Cryptograms, Ciphers, and Secret Codes for Kids

Secret codes make kids think like detectives. Add some cryptograms and ciphers to your mystery unit. (Or just do some for fun!) Your upper elementary students will love it.

Teaching Secret Codes

This year, our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, decided to go all-out with secret codes. After researching the historic background of cryptograms and ciphers, she was ready. As a part of her mystery unit, Ms. Sneed spent one period on each code.

Caesar Shift

As they began their first cryptography activity, Ms. Sneed displayed two alphabet diagrams. “Do these look familiar?” she asked. Many heads nodded.

“You can see that these codes substitute one letter of the alphabet for another. This one shifts each letter to the left, and the other shifts to the right.

“Did you know,” the teacher continued, “that the common substitution code was named after Julius Caesar? Over 2,000 years ago, this famous Roman general used this cipher to send messages to his army. Therefore, it is known as the Caesar Shift.”

Secret codes like Caesar's Shift are perfect for kids in third, fourth, and fifth grades.

Are you feeling “pinspired”? Feel free to pin images from this post.

As she spoke, Ms. Sneed distributed a secret code worksheet. “On this page, you’ll break a code using the Caesar Shift. Then you can write your own code and challenge a classmate to solve it.”

Diagrammatic Cipher

The following day, Ms. Sneed introduced the diagrammatic cipher. “This code originated with ancient Hebrew rabbis,” she began. “Although many people call it the pigpen or tic-tac-toe cipher, it’s also known as the Freemason’s cipher or Napoleon’s cipher. That lets you know that some famous individuals used it over the years. As a matter of fact, George Washington used it during the Revolutionary War.”

Diagram codes are often called pigpen ciphers. The symbols show the position of the letter inside the lines.

“Can we do another cipher today?” asked a child in the second row.

“But of course!” Again Ms. Sneed distributed a secret code worksheet. “Crack this code. Then you can write your own.” Everyone cheered.

Alberti Cipher Disk

The next day, Ms. Sneed tried something a little different. “Leon Battista Alberti described the cipher disk, also called formula, in his treatise De Cifris of 1467,” she told her class. “We will use paper plates to recreate his decoding ring.” She gave each child two paper plates and displayed the steps:

  1. Cut the inner disk from the center of a paper plate.
  2. Write the letters of the alphabet around a whole paper plate. Make sure they are equal distances apart.
  3. Place the inner disk on top of the whole plate. Randomly write letters of the alphabet on the inner ring. Make sure that each letter lines up with a letter on the whole plate.

Make the Alberti Cipher Disk in your classroom. Kids use two paper plates to make the rotating secret code wheel.

When the students had finished their decoders, Ms. Sneed asked them to write their own messages and write cryptograms. Once again, they asked classmates to solve them.

Cracking Secret Codes

Over the next week, Ms. Sneed’s class continued to create and share codes. One day, Ms. Sneed decided to shake it up. “This afternoon,” she said, “you will try to break an online code from Razzle Puzzles.”

She walked around the room while students worked on the cipher. After a while, she gave her students a few hints:

  • “E” is the most common letter used in text. It occurs about 13% of the time.
  • “T” is the next most common, and “a” is next.

As she spoke, she noticed that kids began counting letters and filling in more spaces.

Finally, someone yelled, “I got it!” They were hooked.

Ms. Sneed’s famous teacher smile spread across her face. Yep. Teaching at its best.

Enjoy Teaching

Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.


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