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.

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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.

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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.

Code wheels for Super Spies

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

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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.

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.

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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.

Art party #4 – the cake

What: a watermelon-flavoured cake with mint leaves and berries, jelly on top, no chocolate, no icing, and no cake. Kid 5 can get a bit specific about their requests some times.

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Just before serving. By the way, that dark jelly is better than red wine.

How:

  • Take one watermelon, cut a cake-sized cylinder from the middle, cut the peel away from the outside. In hindsight, it’d have been easier to eat if we left the peel on.
  • Make a couple of pizza-trays of strawberry and raspberry jelly, using berry juice instead of hot water. Completely fail to prepare the trays for easy jelly removal, causing the jelly to come out in vague chunks. For bonus points, attempt to warm the tray in the oven while cooking pizza so that the top of the jelly melts and the bottom remains completely stuck.
  • Tip the jelly onto the cake. Try to land it on the top of the cake rather than half-on and half-off, because it *will* slide under its own mass and watermelon has no grip on the jelly.
  • Cover the cake with spearmint leaf lollies (still available in dollar and home brands if you look for them) and berry lollies, then put cake in the fridge to ensure the jelly doesn’t melt while decorating.
  • Come back to the cake the next morning and redo all the lollies seeing as they will have slid off the jelly overnight and soaked in watermelon juice, rendering them surprisingly inedible.
  • Attempt to stick a candle into the jelly in a way that will let it stay upright, while not causing the jelly to slip off.
  • Go into the party room and start everyone singing Happy Birthday.
  • Pay attention when your spouse is calling from the other room “I can’t get it to light!!!”
  • Get everyone singing again.
  • Leave spouse attempting to cut pieces of cake and put them on party plates without losing any of the lollies on top or accidentally flicking jelly across the room as he tips the slices.
  • Go get the tray of plain watermelon slices you prepared earlier from the rest of the watermelon, and put it out for the kids to devour.
  • Put watermelon cake back in the fridge after the party. Wait until it has been completely forgotten by Birthday Child, and add to compost.

(Honestly, this could have been done really well and been excellent, and in fact many bits of it were excellent. It just didn’t happen that way *this* time.)

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Handing out slices to the crowd.

Other art party activities: suncatchers, sticky tape resist paintings, balloon painting, paint making and party bag decorating.

Suncatchers (party activities #3)

What: Suncatchers to stick on a window – one of the activity stations at our make-lots-of-art birthday party.

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One of the finished products. This also worked as a settling-down and quiet activity for a couple of kids who needed a slower let-down after the party’s main event.

How: I took overhead transparencies (remember those?) and cut them in half. I also cut out two rectangles of cardboard to use as templates. The kids drew around their rectangle in black permanent marker. Then they took any of the ruler shapes (a standard math set) and drew lines and shapes across their rectangle. Then they coloured in the result with coloured permanent markers.

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Individual works-in-progress.

More detail: I saw this on the internet, done with printable overhead transparencies and highlighters. The instructions were specific about using printable transparencies, because the print-side coating would allow the highlighter ink to stick. Problem is, who the heck uses transparencies any more? I finally tracked down one pack – one lone pack – in the whole of our big-box office supplies store, and they weren’t cheap but I bought them so I could use them for other craft projects in the future as well. I figured they’re not likely to become *more* available. However, when I tried this activity the night before, transparency manufacture has moved on and the “special coating” on these ones wouldn’t take the highlighter ink. Luckily I got a big pack of coloured permanent markers for Christmas, so I quickly removed those from all the art stations I’d already set up (they were for writing names etc) and put them on the suncatcher table. They gave much more vivid colours than highlighters, which I think was a plus. In future I’d just use those plastic sheets that go in files, because you can get a pack of 20 of them for under $3. Or anything else clear plastic!

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Cooperation and concentration with seven kids at the desk (plus one parent).

Party setup: It happened that we had a white-topped desk sitting in the patio outside, waiting for Kid 5 and I to fix it up so it can be his desk. A white surface does make things easier. I made one suncatcher and taped it to the middle of the desk so the kids had an example right in front of them of what those permanent markers were meant to be used for. I explained the activity to the first couple of kid 5s who came over, and they shared the instructions on (with occasional parent help). We easily had six kids or more working on this at a time, and being very cooperative about sharing the markers (it helped that there were about 16). This was the longest of the activities, the kids were quite focused about it, so each kid spent quite a bit of time at the desk. It helped that this was close to the balloon painting which kids could do a little bit of and come back to as suited, so that waiting wasn’t an issue for anyone. The other great thing about this was no paint, so no drying time, the kids could put them in their party bags as soon as they’d finished.

Other art party activities: sticky tape resist paintings, balloon painting, paint making and party bag decorating, and the cake.

Sticky tape resist paintings

What: Resist paintings done with sticky tape, made by several Kid 5s at one of the activity stations in our make-lots-of art birthday party.

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Birthday Kid 5’s finished product.

