The Spy Cake

What: “a chocolate mint cake, with white icing with red and black on it and spy butterflies”, for Kid 7’s spy themed birthday party. It was the final prize in their secret agents mission.

I have a ways to go before I manage to make cakes that reliably don’t crack.

We went through quite a few variations of what it would be, actually. The original plan was to have one of those printed-icing things with the cover of one of the EJ Spy School books. But I forgot I needed to organise that well ahead of time! So this was our fallback. I think Kid 7 had intended it to be a layer cake with a chocolate layer and a mint layer, but when I found this out less than 24 hours before the party I really didn’t have the mental beans to do that. So it was all one chocolate cake with spearmint and peppermint oils added. We had to work out what “spy butterflies” meant in Kid 7’s head but eventually realised that they are little drone cameras, and mentioned in one of the EJ Spy School books. So the butterflies were done with a push-cutter thingy and pre-bought black fondant. They were supposed to have red eyes but I didn’t find red cabochons so silver it was.

Close-up on the butterflies and that drippy glaze icing. The pattern’s part of the butterfly presser. Getting the cabochons to stay on was a challenge.

Icing was a bit tricky – most types of icing have been rejected by Kid 7 as being “yucky” – including cream cheese icing, chocolate-sour-cream icing, standard buttercream, fondant and just plain whipped cream. However, Kid 7 was able to specify that they wanted “the kind of icing you make just by mixing the sugar with some water”, so an icing sugar glaze it was.

Review: The Unbreakable Code

The Unbreakable Code, written by Sara Hoagland Hunter and illustrated by Julia Miner.


About:In World War II, the Americans needed a code that couldn’t be broken by the Japanese – and they recruited a group of Navaho to develop one. This book tells the story of the Navajo code talkers, put together out of interviews with many of the surviving code talkers, and framed in fiction as a grandfather telling his grandson not to be afraid to move to a new home. It’s an important part of American and WWII history, a discussion of how codes, languages and alphabets intertwine, and a clear portrait of what advantages cultural differences can bring to a multicultural society. It also tells clearly and effectively of the sadnesses of war, the punishments applied to Native Americans who tried to hold onto their culture and some of the barriers they faced to acceptance. The reading level is quite high and the themes quite strong, so I’d put this book at at age level of say 5-10 years old, despite it being a picture book with stunning illustrations.

“The code had to be simple and fast. We would have only one chance to send each message. After that, the Japanese would be tracing our location to bomb us or trying to record the code.”

Good things:

  • Positive indigenous contribution to society
  • Central characters are Native American
  • War descriptions effective but without undue emphasis on the terrible
  • Places the code talkers in cultural and historical context
  • Talks about language and codes and how the code was developed
  • Promotes the use and value of indigenous language
  • Includes the basic code used by the code talkers
  • Beautiful oil painting illustrations

Book safe for Super Spies

What: A book safe, used as part of the secret agent mission for Kid 7’s birthday.

How: I found a book with very specific qualities. It had to be hardback, quite thick, quite large, and something we never wanted to read again and didn’t care if it was cut up. The last bit was the hardest. Though after I showed my husband the final product, he said “Hey, you should have asked me” and handed me a book he’d won as a quiz night prize that would also have been perfect. I’ve kept that one in case the kids want to make one of their own – because I made this one in secret, as part of the party preparations.

It took ages to make that hole. I was disappointed at how small it turned out to be when I put the magnifying glasses in it.

The basic method is that you leave a block of pages untouched at the front to make the book appear normal. Then you use a Stanley trimmer or similar cutting knife to cut your hole, working your way down through the layers of pages until you have a hole of sufficient size. Once you have your hole, smear glue carefully around the outside of the book over all the pages that are part of the hole but not the “lid” pages. I didn’t think that would be enough, but once the glue dried the safe part held together quite well and you can still flick the first few chapters normally.

I kept the bits I cut out to make the clue for this activity. Several of the bits I’d cut out were chapter titles with numbers on them – “One”, “Eight”, “Eleven” etc. I used as many of those as I could find and wrote one letter on them each that would make a message when the pieces were laid out in number order. The messages were “In A Book” and the author’s surname (visible in Really Big Letters on the book’s spine).

