Level 2+: Espionage Unit

Do you have the right security clearance for this unit? 😉 Get ready to get up close and personal with the life of spies and secret agents—and to learn some of the crucial roles they have played throughout history. In each lesson, your child will tackle hands-on problem solving and learn real techniques and skills needed to be successful at espionage. Don’t be surprised if they keep sleuthing out answers long after the lessons are over! To begin, click here to download this week’s skills tracker.

Note: Occasionally we include project modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings) and upgrades (for children ready for more). We’ll mark those with the minus (-) or plus (+) symbols.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Additional options:

Optional chapter books:

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Phonics Guide:

New to our phonics guide? Start here. The Phonics Guide this week will highlight the phonogram GU.

Lesson 1:

The world of spies has an incredibly rich history—in fact, spies have existed in some form for centuries and in virtually every culture! Today, let’s get an overview of espionage and learn about some of history’s most famous spies in the book The Secret Life of Spies. This book is long, so you may also choose to read the intro for now and read one of the stories each night for bedtime this week. (If you weren’t able to get the book, you can also read through The Usborne Official Spy Handbook on OpenLibrary.)

Activity 1: As we learned in our book, the one thing all spies have in common is their control of intelligence. But this is way more than just smarts—intelligence is a term that refers to information about a situation. Before we begin the rest of our activities, let’s familiarize ourselves with some more espionage vocabulary. (You can also find many of these terms and others on page 188 of The Usborne Official Spy Handbook or in the back of The Secret Life of Spies.) For even more terms of the trade, read this article.

  • Agent: Someone who works secretly for an intelligence service, offering secrets or operational support. Also called officers.
  • Alias: A false identity used to conceal a genuine one in the physical or digital worlds.
  • Analyst: An expert in their field that obtains crucial insights from intelligence and provides reports to spymasters.
  • Blown: When your mission or identity has been fully discovered. (If your identity is deliberately compromised, it’s called being burned.)
  • Camouflage: Clothes worn by a spy that blend into the background so he or she is not noticed by the quarry, or person being followed or watched.
  • Classified: Information that is protected by law from public view because it is too sensitive to reveal.
  • Code breaking: Working out the clear meaning of a message in code without first knowing which code is used.
  • Contact: A member of your spy ring, usually one you meet by arrangement.
  • Cover: Anything, such as buildings or bushes, which a spy uses to hide behind. This can also be the term used to refer to your alias and/or false back story.
  • Decode: To work out the clear meaning of a code message using a key or indicator.
  • Double agent: A spy who pretends to work for someone while really working for their enemy.
  • Drop: A place where messages are left by spies for other spies.
  • Eavesdrop: Listening in on a conversation, often using technology like a hidden microphone or a bugged phone.
  • Encode: Putting a message into a code.
  • Interception: Getting hold of a message, or decoding a coded message left by enemy spies.
  • Headquarters (H.Q.): The place, perhaps secret, where a spy ring operates.
  • Quarry: Someone who is secretly stalked, tracked, or shadowed.
  • Rendezvous: A French term that means “to meet,” used to mean a meeting between two members of a spy ring.
  • Shadowing: Following and keeping watch on a quarry in a town without him or her knowing.
  • Spy ring: A group of spies who work together secretly.
  • Surveillance: Keeping watch secretly on an enemy spy, or on a building that enemies use as their H.Q. or as a rendezvous.
  • Suspect: A person you believe might be a spy or a member of the enemy.
  • Tail: A spy who shadows another spy.
  • Undercover agent: A spy operating in disguise in enemy territory.

Next, let’s review some of these words with this spy vocab word search.

Activity 2: Spies gather and share the intelligence they collect in a variety of ways. Let’s explore some of them with the rest of our activities! Begin by working on your critical thinking and deduction skills by learning all you can about a person…from their trash!

