Encouraging children to write creatively is a matter of helping them connect with their feelings, explains Diana Noonan.
As an author, the question I am most commonly asked is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Usually, my answer is: “From life.” I write about things that have really happened, people I really know, and places I’ve really been to. But, more importantly, I write about the way I feel about all these things.
When children write, they also bring their feelings to the surface. They turn themselves inside-out as they place their emotions on the page and share them with their conscious selves and others. Their empathy, hopes, dreams, and fears are bared for all to see in an act of supreme vulnerability and trust. This act of sharing the self and making connections with others is, perhaps, the most important reason for encouraging young people to write creatively.
Writing doesn’t begin with the formation of written words. As every author knows, it is first and foremost a thinking process – which means that even very young children can “write”. Listen out for your little one’s story-making and help them to capture and record it. You may hear them singing a made-up song, or talking aloud about what they are doing as they play with their tea set, sandpit toys, or a friend. A simple comment such as, “Shall we write that little song down so you can draw a picture to go with it?” may be the very catalyst needed to start the child recording their first stories.
Just as important is the collecting of these creations. Paste the finished work into a scrapbook and shelve it along with their other books so the child comes to see their own work as part of a library of books which can be read along with all their other favourites. If you don’t catch your child in a creative moment, encourage “writing” by suggesting they draw a picture for Teddy or Grandpa. Drawing is its own form of storytelling because it involves the creating of time, place, and (usually) characters. Then let your child tell you about the picture as you capture this story in words.
Once children have mastered the physical skill of forming words and have a working grip on spelling and basic punctuation, they usually fall into one of two camps: Those who want to write creatively nonstop, and those who don’t want to write at all.
The “writer” requires materials – paper to make books, card for covers, staples to bind the manuscript together – and you as the audience. These are the basics, but you can also offer more if the opportunity arises: The gift of a journal for noting down story ideas, the suggestion the writer create a play for the family to perform, art materials for illustrations, or an entry form for a story-writing competition. If anyone in the family finds photos from magazines that might spark off a story idea, a notice board to pin them on would be handy. Young writers can be encouraged to take turns with friends to write alternating chapters in a longer book,or to send instalments to an eager-to-read grandparent.
But what can we do to encourage the non-starters? The key with these children is in understanding that, although they appear not to be writing, they will be creating stories in their minds (we all do, at all stages of our lives); we have only to help them recognise what these stories are and how to express them (which may not be, immediately, in the form of a writing). Non-willing writers may, for example, be interested in cartooning, so why not let them tell their story in pictures? They may be budding engineers – in which case, let them draw diagrams of their latest spacecraft or dragon-trap. They may like relating stories aloud, but never feel the urge to record them on paper.
Your job is to, very slowly, encourage the child to build on these expressions. Help them add a few words to the cartoon, or some labels and explanations to the diagram. Suggest they take their storytelling to the screen rather than paper, and add in some clip art to go with it. But whatever you do, begin from the place the child is at – don’t leap into what, for them, is the feared unknown, and put them off story-writing forever. When the time is right, this longer writing form will very likely arrive of its own accord.
Catlins author Diana Noonan is one of NZ’s best-known writers for children. A former editor of the School Journal, she writes for a range of educational resources, and takes a strong interest in the New Zealand curriculum.