How: I had a pile of those little canvas-covered boards that sell for about $2.50 each in arts and craft stores, about the size of an envelope. I got the kids to put a few pieces of sticky tape on their board (after writing their name in marker on the back!). Then they had free rein to paint anything they liked over the whole board, they had to cover the whole thing with colour. Once it’s dry, pull off the sticky tape and see what you’ve got!

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Party station setup post-activity, waiting for them to dry. Most kid 5s ended up doing stripes, though some just did small blotches (that do still cover the tape).

Party setup: I had acrylic poster paint in five colours, each in plastic party cups with a paintbrush in. These kid 5s are all familiar from school with the drill that if the cup has a brush in it, that brush stays with that cup only. I’d also taped newspaper to the whole dining table surface to make the workspace. There was room for about four or five kids to work at once, and we just kind of funnelled kids through (or they funnelled themselves through, it was a bit hard to tell). The first child to seat themself at the table and say “I want to do THIS!” had a parent with them, who I promptly delegated to be a general supervisor of that activity station and help make sure each kid who turned up knew what to do. It turned out the little boards had plastic wrap on them, which was too well sealed for little fingers to pry open (why can’t that happen with snack foods!), so another spare adult got delegated to unwrapping them all. We left the boards on the table to dry. Turned out they didn’t quite dry by the time the party was over – they could have, if paint had been used a little more sparingly and not in large globs! But you get what you get. Plus some kids did their paintings much later than others. So the kids took them home with instructions to wait until they were fully dry and then take the sticky tape off. I have no idea how they all went after that.

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The original from Kid 3’s daycare that gave me the idea.

Extras: This idea came from something Kid 3 did at daycare. They made little Christmas tree pictures, by sticking on tree shapes that had been cut out of contact and then painting over that and removing it. I considered doing contact shapes, or spot stickers that could be peeled, but decided the manipulativeness and simplicity of tearing and sticking pieces of sticky tape was going to run a lot more smoothly in the party context.

Other art party activities: suncatchers, balloon painting, paint making and party bag decorating, and the cake.

Art party activities #1

What: Some of the activities we did at Kid 5’s make-lots-of-art birthday party – painting balloons, making paint, decorating party bags.

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Painted balloons – the final product. (And yes, the boys are happily playing with the dollhouse in the background.)

1. Painted balloons. My husband battled the breezes to attach as many white balloons to the punching bag as he could using string and tape. I saw this done at a community fair where they’d attached dozens together close and tight to a rope to make a dragon shape for painting. After our efforts, I have no idea how they got the balloons attached but I applaud their skill. Then, paint. I put some acrylic poster paint in plastic party cups, put a paintbrush in each cup, and put the cups on a milk crate (which has slots about the right size to hold these cups upright). Up to five kids at a time were clustered around this activity, painting on the balloons. Several of the balloons were later taken home by kids, on request. Except for the one where the kid asked, and his mother made frantic waving motions of “No wet paint in my car!!!” behind him so I had to say no, we wanted to keep them to remember the party by.

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Paint production process in progress.

2. Making paint. The kids got to make a little bag of paint and take it home with them. I set up a bag of flour, a bag of salt and a jug or water, each with a metric tablespoon in them. The kids had to take one spoonful of each and put it in their little ziplock bag. I added food colouring of their choice – about a lidful – then they sealed the bag and mixed. In theory the proportions should be 1:1:1 of flour:salt:water, but in practice most kids needed two tablespoons of water because Kid 5s don’t know to level off their tablespoon of flour (or even that there’s enough of a difference to matter in how much is in a level spoonful vs a heaped spoonful), and there was enough of a crowd around the table that I wasn’t able to tell or help most of them with that. I kept my hands on the food colouring and insisted that only an adult add that. Which meant we didn’t have anyone accidentally tipping the entire bottle into their bag until the very last child, so that was good. Once the paint is mixed, you can keep it in the sealed bag and run your fingers over it to “draw” pictures mess-free. My original plan was to tape the bags of paint to a glass door so that they could do the finger-drawing there, but with all the chaos going on most of the kids were happy to just put the bag of paint in their party bag and move on to the next activity.

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Spot the party bags, ready to begin.

3. Party bags. I’m not keen on loot bags at parties, but the kids were going to need some way of taking their art home with them. So the very first activity we had set up before doing the main party stations was this one. A pile of coloured paper bags from the local craft store, and lots of coloured dot stickers of various sizes. The kids had to write their name on the bag first, then make themselves a picture on their bag using only sticky dots. We had a wide variety of results! Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of the final products. It was good to have the sticker sheets cut into strips, because each of the Kid 5s tended to take a strip and then put all the stickers on it onto their bag somewhere before making the next decision. They’re not visualising what they want to make and then choosing the bits that will make it, at least, not to the degree that they can put a sticker sheet back down without using ALL the stickers. This worked well as an icebreaker, as kids who didn’t know very many others got something to do without feeling lonely, and it got everyone busy and thinking about making art. It could also be relatively unsupervised, unlike the main station activities.

Other art party activities: suncatchers, sticky tape resist paintings, and the cake.