When party time came, the kids earnt the envelopes with the clue messages by completing the disguise relay. Then they had to work out what the message was.  I had to help a little here as not all kids were solid readers. I also had to somewhat lay out the things that were obvious – such as these were pieces of a book, they should look where books are, maybe start with the books that are full of words like these pieces rather than the books that are mostly pictures, is there a book with “Douglass” on it? I was trying to get them to do as much of that process themselves as they could, but books that are full of nothing but words are a little new to this age group (as is that kind of logical processing of the obvious, though kids 9 and 11 were making the leaps themselves).

Eventually they saw the book they were looking for. Then I made them stop, think, work out if there was a way to get the book down safely without climbing up the bookshelves to grab it immediately (excitement is such a rush). They had to flop around dramatically because thinking was so hard and they couldn’t work out what to do, but eventually they realised that they were flopping on a handily-placed stepladder and used it. When they got the book down, they discovered that it was a book safe. Inside the book safe they found magnifying glasses (cheapies from an online party store), and a new clue page. I couldn’t fit quite enough magnifying glasses into the book, so I was standing ready with a bag to hand out the extras or make sure people got the colour they wanted if that was an issue (it mostly wasn’t, but I couldn’t be sure beforehand).

Code wheels for Super Spies

What: Code wheels made as part of the Secret Agent mission for Kid 7’s birthday.

Codebreakers at work making their equipment. One day I’ll tell them about Bletchley Park.

How: The kids found a briefcase that contained code wheel sheets, split pins, scissors (they got to keep a pair each, I’d ordered a bulk pack from an education supplies online store), and a new code message written in rotary cipher (moved on 7 places for a 7th birthday). I got the code wheel sheets as a download from The Science Museum in the UK and printed them myself. They’re the kind that have two wheels that you have to cut out and attach together, so I needed to print them on something sturdier than normal printer paper but that would still go through our printer. That was tricker than I expected – I used to use 110gsm paper for that sort of thing but the local office supplies store only had 80gsm or 210gsm (which won’t feed through a printer). Eventually I found some fancy stuff used for printing wedding invites etc, and that mostly worked OK but was not as cheap as I’d thought it would be.

So then the kids happily went and sat in the loungeroom and cut out and assembled the code wheels. I thought that might be slower and more confusing, but they all did it quite easily. Kid 5’s age group might have been more erratic with the scissor precision, but the 6-7 year olds were perfectly fine and didn’t need explanation on how to make the wheels at all, just intuited it.

We ran into a problem though using the code wheels to translate the message. Remembering which wheel was code and which was decode was very tricky for the kids (though pretty straightforward for kid 9 and kid 11). I’d also gone seven places back instead of forwards. And the code wheel itself had lots of extra characters so wasn’t just a straight alphabetic rotation. Which would have been fine if I’d used the same code wheel to make the message. But I hadn’t – there are lots of online scripts to encode messages and I’d used one to write my rot-7 message so that I wouldn’t make any mistakes. The result was that the message didn’t actually translate. I had to redo it on the fly using a spare code wheel, and I did make at least one mistake. But eventually the group of us all worked out that the message said “Towel Up!”, and ran for the bathroom.

Spy gear gained and used in this exercise: scissors and codewheel.

Rear view glasses for Super Spies

What: rear view glasses, found as part of the Mission during Kid 7’s spy-themed birthday party. And a message in mirror writing, to solve using the glasses.

The pre-prepared glasses that Daddy and I stuck together.

How: I looked for rear view glasses online but couldn’t find any cheap enough to order in party quantities. Kid 6 had a pair from a school book club set, and I’d made some once as a kids activity at a science museum. So I knew the rough idea. I ended up ordering a bunch of kid-sized sunglasses from an online party goods store, and a bunch of small craft mirrors from a big box craft store, and assembling them myself. I did consider getting the kids to do it, but thought it might be a bit slow/tricky for a group of six and seven year olds to manage themselves. Maybe nine to eleven year olds would have been fine with it. The problem with self-assembly is that the bits don’t quite match up in size and shape – the glasses have too much curve in them (you want them to be quite flat rather than following the line of a face), the mirrors are too big to fit inside the frame and at the same time too small to see effectively in – that sort of thing. I tried superglue but couldn’t get the mirrors to stick well enough to the frames, so ended up using double-sided sticky tape. Which was mostly a temporary solution, but held together well enough to get through the party.

The kids found the glasses all ready for them in a box in the bathroom, and gleefully put them on. I’ve found with these that they are really tricky to use the first time, and then the second time it’s a lot easier. It takes a little practice working out how to focus on the mirror and make sense of what you’re seeing, and then how to turn your head so you can choose what to look at. The kids had fun trying them out. Some got it, some didn’t, but the idea was Super Cool (and it was sunglasses which are automatically cool) so that was all right then.