Fill a small waste basket (or a clean garbage bag) with a few items of trash, such as food wrappers, empty medicine containers, old tickets, bills, etc. Next, provide your child with gloves, tweezers, and a magnifying glass (all optional, but they do make it more fun!) and ask them to examine the trash. What can they learn about the person who threw these things away? Ask them to create a character profile, writing out if they think the person is male or female, how old they are, what their job is, and any other information they can deduce from their research.

Activity 3: Next, let’s get ready to spy! One way to gather information is with your eyes, and with a little science, you can even see what’s happening around a corner! First, you’ll need a periscope. Start by printing this template and gluing it to your thin cardboard or unfolded cereal box. Once it’s dry, cut out the template shape on the cardboard, like this:

Use a ruler and a craft knife to score the dotted lines and fold inward, keeping the folds as straight as possible. Secure the tube with glue on the flaps (using masking tape if needed). It should look like this:

Use hot glue to secure the mirrors in each opening of the tube, like this:

If desired, paint your periscope a neutral color—you could even glue on leaves or glass if you’re going to use it outside!
(+) Ready for more surveillance? This video teaches you a clever hack to turn any phone into a listening device!

Lesson 2:

Some of the most famous historical stories of real-life spies have come at times of war. Let’s read one example in the book A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent by Anne Rockwell (or read it here on OpenLibrary). You can also learn about other Revolutionary War spies in this article.

Activity 1: There were actually many examples of espionage during the American Revolution—you can read about a variety of them in this article. We’ll explore a few ways that secret messages were passed with today’s activities, beginning with invisible ink (with a literacy twist!). In Washington’s time, there were two types of invisible ink. One was an acid-based ink that would weaken the fibers of the paper it was written on. Then the recipient would expose the paper to heat, and the weakened fibers would turn brown faster, revealing the message.

The second method was called a sympathetic ink. In this case, the message was written with one chemical that would disappear until it was exposed to another chemical that would create a chemical reaction and reveal the message. (source) We’ll be creating a sympathetic invisible ink for our first activity today.

Use the recipes in this post to create your invisible ink and acid/base indicator revealing solution. Next, write some of these GU words on white index cards using the invisible ink.

  • guitar
  • guard
  • penguin
  • iguana
  • guarantee
  • guilt
  • guess
  • guild
  • guinea pig
  • guava
  • guise

Finally, let your child use the indicator to reveal and read the word. (We also recommend having extra “ink” so your child can write a few secret messages of their own!)

Activity 2: James Lafayette was what is called a double agent, meaning that he was a spy who pretended to work for one side while really helping their enemy. Let’s pretend to be double agents ourselves using this Mad Lib outline!

Activity 3: Another engineering innovation from the American Revolution (and beloved by George Washington and his Culper Spy Ring)? The submarine! While submarines were first invented by Dutch inventor Cornelius van Drebel in the early 17th century, it was not until 150 years later that they were first used in naval combat. David Bushnell, an American inventor, began building underwater mines while a student at Yale University. Deciding that a submarine would be the best means of delivering his mines in warfare, he built an eight-foot-long wooden submersible that was christened the Turtle for its shape. (source)

The Turtle was especially notable because of several important innovations: 

  • Turtle was the first submersible to use water as ballast for submerging and raising the submarine.
  • To maneuver under water, Turtle was the first submersible to use a screw propeller.
  • Bushnell was also the first to equip a submersible with a breathing device.
  • Finally, the weaponry of Turtle, which consisted of a “torpedo” or mine that could be attached to the hull of the target ship, was innovative as well. Bushnell was the first to demonstrate that gunpowder could be exploded under water, and his mine was the first “time bomb,” allowing the operator of the Turtle to attach the mine and then to retire a safe distance before it detonated.

You can learn even more history about the Turtle in this article (and see what it looked like) in this article.

