Teach Your Kids to (Secret) Code

Illustration by Derrick Schneider

Does every kid go through a secret codes phase? It sometimes seems like it.

When my daughter hit it, I was happy to dive deep into cryptology with her. I’m an enthusiastic puzzle-solver, particularly of word puzzles, and cryptograms frequently show up in the puzzle magazines I get. Plus, decoding secret messages forces you to think about the language and the nuances of letter patterns and how words fit together.

I didn’t realize this myself until I started showing her how I solve the sort of cryptograms you find in newspapers or games magazine. She thought, based on her reading, that you need frequency tables for everything, but I was able to show how just thinking about unusual letter patterns can often give you an in, and then how the language works helps you fill in the rest. I feel like this can’t help but strengthen her awareness of how words work.

If your child is going through their own secret code phase, here’s a quick rundown of resources we’ve looked at that seem good for kids. (If you’re an interested adult, I recommend Simon Singh’s very enjoyable The Code Book.)

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing: This was probably the best introduction for our daughter’s interest level. It covers a wide range of codes and ciphers and gives sample messages for you to try out. By the end of this book, my daughter and my father were exchanging notes in the Pigpen cipher you probably learned about in school.

Find Out About Secret Codes and Ciphers: If Top Secret was the kindling for the secret code flame, this book was the long-burning log that will sustain the fire for a long time. Don’t be deceived by its picture book format; the text in here is dense and comprehensive. By the end of this book, my daughter was enciphering messages with the Vigenère cipher, sharing Porta’s symbol cipher with her class, and understanding the allusions to various ciphers mentioned in books such as Book Scavenger (“she didn’t recognize a Pigpen cipher?!”).

Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing: This one hasn’t clicked with my daughter yet, but Martin Gardner is, of course, well known for his enthusiasm for math and puzzles and his ability to explain them and engage his audience.

Bubblesort’s “Secret Messages” zine: While this quick guide is a fun, quick, and light-hearted intro, it skews towards an older audience (unless you want to explain “hooking up” and “lovers” to your 7-year-old).

If your child is not just into sending secret messages but breaking ones other people have written, I recommend joining the American Cryptogram Association. This group of puzzle enthusiasts sends out a newsletter every two months filled with cryptograms that range from the “Aristocrat” style you see in newspapers to cryptograms in foreign languages to cryptograms in a wide range of esoteric enciphering schemes. The puzzles are aimed at adults (for instance, a recent issue used the word “gibbets” in a puzzle), so you’ll probably want to do them with your kids, but a dedicated group of volunteers in the org have a small number of monthly problems aimed at kids.

We’re also planning to print out the Kodewords Kards puzzle, where each card features some sort of code or cipher on the front and a piece of a large metapuzzle on the back.

Finally, if your kids like ciphers in their fiction, I recommend the Book Scavenger series. The series includes a lot of information about ciphers. And while I haven’t read it myself, my daughter enjoyed book one of the Code Busters Club series.

Good luck with your eager young spies!

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