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Sweet surprises

3 kids looking at laptop screen

Encoding, encryption and privacy

I remember these moments at the dinner table with my parents, typically around Christmas or my birthday: Out of the blue, one of them would switch into a language I didn’t understand.

I knew they were talking about a present for me and I remember trying to decipher their words. Later it turned out that the encrypted language was English. I guess this trick wouldn’t work anymore now. Would it, mum and dad?

In our modern world, the ability to encode content is becoming more and more essential. Modern-day technology has led to an unprecedented level of transparency. To ensure children’s safety, their ability to recognise a security risk and a skill set that helps them protect their privacy are invaluable. The first step to cyber safety is to understand the basics of keeping information safe. Our Computer Science workshop and the accompanying materials spark ideas on how to explore privacy protection in the virtual world without using technical devices.

Together with the children, discuss what they could do to keep the content of a treasure chest safe. The children might suggest locking the chest with a key. This could be a starting point for investigating different ways to keep precious content safe. What can we do to protect information? Who can I share my treasure with and how?

An idea from the Computer Science workshop is to exchange confidential messages with each other: Each child cuts a narrow, preferably long, strip of paper and wraps it several times around a cardboard roll so that the roll is entirely covered. The beginning and end of the paper strip should be fixed with sticky tape, so the paper doesn’t slip. The children can now create their messages on this newly created surface. For example, they might write a short text or draw on the roll. They take the paper strip off and pass it on to another child. The recipient child also needs a roll to decipher the message. Can it be any roll? How does the paper strip need to be wrapped around the roll so that the message is visible?

kids writing a message

Equipped with a basic understanding of why codes can be important, the children could then go off exploring other ways to secure information, for instance by creating a new language only they can understand. In fact, after listening to my parents conversing in a foreign language, I decided to speak in code with my friends for a while. I reckon they didn’t see this coming. Or did they?

In our Computer Science workshop, educators learn how to expose children to IT concepts without touching a computer. The focus is on understanding the principles of computer science as opposed to using the device.

Note for Adults

In the digital space, we don’t want other people to read our messages, or to see or copy and re-use pictures that we’ve sent. This is why data sent by email is also packaged, sealed, and encrypted. During the encrypting process, the readable text (clear text) is transformed into a confidential message that cannot be deciphered without a key. If the same key is used for both encrypting and decrypting information, this is called symmetrical encryption. The asymmetrical encryption uses two keys. The sender encrypts the message with a public key that is accessible by anyone. The recipient then decrypts the information with a private key only available to them. This way the key doesn’t need to be sent and therefore cannot be intercepted. The encryption activity using the cardboard roll is based on the Greek scytale, one of the oldest known encryption methods.

Day plan

To round up the discussion, you could discuss the eSafety early years program, released by the Australian eSafety Commissioner. You could, for instance, discuss the ‘Our family tech agreement’ and how it could be applied to an early childhood setting.

Avatar: Woman with brown eyes and brown hair up in bun
Article author: Heike Hendershot
National Training Manager

With an extensive background in education and a fearless passion for collaborative learning environments, Heike manages the development and implementation of workshop content and supports the team of training facilitators at Little Scientists.

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