Does your child know how a submarine actually works? They might picture it like some kind of underwater car, but it’s actually much more complicated how this interesting vessel operates. A submarine has huge tanks, called ballast tanks, that allow it to dive and to surface. The tanks fill with water to give the submarine the weight it needs to sink. When the submarine is ready to surface, the ballast tanks release the water and fill with air. This lightens the vessel enough for it to float. (source) Let’s bring it all to life with this hands-on DIY submarine project.

Lesson 3:

One of the most common methods of spies is using codes to protect intelligence and safely deliver secret messages. As a result, there have been many people throughout history who have become master code breakers! The scientific study of codes and ciphers is called cryptology. Let’s meet one of the most famous cryptologists in history in the book Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars by Laurie Wallmark (or listen to our read aloud here). Next, we’ll bring codes and ciphers to life with a few code-based activities!

Activity 1: Working on codes is a wonderful purposeful way to practice math. Let’s use some math codes to create a scavenger hunt of “drop sites” for our own secret message. First, create a map of your home (or one floor of your home, or even one room!). Label 10-20 spots on your map with the numbers 1-10 or 1-20.

Next, use sticky notes or other small pieces of paper to create a message, writing just one word on each note. (For example: Note #1 could say “I,” notes #2 could say “love,” and note #3 could say “you,” etc.) We also recommend numbering the notes on the back.

Next, print this guide (you may want to laminate, if possible, to repeat the activity). For each numbered note, write an equation that equals the note’s location on the map. For example, if your first note is at the #3 location on the map, your equation could be 4 – 1 =.

Once all the notes are hidden in their correct spots according to your key, let your child begin solving the equations to find the notes. After they’ve found them all, have them read their secret message!

There are many ways to modify this activity for repeated practice. here are a few more ideas:

  1. Turn it into a scavenger hunt by giving your child just one equation to their first note. Then, put the clue for the next note on note #1, and so on and so on.
  2. Have your child be the spymaster! Let your child hide a note (or small toy) in one of the map locations and have them create the equation to help you find it.
  3. Instead of a secret message, use the notes to practice sight word recognition.

Activity 2: One of the most popular codes in the world is not intended to be secret—in fact, knowing it has saved countless lives! It’s called Morse Code. Morse code is named after Samuel Morse, who helped invent it. It is not used as much today as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries. Morse code is a type of code that is used to send telegraphic information using rhythm. Morse code uses dots and dashes to show the alphabet letters, numbers, punctuation and special characters of a given message. When messages are sent by Morse code, dots are short beeps or clicks or flashes, and dashes are longer ones. (source) This video shares more about the history of Morse Code and how it works.

Want to try it for yourself? While Morse Code is traditionally done with a telegraph machine, you can practice Morse Code with just a flashlight, a board game buzzer, or even by saying “dit” and “dah” to verbally transmit messages. First, print this Morse Code alphabet. Next, try sending message to your child, or having them send them to you, with the flashlight. If they are having a hard time following, you could have them write the dits and dahs as they see or hear them.

Finally, let’s try a craft with our newfound knowledge. Use this tutorial to make Morse Code bracelets with your name or a short secret message.
(-) For younger children, you can use pony beads, yarn, and a yarn needle (or a small piece of tape on the end of the yarn).
(–) For even younger siblings, simply use a pipe cleaner and let them string pony beads for fine motor skill practice.

Activity 3: Another form of code is called a cipher. In a cipher, each character in a message is replaced by another character. Let’s practice decoding with a cipher with this activity.

Lesson 4:

In most cases, anonymity is a spy’s greatest asset. So how could one of the world’s most famous women also be a spy? Well, the answer is that she never really considered herself a spy…but she invented a technology that has certainly helped them! Let’s learn the whole story in the book Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor (or listen to this read aloud).

Activity 1: Technology has played an increasing role in espionage throughout history. We’ll spend today looking closer at some spy technology, and how you can create something similar with a few simple materials!

Hedy Lamarr’s invention worked because sound travels in waves. Watch this video to learn more about how it works. Spies often make use of “bugs,” or small microphones that can be disguised and left where they will record secret conversations. But you can create something similar with a little science!

