When I was in sixth grade, everything about my school was chaotic, except for Mrs. Ingersoll. She was loud, whether she was laughing or yelling, and she loved to read my poetry. I didn’t do much math that year, but I wrote a lot for my audience of one.
Sixth grade has changed since then. Many teachers and students are now pressed by standardized testing, which can ignore the importance of creative expression to young learners, undervaluing both its social-emotional and academic impact on children.
We tell young children to “use their words,” but we also silence them. Every adult who spends time with children has told them to be quiet, or wished they would stop telling their endless stories, or asking so many questions. Yet their chatter and wild wonderings have much purpose. Vivian Gussin Paley, teacher and early childhood educator, writes that dramatic play and storytelling are how children make sense of the world and learn to work with each other: “We learn to know what we are thinking about by the ways in which we play.” Creative writing is play-filled writing.
Later, as children grow, we complain that they don’t tell us anything. We ask them to write in school, but we are less interested in what they express than how they express it, responding by correcting spelling and grammar — which is, after all, what we are able to measure. We can’t easily measure empathy or the ability to work with others, but those skills come about through meaningful play and self-expression.
Before children can work well with others, they have to learn to communicate with themselves, to understand what they are feeling, and what they need and want. Poetry and personal narrative help children make sense of their lives by allowing them to talk to themselves through writing. Play writing, fiction and comics help children explore social conflicts and issues concerning the individual and society through a story.
Mrs. Ingersoll motivated me to write more because she clearly enjoyed my writing. She was the most open-minded and tolerant of readers. I could write anything — moody poems or poems about the tightness of my jeans — and she loved it. Having an audience — whether parents, family members, teachers or friends — motivates young writers and gives them a feeling of ownership and competence because they have entertained, informed or convinced someone with their ideas.
Comics, plays and short stories all teach the elements of a narrative: setting, character, conflict and plot. Comics and plays motivate students who learn differently, are visual thinkers, or prefer speaking and acting to sitting and writing. Comics also teach students about sequencing and transitions. A way to teach students how to organize and synthesize their research is to have them create informational comics, putting a fact into their own words and pictures in each panel.
Poetry provides rich opportunities to teach the generation of ideas, descriptive detail, word choice, nuance and effective use of figurative language. Poetry, because it’s short, and because it can be performed, encourages struggling writers. Often poems written by less academically successful students are full of surprising imagery and originality.
If you teach children to write reviews about what matters to them, be it a favorite food, a video game, or a book, they are writing about their own experience. What makes all of this writing different from traditional academic writing is choice. Students can choose their characters, arguments, topics and genres. They can represent their ideas in ways that allow them to integrate their ideas and learning with their own creativity and voice.
Sharing with Others
Parents and teachers are one type of audience, but creative work becomes exponentially more powerful when it is shared with peers. Hearing, reading and viewing each other’s work throughout the writing process builds a fire of creativity in children’s minds.
Mrs. Ingersoll probably had no idea how important she was to my development as a writer. She encouraged me simply by taking the time to read my poems and respond authentically. This encouraged me to practice so I became more comfortable and confident as a writer.
When a child has an uncritical and patient audience, they will write more. With frequent and engaging opportunities to play at writing, children gain competence and confidence. We will not make a novelist of every child, but an intrinsic writer is a thinker and a questioner, a person who values their own voice and the voices of others, and an activist in the world.
How to Help Your Child Become a Writer After School
For younger children
- Tell a story. Use pictures and books to encourage your child to make up stories.
- Dramatic play. Provide space and time for open-ended dramatic play with minimal props and prompts.
- After your child draws a picture, ask them, “What is happening in this picture?” and add the captions or narration.
- Long ride in the car? Tell a pass around story where each person adds one sentence at a time.
- Make up new words and verses to familiar songs.
- Publish their writing and artwork in cards, calendars and on the refrigerator door.
For older children
- Create a family joke book or a historical book of family stories. Have your child write an older relative’s favorite story, interviewing them to discover new details.
- Respect their interests. Encourage them to draw, write and act out their ideas.
- Have open-minded discussions about freedom of expression and the power of words to help or hurt others.
- Expand their exposure to literary arts — beyond television and film. Take them to plays, poetry slams or comic cons.
- Make college essay writing a time for discussion and reflection on past experiences with your child.
- Enroll your child in a writing workshop or camp at Lake Erie Ink: a writing space for youth.
— Cynthia Larsen is a co-founder and Lead Teacher at Lake Erie Ink: a writing space for youth, where her primary responsibilities include facilitating creative writing experiences in local schools and out of school organizations, and coordinating curriculum for Lake Erie Ink. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona and taught English in Cleveland, Oakland, San Francisco and Jersey City. She is an unfinished novelist.