Colonial Williamsburg Program Gives Kids a Chance to Write Codes

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This style of wooden wheel cipher was designed by Thomas Jefferson and is used extensively in "Spy Craft." (Elizabeth Hornsby, WYDaily)
This style of wooden wheel cipher was designed by Thomas Jefferson and is used extensively in “Spy Craft.” (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

Kids and their parents can live the life of a spy through a Colonial Williamsburg program in its second year.

Participants mill around a room the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, moving from table to table while trying to manipulate a wooden cylindrical object that looks much like a compressed rolling pin.

The wheel cipher is a key tool for those taking part in Spycraft, a 2-year-old program that allows children to try reading and writing in codes similar to what those fighting for American independence would have used. The program takes place every Saturday afternoon from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m.

Thomas Jefferson himself devised the wheel cipher the children use, and many of the messages they are decoding are actual quotes from Jefferson, George Washington or Benjamin Franklin.

The program is an open house, come-and-go-as-you-please affair in the Education Studio within the museum. There are seven stations positioned throughout the room at which kids can learn about and practice with both number and letter-based codes.

Participants are welcome to work through all seven stations, but most sample three or four before moving on to the next item in their itinerary.

Christina Westenberger, the museum educator who oversees Spy Craft, estimates about 50 to 75 people pass through each session of the program. Some families wander in and out in under 10 minutes, while others become absorbed in the activities and end up staying for the duration.

“It really depends on how much the parents or guardians are invested in working through this stuff with their kids. It’s very self-directed,” Westenberger said.

Families who stick around learn not only about the reading and writing of codes, but also the importance of other spy skills like being observant and having a good memory.

Visitors are asked to take one minute to try to memorize as many objects on this table as possible. (Elizabeth Hornsby, WYDaily)
Visitors are asked to take one minute to try to memorize as many objects on this table as possible. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

At one station the table is laid with a number of period objects, and kids are asked to take one minute to study the table and then try to list from memory as many of the objects as they can.

“It really gives them a chance to give their hand a try at doing what a spy would do,” Westenberger said.

Westenberger also oversees another program offered in the Art Museums’ Education Studio, “Create.”

Like Spy Craft, Create is a self-directed program that allows museum visitors to drop in at their leisure. It takes place on Tuesday afternoons from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m..

“We do a different craft every week, always based on some object in our collection,” Westenberger said.

Past and future crafts include woven baskets, bookmarks and peg dolls. Though the kids do not work with 18th-century materials, there is always an explicit connection drawn between the craft and some exhibit in the museum.

Westenberger also acknowledges the value of offering casual, kid-friendly programs inside the museum and away from the heat of the day.

“It gives families a chance to decompress and spend some time in the air conditioning,” she said.

Both programs are included with admission to the museum and do not require pre-registration. Create runs Tuesdays through July 27 and Spy Craft runs Saturdays through Aug. 1.