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Spying Time

Best for toddlers

Sock It to Me

In this game, toddlers get an idea of how a detective might use his senses of touch and sight when important evidence is under wraps.

Using a marker, draw a smiley face on an old sock near the toe, just for fun. Collect small objects with simple, distinctive shapes  -- a ball, a block, a spoon  -- and slip one into the sock. Knot or tie the open end and let your little sleuth poke and prod the sock to figure out what's inside. Then try a different item.

For very young private eyes, place familiar objects in the sock as he looks on, then talk him through the investigation: "Do you feel a spoon? Or a cup? A spoon is long and straight; a cup is round."

Mary Beth Spann is the author of 30 Collaborative Books forYour Class to Make and Share (Scholastic Professional Books).

Best for preschoolers

1,2,3...What Do You See?

Solving this mystery helps strengthen a tot's ability to remember what he's just seen  -- a skill every budding detective or eyewitness must master.

To begin, place three small toys or knickknacks on a table or the floor.

After pointing out and naming the goods, cover them with a towel or cloth napkin. Then ask your child to close his eyes and slowly count to three as you surreptitiously (and quietly) remove one of the objects and place it behind your back.

To begin sleuthing, say "1, 2, 3... What do you see?" As you lift the cover, feign astonishment that one of the objects has disappeared. Your youngster will likely wonder too. Ask him if he can tell you what the missing item is  -- give clues if necessary  -- and suggest he look for it.

While he's distracted, slip the missing item back under the cover. Remove the cloth again and show your little one that the object has reappeared. For 3-year-olds, play the game with more objects. The challenge for them is to name the item that has vanished based on those that are left behind.

The Case of the Missing Crayon
Like an investigator combing the scene of a crime for hidden clues, little Sherlocks must notice minor details about their surroundings as they try to track down an object you've secretly planted in the room.

To play:
1. Define the boundaries of the kids' investigation  -- somewhere in the family room or a section of the backyard, for instance.

2. Gather two or three ordinary objects, such as a small book, a crayon, and a wooden spoon. Avoid things that are shiny or brightly colored, since these are easy to spot.

3. Have kids leave the room or cover their eyes, then hide the objects within the designated scene of the crime, making sure that part of each one is visible. For example, you might slip a wooden spoon beneath the corner of a rug with half the handle sticking out, or slide a book behind a couch cushion. To make the activity more challenging, hide the items on similar-colored backgrounds to camouflage them even further  -- a green crayon in green grass, for instance, or a gray stone on a cement patio.

4. Give junior inspectors a plastic magnifying glass (for authenticity) and have them search for the hidden items. Offer clues about what they're searching for ("You're looking for something to draw with") or hints about where it is ("It's near something you sit on").

5. For advanced detectives, have them use the magnifying glass to ferret out a series of even tinier objects, such as "something you use to get rid of mistakes" (a pencil eraser) or "something you put in your hair" (a barrette).

6. When someone has solved the mystery, switch roles and let them hide an object or two and guide others to their whereabouts.

Best for school-age kids

Get a Clue

Gathering "evidence" puts your child's visual and reasoning skills to work. In the process, he'll learn what veteran detectives already know  -- that every clue can lead to many possible outcomes. This activity can be played with one child or many.

To play:
1. Establish boundaries to limit the players to one area.

2. Make a list of clues for objects the kids will search for. Each clue should be open-ended so that any of several different items will satisfy it. For instance, kids might look for something that:[UNORDERED_LIST {"Is small and brown" "Feels smooth" "Smells" "Makes a crunchy sound when squeezed" "Probably tastes terrible (but no tasting allowed!)"}]3. Read the clues out loud, one by one, and challenge each detective to find an item that matches each description. Have a pencil on hand and write down what each child finds. (If items are small enough, children may collect them in lunch bags.)

4. Set a time limit for the search  -- say, 10 or 15 minutes  -- thencall the kids back and have them compare results. If any players found the same item, encourage them to hunt together for new objects that fit the same description. Each child should wind up with a unique collection.

5. For advanced detectives: Have the kids pool their findings and determine if any satisfy all or most of the clues they were given. (You may have to call them out again.) A brown leaf, for example, matches all the clues above.


Set up this mystery game (best for older children) with challenging clues and homemade evidence. Then, have your detectives work together to crack the case. (This game is a great birthday-party activity; you'll need roughly 15 to 20 minutes to set up ahead of time.)

* Paper
* Pens
* Pencils
* 4 manila envelopes (8 x 12)
* Baby powder
* Grocery bag
* Hair spray
* Washable-ink stamp pad
* Transparent tape
* Small spiral notebooks (or staple a small stack of paper together for each child)
* Toothpicks
* Lemon juice
* An iron (for adult to use)
* Sack of foil-covered chocolate coins

Before you begin, decide on a "crook" (a parent or adult family member). Then create four messages (see below for what these should be) in a secret code, each on a separate piece of paper. Use a simple code, like 1=A, 2=B, 3=C, or A=B, B=C, C=D, et cetera. To make it easier to decipher, create a key and hand copies of it to each child.

Slip each message  -- along with any relevant evidence (more on this below)  -- into an envelope numbered in the order in which it is to be opened. Prepare the envelopes as described below; hide them before the party.

To play:
1. Give the children envelope number 1, which should contain an official-sounding newspaper report (this can be handwritten) describing "The Case of the Missing Snack." A thief broke into the house, mistook a sack of foil-covered chocolate coins for real gold, and took off with the loot. Include a letter from your local police department enlisting the children's help in solving the crime. The first coded message, also inside, should reveal where the second envelope is located: "Envelope number 2 is frozen stiff" (meaning that it's in the freezer).

2. Envelope number 2 should include an official-looking police report containing several statements gathered from "witnesses." For instance, "I saw someone suspicious carrying a parcel away from your house around 2 o'clock," and "I noticed someone tall eating a snack in your front yard." Some of these clues should be of no help to your sleuths, others should include information (such as the height) that the detectives will check out. Thisenvelope should also contain a coded message that tells where the third clue is: "Envelope number 3 is snug as a bug" (meaning under the rug).

3. The third envelope should contain samples of evidence found at the crime scene. Items might include: a shoe print, a sample fingerprint, a few strands of the thief's hair, a handkerchief monogrammed with the letter M.

Make the shoe print in advance by sprinkling the sole of the thief's shoe with baby powder, then having the person stomp onto a piece of paper cut from a brown grocery bag. Cover the print lightly with hair spray to preserve it. Get a fingerprint using the ink pad and a piece of paper. For the hair, cut a few strands off the designated thief's head and tape them to a piece of paper. As the kids are examining the evidence, hand out the notebooks so they can write down whom they suspect the thief to be, based on the clues they've uncovered so far. And finally, it should include a coded note that gives hints to the location of the final envelope: "Envelope number 4 has taken a seat" (meaning that it's taped beneath a chair).

4. Envelope number 4 should include a piece of paper with the thief's name written in invisible ink. (Create this beforehand by dipping a toothpick into lemon juice and using it to write. When dry, the paper will look like a blank sheet to the kids.) The envelope should also hold coded directions for giving the blank paper to an adult, who will run a warm iron over the paper to reveal the name. The lemon-juice letters will turn brown and legible from the iron's heat.

5. Once the name is revealed, the kids can see if they guessed correctly. The thief must surrender the booty, which the detectives divvy up among themselves fair and square.