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Crack the Code

Crack the code! Conceal a secret message by creating a cipher. Exchange decoder dials with classmates to reveal the hidden meanings.

  • Grade 3
    Grade 4
    Grade 5
  • 60 to 90 Minutes
  • Directions

    1. Ask students what a code is? Where have they seen or used a code before? Do they have a code for their locker or a "code word" they use with friends to pass along a secret meaning? Codes are used all around us everyday.
    2. Ciphers are a type of code. When letters are rearranged or replaced with symbols, this is called a cipher. The process of creating a code or cipher is called encryption. Computers use encryption to change passwords to codes so no one can steal them. Ask students what other examples of codes and ciphers they can think of? And when encrypting messages can be helpful?
    3. Students encrypt a message of their own! To start, students create a decoder dial. Carefully cut a circle about the size of a hand out of construction paper with Crayola® Scissors and divide it into 26 pieces like a pie. In each pie piece, write a letter of the alphabet with Crayola® Metallic Colored Pencils. Above each letter, create a unique symbol to represent that letter. Use Crayola® Metallic FX Crayons, Crayola® Glitter Crayons, and Crayola® Giltter Glue to embellish the decoder dial with shiny colors and decorative designs!
    4. On a separate sheet of construction paper, use the symbols you designed to create a cipher, spelling out a secret message. Add a fun border to the page!
    5. Students trade ciphers and decoders dials with their classmates. Use the dials to decode the encrypted messages and reveal the hidden phrases!
  • Standards

    LA: Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about grade level topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups.

    LA: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade level reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.

    MATH: Classify two-dimensional figures into categories based on their properties.

    VA: Intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of experiences and ideas.

    VA: Select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of ideas.

  • Adaptations

    Possible classroom resources include: Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janeczko; Braille for the Sighted (Beginning Braille) by S. Harold Collins; Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Burchac

    As an opening to this lesson, consider creating an encrypted message for students to decode by the close of the school day. Students may work individually or in small groups to decipher your message. Set aside time at the close of the day to see if anyone was successful as well as how the discovery was made.

    Encourage interested students to investigate codes that are in their world and they may not know it, such as Braille. Organize research into this topic into an electronic format for presentation to classmates.

    During World War I and World War II, secret codes were used to send messages that were to be decoded only by the recipients. Such was the case with the Zimmerman Telegram in World War I. Ask students to investigate this telegram and its history. Can they decode the message today?

    During World War II, Navajo Indians worked to decode messages from the Allied enemies. Encourage students to research this group of heroes and uncover what their contribution was to the eventual success of the Allied Forces.


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  • Creativity.
  • Capacity.
  • Collaboration.
  • Change.
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