Where do you write a message in mirror writing? On the mirror, of course.

Also in the bathroom, on the mirror, was this big message, in code. Well, in mirror writing. Which doesn’t seem like a tricky code, but given that several of the kids are still working through the first hundred sight words list and can’t immediately recognise words when they see them, and some are not reliable at identifying mirrored and flipped letters like b/d/p/q, mirror writing *was* tricky. I made it a little trickier by breaking up the words and using multiple colours so that even the kids who would normally recognise the words on sight didn’t just immediately know what the message was, and that seemed to even up the speed a bit or at least slow down the faster ones. Trying to read the message with the glasses was a bit tricky for the kids, but being in the bathroom there was another option. Several of the cabinets had mirrored doors, and there’s a mirror on the bathroom door, and if you move the various mirrors around you could get it so the letters were all the right way without having to use the glasses. The message was written with some pens I found that are specifically for use on mirrors, glass and bathtubs and the like. They go on like oil pastels and wash off easily.

The Spy Party

This week my posts are all about the spy-themed birthday party we did for Kid 7. Today’s post is the overview, then I’ll have a couple of posts on some specific activities, and then the all-important cake post.

Kid 7 has been certain they wanted a spy-themed party for several months. Turns out spy stuff is Not In Fashion at the moment, so I ended up having to source a lot of things randomly. The party also coincided with my not working for six weeks, which was great for having time to do it and crap for having the money to pay for it. I still probably spent a bit – some things I planned for and bought well ahead of time, and some I could have saved more on if I’d planned them well ahead of time too! The other thing that we HAD to have at the party was a treasure hunt. So – the party ended up being a Super Spy Mission for all our budding secret agents. I have this thing about party bags – I hate them. I’ve managed to mostly avoid having them until now, despite there being a strong cultural expectation around them. But this year they were necessary. So I made them an integral part of the mission, and the kids earnt and then used Every Darn Thing that went in their bag. Including the bag itself.

The disguise relay that kicked off the active part of the mission.

Here’s how the mission went down:

  1. The kids needed a Secret Bag. So they were given little baby singlets with the bottoms pre-cut, that they had to tie knots in to make the bags. The kid 5-to-7s did struggle a little with this – many of them haven’t had much practice with knots, and even with the singlets being small there’s still a lot of knots to tie. Thankfully I had a kid 11 and kid 9 who were pretty on top of it and helped a lot. In hindsight another bag method would have been more practical. But this was knots and “things that don’t look like bags”.
  2. The Disguise Relay. I assembled three piles of clothing – each with an adult button-up-shirt, a pair of pants, a tie, a hat and a pair of shoes. The kids got in teams, split in two for the relay back and forth. The first kid has to get dressed in the clothes, then run to where the other half of their team is, take the clothes off and the next person has to get dressed and run back. This was totally hilarious. I encouraged teams to help their team-mates with the dressing and undressing, and the team that did this best (turning clothes right side out, untangling pants etc) ended up winning. If you try this, I recommend using adult shorts rather than adult pants, as we had some issues with the pant legs just being too long for safe running with kids of this height. Also funny to see how many kids would put on the shoes first and then try and get the pants on. The winning team got an envelope of clue papers, and the team that came second got another envelope of clue papers.
  3. The envelope messages, when solved, led them to a book-safe with magnifying glasses for everyone (cheapies from an online party store), and a clue page. The clue page was written in “First Letter Of The Word” code. A random piece of weird text, but if you take the first letter of each word it makes a message. Most of the kids didn’t have the reading skills to be able to do that in their heads, so I gave them highlighters so that they could mark off the first letter and then try and read it. That meant about half of them could get it. This clue led them to…
  4. a briefcase in the dining room. Which was locked. I pointed out that they’d need two three-digit numbers to open the briefcase, and asked them if they still had the previous code sheet. Someone found it, and eventually they worked out that written very very small in the corners were some numbers. So they read the numbers with their magnifying glasses and opened the briefcase.
  5. Inside the briefcase was everything they needed to make rotary code wheels. They sat down peacefully together and made them, and after a few hiccups the group of us all worked out that the message said “Towel Up!” and ran for the bathroom.
  6. In the bathroom they found a box of rear view glasses, and a message in mirror writing (actually on the mirror!) that they had to read with the glasses. That sent them to…
  7. the barbeque outside, where they found a bag of little carabiner-keychain compasses, and a message in chalk: 12mE, 5mN. Some of them knew enough about abbreviations to work out what this meant, and as a group they managed to get the ideas of metres, east and North. They then tried implementing it as a group, which meant kids wandering across a wide range of positions. I encouraged the ones that were closest so that they mostly got into the right spot, next to…
  8. the clothes dryer. Where I’d hidden the birthday cake. The original plan had been to have the cake fully visible inside the dryer (unplugged to avoid accidents!), but the cake tray didn’t fit so it was hidden under a box on top of the dryer instead. Kid 9 was definitely better at looking for possibilities like that than the Kid 6s.

