Friday, February 25, 2011

Children: Natural Born Storytellers

Anyone who has ever watched children play knows they are not merely building with blocks, squishing clay, or coloring with crayons. They are telling themselves a story the whole time, building a world and creating characters as they “play”. Because of that natural born love of a good story, it often doesn't take much to nudge a kid into a full scale writing geek.

I am often invited to schools to do presentations or author visits, usually with the hope that meeting an author will help get kids fired up about their own writing. Whenever I do these visits, I always ask the students the same question: Who likes to write? Around 50% of the kids raise their hands. When I ask the question again, this time adding, Who likes to write if you get to ignore all the rules,” 98% of the kids raise their hands. Hugely different response!

The following tips are designed to help remind your child—and yourself—that writing can also be a form of play; to help turn them into a story geek rather than a writing robot suffocating under too many rules. The goal is to reinforce those parts of writing that equal play in your child’s eyes and ignore the rest.
  1. Let them give rein to their natural enthusiasm and sense of play by ignoring the writing rules that make it feel like work. You want them to get in touch with that intuitive part of themselves that recognizes that writing and creating can be play. Rules can always be taught later, but a sense of joy, once lost, is very hard to recapture.
  2. Invest in nice quality notebooks and pens. It’s easy to dismiss the very kinesthetic pleasures of writing—the feel of a silky pen flowing across thick, smooth paper. High quality pens and notebooks can bring that extra pleasure to the act of writing. Plus it signals to them that this is a valued activity, one that can feel good physically and one that the adults in their lives value enough to indulge them in.
  3. Give them permission to not show anyone their work if they so choose (even you!). Some people need absolute privacy in which to experiment and risk failure, especially children who are used to doing exceptionally well at things.
  4. Do not critique their writing, even if they beg you. If they are dying for feedback, let them know what they did really well. Or better yet, ask them which part they had the most fun doing.
  5. As hard as it is for us adults, do not weigh down your child's writing with your desires, dreams, and ambitions. If you child loves to write and spends hours writing, do not begin pushing them to become a writer or enter writing contests or in any way burden their writing with expectations of careers or publication. Let writing be one area of their lives that is process oriented rather than result oriented.

[Originally posted at


Mae said...

As a kid, I agree!

I mean, are you kidding? I had the craziest, soap-operest plots for playing with my dollhouse! Playing with dolls became managing an orphanage.

And yeah, my parents aren't allowed to read my books. I tell them the funny parts. Even when I dream of publishing, they aren't allowed to read the book.

By the way, I created a small writing challenge for myself today- start a new story each month for a year. I have the ideas down already. It might help me curb the start-stories-before-they're-ready instinct!

Emma said...

Critiquing writing, however, is necessary for bigger kids starting from ages 8-9 (at least for me.) I'm in seventh grade. I absolutely love it when people can look at my writing and point out the good parts and the bad parts. It's what I can improve, not what I have accomplished, that makes me a better writer and better at things in general.

Mae said...

Emma, I agree. I do prefer when it's fellow writers who know the difficulties- on this writing site, I constantly try to get my stories reviewed, I got a point I did badly, and I made fun of it. And now I'm trying to fix it.

Unknown said...

As a 48-year-old kid, I also agree! I've been writing intensely for the past 3.5 years and have felt flattened by all the rules. Lately, I've eased up on the rules a notch, just allowing the fun to squirm onto the page, and I think my writing is better for it.

Thanks for the great website!

Mel said...

This is a really important post. I agree with all that you said most especially with #4. There is nothing more damaging to a child's fragile ego and imagination process as an adult who tried to mold or rip apart their story. I can speak clearly to this because in grades 6 - 8 my teacher/guardian told me that I was the worst writer in the world - harsh words I know, but it took me until I went to graduate school (over 20 years later) to get over that. I can tell you as an adult and as a therapist that adult's words weigh heavily on children's minds and create a lot of damage. There is no room for negativity in creativity!

Emma said...

Oh, no. The criticism I speak of is constructive criticism. Saying that somebody is the worst writer in the world is not criticism at all, it is name-calling. Kids can get caught up in raptures and really ridiculous stories (I really tested my English teacher's grading capability on that one I bet), and it is the responsibility of the adult to handle these plots that would never touch a grown-up's mind. However, constructive criticism is necessary to any piece of writing, however ridiculous.

Amanda Hoving said...

I love the how you change the question up to the kids. No restrictions = freedom to tell their stories their way. Excellent advice.

Robin L said...

Mae, so glad to hear your own experience agrees with mine!

Emma, I have to say that in my experience, 8 or 9 seems very young to start seriously critiquing. Seventh grade, yes, but most 3rd or 4th graders still need time to revel in their creativity before having others comment on it. In general. Of course, individuals vary widely.

Jay, yeah, rules can do that to you. Whenever I am feeling that way I remind myself that they are TOOLS, not rules, to be wielded as writers think best.

Oh Mel, I'm wincing and cringing and all sorts of painful things! Wish I could go back in time and thwap that teacher upside the head.

Amanda, I think it catches some of the teachers off guard, to see how very MANY of the kids enjoy writing, when allowed to do it there way.

Sydney said...

Mel, this is the second time I've heard a horror story about a teacher who reviled a student in this way. As a teacher myself, I can't imagine ever doing such a thing (short of having a nervous breakdown). The first story that I heard in this vein was from a mother whose son had been told that he would never be a writer by one of his high school English teachers. He went on to become an international reporter and won the Pulitzer. So much for that sort of prediction. May your own career meet with equal success.