to a baby, but they are little as compared to an NBA player.

But as I was reviewing books for a libguide I had to make for my kid lit class (I decided to do non-Disney princess stories), I came across two fractured fairy tales that just begged to be read out loud. As I was thinking, "boy I wish I could do these now," I realized that I could! So, I changed my theme to fractured fairy tales, and the plus side is I now have two partially-planned storytimes to save for later!

I started with our welcome song, and then another song I first saw on Jbrary and have been using a lot as a warm-up song lately:

 "Hello, Everybody"

Hello, everybody! Can you touch your nose?
Touch your nose, touch your nose?
Hello, everybody! Can you touch your nose?

Clap hands, pat head, rub tummy, wiggle ears.....

Then I introduced myself and the topic of fairy tales, and we talked a little bit about the typical characteristics of fairy tales: usually start with "Once upon a time...", often end with "...and they lived happily ever after.", frequently have dragons, princesses, princes, fairies, kings, queens, and magical beings in them. I told them the stories I had today were silly fairy tales, that might not end the way they expected.

Fractured fairy tale storytime
Somehow I managed to forget to do our "story song" before jumping into our first book, Falling for Rapunzel by Leah Wilcox and Lydia Monks. I like this book because there is not too much text and the humor is very obvious and silly, making it perfect for reading aloud to younger kids. I do wish the book were physically a little larger, though. 

This is a story of miscommunication and misunderstandings, with comical results as Prince Charming mistakenly interprets Rapunzels crying about a bad hair day as a plea for help, and then she mis-hears him every time he asks her to let down her hair, culminating in a surprise ending.

I segued into our next activity, a silly crown song, by asking how they knew a character was a prince or princess or king or queen in a picture, and of course they said because they would be wearing a crown. I've seen this song done with a variety of themes, and I'm not even sure anymore what the original version was! I changed up the order and the words to emphasize the silliness.

Crown craft

There's A Crown On Me!

There's a crown on my foot, on my foot.
There's a crown on my foot, on my foot.
It just won't stay put; does it really go on my foot?
There's a crown on my foot, on my foot.

There's a crown on my knee, on my knee.
There's a crown on my knee, on my knee.
Goodness, gracious me, does it belong on my knee?
There's a crown on my knee, on my knee.

There's a crown on my arm, on my arm.
There's a crown on my arm, on my arm.
It's not doing any harm, but does it go on my arm?
There's a crown on my arm, on my arm.

There's a crown on my head, on my head.
There's a crown on my head, on my head.
Did you hear what I said? I think it goes up here instead!
There's a crown on my head, on my head!

There's A Crown song props

I used a crown made from pipe cleaners that I had left from a drop-in craft program a colleague and I did back in December when we had the Maurice Sendak exhibit in our main library. I printed out clip-art images of crowns on cardstock and attached them to craft sticks for the kids to use.

Fracture fairytale storytimeThe second book, Waking Beauty, was also by Wilcox and Monks, and again involves some misunderstanding. The Prince follows a terrible sound to a thorn covered castle, where he find a beautiful princess snoring away. The three diverse fairies beg the prince to wake her, as they've had to listen to her snoring for one-hundred years! 

But, he doesn't listen as they try to tell him he has to kiss her, and interrupts with his own ideas. He tries yelling at her, pouring water on her, even shooting her out of a cannon! When he finally gives the fairies a chance to explain, he is reluctant to kiss her at first, after all, he's heard girls have germs! When he finally does, the results are very unexpected.

I had one other very short story ("The Frog Prince" from Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man) and a couple of other rhymes and songs (Dragon, Dragon, Turn Around and The Grand Old Duke of York), but I had already lost half the crowd, so I quickly went to our closing song and the optional craft.

Optional Craft 
I had initially planned to have them make pipe-cleaner crowns like mine above for the craft, but I realized (1) we didn't have any gold or silver pipe-cleaners, and (2) the age kids I typically get wouldn't be able to make them themselves, and the parents would just end up doing it.

