Riddles, Codes, and Enigmas

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At Helix this month we’re playing with language—using language games to learn and teach other languages, and exploring different kinds of communication. Making secret messages is a fun way to explore the secrets of language, too. We have coded messages, riddles, and language-themed enigmas in the cubbies in our living room for you to try to decipher. And Saturdays and Sundays we have communication games and workshops on secret codes in our activity room.

Today we played with riddles! A riddle is a poem with a secret subject that you have to guess. Some of them are relatively easy:

I have three eyes, all in a row.
When my red eye opens,
Everyone stops!

Some are a little harder:

The Moon is my Father,
The Wind is my guide
The Ocean’s my Mother,
I’m born from the tide
When I reach the land I die
Can you tell me, what am I?

And some are very hard! See if you can get this one:

I am your most precious thing.
Hide me away in a strong white box
Protected from life’s bumps and knocks
And I will help you run and sing
Thrumming your will down electric strings.

You can make up your own riddle poems! (I wrote the last two in our workshop today.) One good way to make a riddle poem is to decide what the answer to your riddle will be, and imagine that thing is speaking to you, telling you its story. Pretend that it’s telling you about what makes it special and different from all other things. It might think of itself as a living thing, and it might describe parts of itself as like legs, or eyes (remember our first riddle?), or say it was born or will die even if it’s not really alive. Write down what the thing might say. You can use the techniques of poetry—rhyme and rhythm and dramatic sensory language—to really make your riddle special.

Finally, read your riddle poem and think about whether there are any other things that might fit what you’ve written. For example, have you ever heard the riddle “What’s black and white and red all over?” You’ve probably heard hundreds of different answers, and you have no way of knowing if I mean “A zebra with the chicken pox” or “A newspaper that was used to wrap up a hot dog” unless I add more detail. Some riddles have more than one answer, but you should try to be as specific as you can.

How is a riddle not like a joke? The answer doesn’t have to be funny, but it might be hard to guess. It’s a brain puzzle made with words. Some ancient cultures respected people who were good at making and figuring out riddles. They used to have riddle contests. Now that you know how to make up riddles, you can hold a riddle contest of your own!