Creating crosswords for children comes with its unique set of challenges. “Make it easy” is the overarching motto one would follow for the job, but that’s easier said than done.
Dean Mayer, professional cryptic crossword constructor from UK, put it well when asked about the difficulty of making easy puzzles:
The reason hard crosswords are hard is that the setter is almost unrestricted in the devices he can use, the way they’re used, how abstruse definitions can be. The easier the puzzle, the more of those freedoms are limited, or even taken away entirely. It can be like starting a military campaign with, instead of an army behind you, two rusty pistols and a toy catapult in your pocket.
So it’s challenging, but (good news!) not impossibly so. A few guidelines for a crossword constructor about to craft crosswords for children.
#1 Focus on a narrow age range
As Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers famously pointed out, there is a wide gap in the intellectual maturity of children just a year apart. Try not to appeal to, say, 5 to 8-year-olds; target your crossword towards a smaller age range, especially if the crossword is meant for very young children. You’ll have a far happier audience this way
#2 Choose the right words
The answers in the grid, along with the words in the clues, should be largely familiar to the children solving the puzzle. It might be tempting to put in complex constructions, especially if your goal for the crossword is to improve the children’s language skills. Even so, making the overall vocabulary too hard can be counterproductive.
How do you decide which are the “right” words? You can get a general sense by:
- running your clues and words through online readability tests (example)
- referencing age-categorized word corpuses (example)
- having a test solver from the target group give the puzzle a trial solving run
The limits on vocabulary make the work especially tricky for cryptic crosswords, as you must now produce surface deception with a restricted pool of cryptic indicators. Say you want to signal an anagram with “capricious” but you’re aware your solvers might not know this word. What do you do?
When in doubt, look for balance. If the crossings give enough information to reach the answer, the answer itself is a simple word, and asking for hints while solving is allowed, “capricious” might just work. Else replace it with something more accessible, such as “confused.”
#3 Beware of “dumbing down”
This might seem contradictory to the previous section which asked you to keep things simple. Let me explain.
On a scale of comprehensibility, there is a point beyond which the puzzle becomes so undemanding it no longer provides an intellectual challenge to the solver. The idea is to not cross that point.
Take this example of an anagram clue for the word AUNT:
Fresh tuna for mother’s sister (4)
Review the parts and you find the definition is a giveaway. A toddler can tell that “mother’s sister” is AUNT without crossings or wordplay.
That’s the kind of oversimplification to watch out for, but quickly fixed in this case with something like “a family member” in place of “mother’s sister”.
#4 Typeset it right, provide a roomy grid and scribble space
The visuals and design elements are as important as the content of the crossword, especially for children new to writing. In their first glance at written text, children decide if they can read it before they actually read it.
Pick a font that’s easy on the eye: high x-height and some contrast in stroke variation. Two popular choices among children’s books are Palantino and Baskerville, which can work equally well for typesetting clues.
If the crossword is meant for very young children, go for a large font size and extra white space around the clues. Provide enough space in the printed grid to let big handwritten letters fit into each cell without jostling for space with adjacent letters.
Then, plan a scribble area to spell out answer options, work with anagram fodder, note down half-solved words, and so on.
#5 Make solving fun
Add some spice to the fruits of your labor when the solving is on. A few ideas:
- Let the solvers attempt the crossword in pairs.
- Allow an “ask for a hint” option (with a cap on the numbers of times this may be used).
- Encourage the solvers to indicate their favorite clues.
- Hide a “Nina” (easter egg) in the crossword and ask the solvers to hunt for it.
To the crossword constructor reading this: All the best, wish you and the children solvers delightful word-wrestling sessions ahead!
Shuchismita Upadhyay is the author of Crossword Unclued, a website for cryptic crossword solvers and constructors.
Kristen Seikaly used her artistic background, research skills, and love for the internet to launch her first blog, Operaversity. Now she uses the skills to connect teachers, parents, and game enthusiasts with Crossword Hobbyist and My Word Search. She studied music at the University of Michigan, and now lives in Philadelphia.