Have your child stand on one side of a door holding an empty glass cup. You (or another child) will stand about 2 yards from the door on the other side and say a secret message. (It can be anything.) Have your child first try to hear the message through the door without any help. Next, have them place the open end of the glass on the door and put their ear to the bottom side of the glass and listen again. How has the sound changed? (They should be able to hear the message clearer.)

Why does this work? Sound can travel through all matter (gases, liquids, and solids. When you place the glass to the door, the glass acts as a cavity to amplify (make louder) the sound. The sound waves inside the glass cavity hit the walls of the glass, reflect back, and reinforced each other in a process called resonance.

Activity 2: Another commonly used piece of spy technology is a magnifying glass. In many cases, secret messages have been written in very tiny print that could be easily transported in secret compartments (and even wrapped around the legs of trained pigeons!). But what if you don’t have a magnifying glass handy? Science to the rescue!

For this activity, you’ll need a small piece of wax paper, an eye dropper, water, and a piece of newsprint with small writing (or you can print a few sentences in a small font).

Start by having your child view the text through the wax paper. Next, have them add a drop of water on the wax paper. Does the text under the drop look larger or smaller than the surrounding text? How does it change when you add more water to the drop?

What is happening? The drop remains rounded on top of the wax paper due to surface tension, which is a force of attraction between water particles that creates a bond on the surface of the water. This rounded shape is the same as a convex lens, which is a lens that curves like the outside of a ball. When light passes through a convex lens, the light is refracted, or bent, and the image of the object is magnified. The larger the drop, the heavier the water and the less the curved it is. This creates less magnification.

Activity 3: The final piece of technology every spy needs? A secret compartment! Let’s make our own with this DIY book safe tutorial.

Lesson 5:

For our final day of espionage activities, we’ll explore a few more play-based ways to practice being spies! There is no book recommendation for today, so you can use your reading time to explore some of the optional reading or read more from The Secret Life of Spies.

Activity 1: Spies use a lot of science to gather information. One method of forensic science is dactyloscopy, or the study of fingerprints! Every single person has a unique set of fingerprints—even identical twins. (source) While they are all different, they are generally made up of the same kinds of patterns: arches, loops, and whorls. Let’s watch this video to learn some more fascinating facts about fingerprints.

Next, let’s do some forensic gathering of our own! Start by having your child create a log of your family’s fingerprints using this tutorial. (You can use an inkpad instead of a pencil if you have one!) You can also share this article with your child to help them identify the three main patterns found in fingerprints.

Finally, let’s put our newfound intelligence to use by gathering some fingerprints from around the house and identifying who left them! Use a makeup brush to lightly tap baby powder (flour or powdered sugar can also work) onto various surfaces in your home, such as the fridge door, a drinking glass, or the top of a smooth table or desk. Brush the excess powder away, but be gentle—fingerprints can be very delicate! Next, place a piece of clear packing tape on the powdered surface and gently peel it off. Place the tape on a piece of dark construction paper to see any prints more clearly. Next, see if you can identify who left them using the records you’ve taken!

Activity 2: So…do you have what it takes to become a secret agent? The answer may vary depending on where you live! Each country’s espionage and intelligence organizations have different requirements for their agents. Let’s take a closer look at the requirements to join the Central Intelligence Agency, of the CIA. The CIA is part of the United States government, and it is responsible for gathering information about things happening in other parts of the world. Print this checklist of the requirement to join the CIA and see if you qualify! (source)

Activity 3: Even if you don’t really want to be a spy (or just don’t qualify yet!), it doesn’t mean you can’t pretend! Let’s end our week on a sweet spy note with these awesome decoder cookies! (If you don’t have the right cookie cutters, simply use a drinking glass and a shot glass or kids medicine cup to make circle cookies with a smaller circle cut-out.)

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.