Mystery Word: An Active Way to Build Cognitive Skills

We have a great learning adventure to share today. The activity, Mystery Word, is pulled from one of our latest releases, Let’s Play, by Jeff A. Johnson and Denita Dinger. (Want to learn more about the book and its counterpart, Let Them Play? Read all the way to the end of this post for more information.) If cold temperatures or snowy days are keeping you indoors, give it a whirl—you could try using words related to the weather, like icy, blizzard, or chilly. Or, use words relating to topics that the children are especially interested in right now. All you need are a few index cards, markers, and a group of children who love to discover.


From Mystery Word, an (un)curriculum early learning adventure from Let’s Play

Mystery Word

Lots of kids love solving mysteries, so the idea of Mystery Word will be very exciting to them. Mystery Word is an active way to build letter recognition, vocabulary, cooperation, and problem-solving skills.


  • 4- x 6-inch index cards
  • Marker
  • Index card file box (optional, but it makes for easy storage of your words and letters)


First, some prep work:

  1. Create a set of letters—write one letter per index card until you have the whole alphabet.
  2. Make duplicates of popular letters so you’ll be prepared for any Mystery Word that pops up.
  3. File the cards in your index card file box.

Now share your Mystery Word with the kids:

  1. Choose a word. Make it a fresh, new, fun, or exciting word that relates somehow to what has been going on (or will be going on) in the lives of the kids. For example, here are some popular words from Denita’s program: stomp, slimy, absorb, snot, aim, wow, jump, treasure, dig, imagine, construct, ramp, goopy, string.
  2. Write the word down on a blank index card, and then display the card. You can tape it to the wall, put it in a picture frame, or set it on an activity table—whatever works for your program.
  3. From your index box, grab the individual letters that spell the word you’ve chosen, and then hide the letters around the room.
  4. Wait for the children to discover the letters and build the word during free play. (There is not a scheduled Mystery Word time.) As their play evolves, the children will discover the letters, and the word will eventually get built.
  5. Once the children have found all the letters, let them figure out what the word is.
  6. Have the children cooperatively share what they know about letter sounds and try to figure out the word. Younger children need assistance, which older children are more than happy to provide. Give children the opportunity to ask for what they need. Never step in to help until they ask. Figuring out the word can take time, patience, and persistence—all good skills to practice.
  7. Once the children have figured it out, talk about the word. The children will want to share what they know about it. Make time for this Mystery Word conversation with the group and with individual children.
  8. Be prepared for play possibilities the Mystery Word may inspire. The children will often incorporate the word into their play. For example, if the Mystery Word is gloppy, you had better be prepared for some messy play.

The Mystery Word concept teaches children letters in a fun, exciting, motivating way. It helps them learn letters, as well as the purpose of each letter, in a very unthreatening, unforced, playful way. All the children feel a sense of pride when they find a letter, and when the younger children ask the older children to assist them in identifying a letter, the older children feel a huge boost of self-esteem. For them, sharing what they know is empowering.

As the letters are found, the children have to construct the Mystery Word by putting letters in the correct order. Doing this is great for learning visual tracking, problem solving, letter sounds, letter recognition, teamwork, ownership of discoveries, knowledge sharing, and community building. Many times, one mystery word builds on another. For example, the word apart may lead to the word together, and that may lead to the word attach, and that may lead to the word glue. This means kids are identifying connections between words, stretching and owning their own vocabularies, and actively thinking about language.

More Play Adventures

  • Lowercase letters. If you’ve been using all capital letters, use the Mystery Word as a time to introduce lowercase letters. Just write the word in lowercase letters, and then write and hide a matching set of lowercase letters.
  • Match lowercase letters with uppercase letters. Write the Mystery Word in either uppercase or lowercase letters, and then hide the opposite type of letters. The children then have to match the uppercase letters with their lowercase partners, or vice versa.
  • Extra letters. In addition to the letters needed to build the Mystery Word, hide letters that are not part of the word. Then the kids have to figure out which ones belong and which ones do not.
  • Letter scatter. Instead of hiding the letters, scatter them all over the floor and let the children go on a letter hunt. Call out the letters as they are needed to build the Mystery Word, but do not provide a visual aid. This provides a great way to assess the children’s knowledge of letters in a fun, nonthreatening way. Make good observations of the children who are successful as well as those who are not. Don’t stand there with a clipboard making checkmarks, just pay attention to who seems to know what. Stay in the moment with them. You can always record anything that needs recording later.
  • Problem solving. If you hide letters in very tricky and inconvenient places, it takes some problem solving to retrieve them. It’s fun to watch the gears turn as children work together to figure out how to get a letter that’s been taped to the ceiling.
  • Go magnetic. Hide magnetic letters instead, and have the children build the word on a refrigerator, metal cabinet, or magnetic marker board.
  • Grab some books or sing. Share books and songs that are related to the Mystery Word you’ve selected.

541273Like this activity? Find more like it in Let’s Play. The handbook is filled with thirty-nine child-led, open-ended play adventures—plus more than 225 play variations—that are packed with learning. Building on the early learning principles presented in Jeff A. Johnson and Denita Dinger’s first book together, Let Them Play, these budget-friendly activities support your transition to a play-based, child-led (un)curriculum.

540535What is an (un)curriculum? Find out in Let Them Play. You’ll learn why children’s play is focused, purposeful, and full of learning. An (un)curriculum is all about supporting child-led play, trusting children as capable and engaged learners, and forgoing packaged curriculums and prescribed activities. Jeff and Denita explain the guiding principles of an (un)curriculum and how it gives children the freedom to play, includes suggestions to create spaces that promote healthy development and learning, and supports those who believe in the learning power of play. (Bonus: you can also read about a few tips to advocate for play—all from the book—in this blog post.)

Both books are available through Redleaf Press now, where you can also read our Q&A with the authors.

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