Overall, I think the mission worked. It was a bit of a juggle to guess how hard to make it, and this was definitely too hard for a couple of the kids (particularly the ones who are very behind in their reading ability) but it was about right for the birthday child and almost trivial for the Kid 9 and Kid 11, so I’m going to call it well-enough-aimed.

Total loot for each kid: spy bag with code wheel, scissors, compass, magnifying glass and rear-view glasses.

Winter leaves

What: Painted fallen leaves, arranged on the wall.

The veining and shape of the leaves suggested spots to do different colours.

How: We collected fallen leaves from one of the local plane trees, choosing a range of sizes but mostly “the big ones”. Then I gave Kid 4 and Kid 2 each a paintbrush and a plastic takeaway container lid with some dobs of acrylic paint on it, and let them go for it. They mixed some colours on the tray, and others directly onto the leaf. I painted a few as well to get a bit of variety in colour and style. Once they were dry, we arranged them on the wall as if the wind was blowing them along. Kid 4 helped me with the sticking and enjoyed getting up on the stepladder to do it. So there were two activities here.

Note to people in other climates: here, leaves fall in winter – if they fall at all in this evergreen land. It just doesn’t get cold enough before then. So this for us is very much a winter activity. We also don’t get much of what people talk of as autumn colours – again, because even in winter it’s not cold enough to trigger the colour change in most of those trees that are famous for it. So painted leaves can be as close as we get, even if the colours are unusually fantastic.

The drift of painted leaves lowing along the wall. I think we stuck them on with bluetack. I wasn’t too fussed about what it would do to the wallpaper underneath.

Extras: Talking about the seasons with the kids is something I have to do every autumn and winter – they are barraged with the cultural ideas of “fall” and “autumn leaves” and it’s not always obvious to them that the autumn they experience isn’t like that at all. Though as they get older they’re noticing it more. Our autumns – and indeed, much of our winters – means bright, bright flowers against brilliant hotly blue skies. Bougainvillea, trumpet vine, poinsettia, plumbago, umbrella tree – oranges, reds, corals, pinks, scarlets, light blues, purples all so vibrant. Autumn is also the time when the eucalyptus trees lose their bark and show their trunks in an amazing range of colours. So going on a colour hunt is something we should try doing (though now that it’s winter it’s too late for the tree bark!). There are other things to try with plane tree leaves too. This year we’re making a picture with the plane tree leaves, and I’ll put that up as a separate post once we’ve done it.

Review: The Magic Dictionary

The Magic Dictionary, written and illustrated by Bruce Whatley.


About: A boy gets a magic dictionary for his birthday. Every word he looks up comes to life around him in some way. Bruce Whatley’s son first came up with the idea, and Bruce turned it into a book. We’ve got quite a few books illustrated by Bruce in this house, and this one has less whimsy in the method of art than others – but the picture concepts and story well and truly make up for that. Kid 7 has been asking for a magic dictionary for their birthday ever since they got this book as a Kid 5, and has been willing to read through a couple of picture dictionaries just to check and see if they happen to be magic ones.

“Then when I looked up L-I-T-T-L-E I had trouble closing the dictionary again. But looking up P-L-A-N-E-T was just out of this world.”

Good things:

  • Word play – including homophones and spelling,
  • Text models looking words up in a dictionary
  • Just a little silly!
  • Plenty of imagination involved
  • Australian author
  • Aussie language/spelling

Blanket tent

What: A blanket tent playspace in the loungeroom.

How: Well, we tried a few construction methods, it wasn’t all Mummy saying “do this and then do that”. So, this was our first successful attempt (I don’t have any photos of the first try!).

Mummy, this really isn’t very big. How can we make it bigger?

