By Tim Porteus

THE person who uses it never sees it, the person who makes it doesn’t use it, the person who pays for it wishes it wasn’t needed. What is it?

I always do riddles when I tell stories. I think of riddles and stories as close cousins which support each other.

A good brain-teasing riddle is usually fun, and children in particular love the challenge of solving a riddle, as well as making their own ones up.

I’m often greeted with pleas for “Tim, tell us one more riddle” when I enter a school, and I’m often challenged to solve a riddle made up by one of the children.

They are an ancient form of learning and entertainment.

The first discovered written riddles are close to 4,000 years old. They were written in Cuneiform, the writing of the ancient Sumerians.

A shortened and simplified version of one of these earliest riddles is: “A house you enter blind, but come out with sight. What kind of house is it?” The answer is a school, although some may raise an eyebrow at this answer.

Perhaps the most famous riddle from antiquity is the Riddle of the Sphinx to Oedipus, recorded in ancient Greek around the fifth century BC: “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?”

The answer is a human being. When a baby we crawl on four legs, as an adult we walk on two legs, in old age we need a third leg (a walking stick).

With my now continuous painful knee, this riddle has particular relevance for me, although I’m stubbornly resisting the stick!

I use riddles as ice breakers in storytelling sessions and as an engagement technique because they quickly hook an audience’s attention since they are, by their nature, interactive.

But they are also great fun to use with the children in your family.

I use them to help distract and calm my younger ones when they are fractious. I use them in the morning when the kids are getting ready for school so they concentrate on them while they are getting ready.

We make the riddles about the things we can see and the things we are doing, for example: “There’s a big one and a wee one and three in between, we are two families of five, we are all going to nursery, but we are usually not seen. Who are we?” The answer, of course, is my son’s toes!

For younger kids, it’s important to repeat riddles they already know the answer to. It helps them learn the riddle and how wordplay works. It also teaches them the rhythm of how they are told.

My four-year-old is getting pretty good at this, although the answers to his own made-up riddles don’t always make sense.

That doesn’t matter at this stage, what’s important is he’s developing an understanding of how they work and it encourages him to look for things to make riddles about.

His nearly six-year-old sister likes to challenge him too.

Her riddle “I am short when I sit, I am long when I jump, what am I?” had me thinking for some time before I got the answer: a frog.

To make a riddle, think of the answer first. Then work the riddle up to the answer. It involves thinking about all the different qualities, uses of and parts of the answer and how they can be twisted or described differently.

For example, a shoe has a tongue but can’t talk, a clock has a face and hands but no body, a river has a bed but doesn’t sleep.

Once introduced to riddle-making, children can get really engaged with it. A group of seven-eight-year-olds in a P3 class challenged me last week with a riddle they had made up themselves: “I have a brain full of teacher’s knowledge, I crash without moving, I freeze while staying warm, what am I?” The answer is a computer.

Some riddles rhyme and it can be an extra challenge to think of a rhyming riddle, but they don’t have to rhyme.

It really is a fun and rewarding activity to make a regular habit; in the car, dinner table, on a walk or even a bedtime riddle.

To help you out, there are literally thousands of examples of riddles in books, on the internet, in history, films and ones you hear. But the best ones will be those made up yourself, and the more you do it, the better at it you will become.

And the benefits of riddling regularly with your family can be significant, especially for children. It can promote critical thinking, encourage the observation of the world around us, help language development and can be a powerful bonding process with your child. And it’s fun!

And so when next time you are with your kids, grandchildren, nieces or nephews and find yourself waiting for food to be delivered in a restaurant or have no time for a proper bedtime story, or you just want to spend some quality time together without a screen, try make riddling part of it. Trust me, it will be fun.

Oh, and the answer to the well-known riddle at the beginning? It’s a coffin.