So when I saw a fairy tale craft using construction paper in all different colors and shapes to make your own fairy tale castle collage, I decided to do that instead, thinking it would be more developmentally appropriate. They could identify shapes and colors as they worked, and practice fine-motor skills in picking up and placing the shapes using their pincer grasp as well as using crayons to add details or backgrounds, and most importantly the kids would be able to do it themselves.

How It Went 
It was really a mixed bag. The first half went really well, and the second half did not. I had a decent crowd of about 24 kids and adults to start with, and initially they seemed very interested and engaged. They participated with the opening songs, and giggled the whole way through Rapunzel. They also seemed to really enjoy the "Crown" song, laughing and enjoying telling me each time, "No, it goes on your head!".

But as I got ready to start the second book, at least half the crowd just got up and left. The kids didn't seen to enjoy the second book as much, and I had forgotten about the ending where Sleeping Beauty punches the prince for kissing her. I remembered just in time to skip it, but rather clumsily. Everyone left was ready to go at that point and only two families tried the craft, one of whom didn't bother taking theirs home. Then a co-worker told me people often ask the circ staff to throw them away as they are leaving!

So I ended up being rather disappointed and frustrated, and re-thinking the whole way I do this storytime, especially the craft. I need to do something different, but I'm just not sure what yet. Shorter storytime, different structure, shorter books, just one book, better crafts, no crafts??? 

I really don't think it's me, I mean I've done literally hundreds of storytimes, trained others, and I think I know I know what I'm doing. I really think it's just the nature of doing the weekend storytime versus a regular weekday storytime that has a regular crowd who come specifically for storytime. But something is not working and that means I need to change something I'm doing.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Beyond Disney Princesses

This fall I am taking a Children's Literature class, which is a bit anti-climactic after working in the field for almost 7 years, but I can't imagine being a children's librarian and NOT taking a kid lit class (I've also had YA and Multicultural Lit). I'm a little disappointed because the scope of the course is not what I expected nor think it should be (glossing over picture books and transitional readers, and way too much YA, especially considering we have a separate YA class), but I digress.

Our very first assignment was to create a LibGuide, which in my opinion is a bit overkill for public libraries and a simple annotated bibliographical brochure or online list is what patrons prefer. 
We had to pick a topic, genre, or subgenre and create a LibGuide using whatever platform we wanted. It had to have a landing page with intro and background, complete with references, 12+ fiction books, 3+ non-fiction (not sure why so few), 12+ websites, at least 2 apps and 1 online interactive or activity. 

Each one of these had to have a graphic, bibliographic info, summary, our review, and a quote from a professional review. Do you know how hard it is to find 12 websites about princesses for kids that are NOT Disney related?? And do you know how hard it is to find websites that have professional reviews? I literally spent hours and hours on this thing, especially on trying to find reviewed websites.

I went beyond the requirements because I figured if I was putting in that much work to do the thing, I might as well put a in little extra and have something that was more complete and could actually be useful. I decided to share it so maybe someone else could get some benefit out of it and it won't have been just an academic exercise. Below is a screenshot and link:

Beyond Disney Princesses

I chose this topic because I always draw a blank when kids come in asking for princess stories, other than the Disney princesses. Now, I don't have anything against the Disney princesses per se, but they are so commercialized, and I think it's good to balance them with princesses that look different and are more adventurous and empowered, and don't need a man to solve all their problems. 

I had no trouble finding books, and I'm sure there are many more than the ones I have included so far. Even though I more than met the class requirements, I still consider it a work in progress and will continue to add to it as time permits, so if you have suggestions, leave them in the comments section! I've included a sampling of contemporary picture books, a few transitional chapter books and graphic novels, fractured fairy tales, and non-fiction. There are also websites with other resources and lists, and suggested apps.

I also discuss classic fairy tales and the benefits of reading them, as well as touch on some of the concerns about a steady diet of Disney. I used Google Sites because I needed something quick and easy, though it does have a lot of limitations, and I didn't want to use the subscription site provided by the school because then I would lose access once the class was over.

If you find it helpful, let me know! I'd love to know the many hours of work that went into this weren't wasted ;)