Basically, we needed a long stable thing for a ridgepole – a broom worked well because the end of the broom helped keep the ridgepole from sliding off the couch – two places to hold the ends of the ridgepole (not as easy as it sounds!), a not-too-heavy blanket, and enough space on the floor free of Lego bits to actually make the tent (that was the hardest bit). Plus lots of conversation, querying the basic principles (“I think if you put it there it’s going to fall straight down… oh look, it did”), discussion of how the blanket just hangs straight down and doesn’t actually make a triangle shape, finding things to hold the edges of the blanket in place so that it does make a triangular space, and plenty more. I like to let the kids lead and discover, so they discovered for themselves that the blanket didn’t make a triangle. And that the blanket they were using didn’t make a *big* triangle. And stuff like that. I mainly only intervened to a) send the ideas in the direction of a blanket tent when the possibility first appeared, and b) if they actually looked like they were going to hurt themselves. Oh, and the occasional c) when they knew what the problem was but needed help solving it, I’d make a suggestion to get them going in the right direction to find the solution. Remember the philosophy: never open the door for them, just ask them if they’ve noticed this really cool doorhandle. (Or with kids well out of their depth in a situation, open the door but never push them through it.)

The final version, weighed down with some books to keep it stretched out. Which worked fine until they wanted to take the books inside to read with them.

Extras: Well, we managed a few construction attempts at this blanket tent. It’s, as usual with me, all in the things you choose to discuss. We talked about triangular spaces, especially when they discovered that the blanket space was actually really tiny and they wanted more room. We tried a bigger blanket. We could have tried a different ridgepole, or taken it outside and used a tree branch and a tarp for an all-weather setup. If I had an old triangle tent we could have set that up, or I could have gotten out the little dome tent and we could talk about circles having more space inside them than triangles and why tents nowadays go up in circles rather than triangles. And of course, this also leads into a survival skills lesson: the basic debris hut shelter, your simplest “I’m lost in the bush and need to survive the night” shelter, works on a ridgepole triangular structure. So this activity is like a primer for some of the ideas that they’ll use when I show them how to make their emergency shelters.

Rainbow room

What: Decorating the room with “real” rainbows, made with CDs.

How: We chose a few spots by windows that get direct sunlight, and put old CDs there. The rainbows form throughout the day, moving, shrinking, appearing and disappearing with the sunbeams.

As an activity this takes no time at all, unless you do it as a discovery project (see Extras). The beauty of it is in what it does to a room that you’re spending a lot of time in. Our CDs are in our north-facing front lounge room, which is the warmest and brightest place for most of the day during winter. The rainbows brighten it even more. For us it’s purely a decorative thing, all of us love colour and find the rainbows peaceful.

Obviously this works best on a white ceiling, so please pretend ours is white and not covered in years of grime.


Extras: And, of course, there’s heaps of things you can talk about. We went through an accidental-discovery moment, which you could set up in advance to happen if you wanted to. First we discovered one of these rainbows that had formed by accident, and had to find what was making it. That took some conversation and exploring. Then we had to get some more old CDs to try making more. When that worked, we put them in windows – but the rainbows moved! And later when we looked again one of them had disappeared! The idea that things change over time, even if we’re not watching them or even when we are, is a basic scientific idea that kids spend a bit of time learning and reinforcement never hurts. Especially the bit about how you don’t have to be afraid of change because everything *does* change.

My kids aren’t old enough for me to bother with explaining the difference between diffraction (which is how CDs make colour) and refraction (which is how rainbows make colour). It’s enough to talk about how white light is made of all the colours and if you separate them out, that’s when you see the rainbow. Kid 6 worked out for themselves that this was a bit like when they looked through Mummy’s prism. Kid 5 also happily talked about times and places they’d found rainbows. We got to talk about the colours we could see, and whether they were distinct bands or blended into each other, and how many colours we thought there were. That’s always a good conversation, because kids get drilled early on the idea that there’s seven colours in a rainbow, and there totally isn’t. ROYGBIV is just the way it was written down some three hundred years ago by an early scientist, when we named common colours differently to the way we do now (cyan, anyone?). And it’s a handy acronym for remembering the order of colours, if you want to talk about how rainbows always have their colours in the same order, but beyond that its usefulness drops off quickly. (Yes, I have opinions on colour.) Add that to how kids get all kinds of weird-coloured rainbows on their toys and clothes, especially girl clothes, and they can come up with some fascinating and funny observations. Though I still don’t have a good answer to “Why isn’t there any pink in it?”. (I tried saying that it’s just that pink is “light red”, but that didn’t wash.)