Today I am happy to feature a guest blog from Australian author A.L. Tait whose adventurous books have been a hit here and across the U.S. with middle school readers. I have always tried to encourage my girls to be creative and I love her tips to help get kids creating, rather than consuming. Do you have tips to share? Be sure to mention them in the comment section!
One of the best things about being a children’s author is visiting schools and talking to kids about writing. I do a whole host of different workshops, based on my series The Mapmaker Chronicles, with kids in grades 4-7 and the one thing that never ceases to surprise me is how BIG their imaginations are.
Yet if I talk to their parents, the one question I get asked over and over is this: how do I encourage them to write? Or, similarly: how do I get my kids off screens long enough to be creative at all?
The answer to that, I think, comes in three parts, (and I base this on my own experiences as a writer, my own experiences as a parent, anecdotal evidence from classroom visits and observation of the kids around me).
•Boredom fuels creativity
•When you write you control the whole world
•Creativity needs tools
Not particularly scientific, I grant you, but then creativity is more an art than a science, right?
Here are my five tips for encouraging kids to be creative – and, in particular, to write.
1. Let your kids be bored
I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasize the importance of this. Our world today is full to stimulation and busyness and goals and achievement and connectedness and encouragement. All of these things have their place, but one thing that is often overlooked is boredom.
I encourage boredom at my house. Our school holidays are not full of one activity after another. Instead, I will consciously schedule in entire days when my two boys, now aged 13 and 10, have nothing to do. Not one thing.
There are two reasons for this. One is that I am a work-at-home mum and I have commitments – I can’t be racing them off to activities and entertainment every day or nothing will get done.
But the second, equally important reason, is that it is on these ‘boring’ days that they end up doing the most interesting things. These are the days in which they will film a ‘blockbuster’ on the iPad. These are the days in which my 13-year-old son will write a song. These are the days in which my 10-year-old son will, after two hours of repeating ‘I’m bored, there’s nothing to do’ take my suggestion to draw a comic. Or paint a picture. Or read a book.
I know from my experience as a writer that creativity requires space. By that I don’t mean you need endless hours of isolation in which to sit and write. Instead, you need room in your life to think and dream, to problem-solve in your mind while you weed the garden, or to make connections for a story while you stare out at the night sky.
Let your kids be bored and those busy minds of theirs will start to dream.
2. Limit screen time
I get it. It’s hard. Saying no to your tweenage daughter when she just needs ‘one quick minute to message a friend’ is not easy. It will make you the worst mum in the world for, ooh, at least five minutes. But it’s an essential supporting caveat to point one.
A kid who is attached to a device or screen has stimulation at their fingertips 24/7. They are constantly fed other people’s ideas, thoughts and opinions. They mindlessly consume stories, in the form of games, news, blog posts, snaps, videos and endless other formats.
The only way to give them the room to write their own story is to make space for it. It’s worth the fight.
3. Talk to them about their ideas (or even just what they’re reading)
My oldest son is a thinker, a writer, a musician. Why is he like this? Partly because that’s who he is. Partly because he’s been lucky enough to be given the tools to create (in the form of music lessons). Partly because he’s always been a voracious reader.
My youngest son is a doer, a mover, a sportsman. He is never happier than when he has a ball in his hands or is trying to land a front flip on the trampoline (I try not to watch…). But he is also a reader – not voracious, not avid, but he reads every night. Why does he do that?
Partly habit, partly because everyone else in the house does it (including Dad, which I think is important in this case), partly because it gives him quiet time at the end of his endlessly busy days.
I talk to both of them regularly about what they’re reading. Mr13 recently discovered the poetry of Philip Larkin, thanks to the John and Hank Green podcast, and surprised me by reading a few of his favourites aloud to me on the drive to the gym one night. Mr10, on the other hand, is currently obsessed with a series of books about sportsmen.
Do I know anything about Larkin or rugby union players? Not particularly. But I am more than happy to talk to both of the boys about their ideas about these things.
If we as parents value their thoughts and ideas, they become more confident about expressing them.
4. Give them a reason to write
When you write, you control the whole world. Whenever I give a school presentation, this is something I always talk about with the kids. Nothing happens in a story that you, the writer, don’t want to happen. The good guys win. The bad guys get what’s coming to them. As the writer, you are the King or Queen of your universe.
Kids love this idea.
Why? Because there is nowhere in the world that a kid feels like that. (Actually, most adults don’t feel it very often either…)
Encourage them to keep a journal, either handwritten or as a document on their computer, in which they can record any thought they have. Encourage them to write stories based on their own experiences, only changed so that the outcome is whatever they would like it to be.
Encourage them to understand the inherent power of being the author of a story.
It’s also important to remind them that everyone has a strength that they bring to writing. Some people are visual, and their descriptions are amazing. Others are logical and analytical, and their plots are terrific. I call these Writing Superpowers (you’ll find the whole list here) and I encourage all kids to think about what their own superpower might be.
Understanding that you have a superpower gives you the confidence to be brave – and being brave is essential for good writing.
5. Give them the tools they need
I think there’s an idea that creativity is a natural gift and I’m sure there are a few kids out there who are born simply knowing how to paint, draw, play music, or write poetry. But most of us need to learn how to do something to have confidence in doing it.
But Allison, I hear you say, isn’t this counter intuitive to the boredom idea?
Yes, and no. I sent Mr13 to piano lessons for five years, during which time he willingly went to lessons once a week and rarely practised in the meantime. “Should I make him sit down for 30 minutes a day?” I asked my mum (who is a bit of a sage in this area). “Am I wasting my money?”
“If he’s happy to go, keep sending him,” was her response.
And so I did, shaking my head every week.
And then, one day, he picked up a guitar and started playing it. Within weeks he was writing his own songs.
He no longer plays the piano, but he does play his guitar every single day for upwards of an hour. To him, it doesn’t feel like practice.
All of those years of piano lessons gave him the tools so that when he found the instrument he really loved, he took flight.
Mr 10, on the other hand, tried a year of clarinet lessons, and then a year of guitar lessons, before declaring it wasn’t his thing. But, he sits down with his brother and they write rap songs together. He can play a three-chord song on a guitar and he gets As in music because he has that basic understanding of how the notes go together.
Should he ever decide to go back to it, it will be waiting.
Writing is, I think, the same. Kids who are voracious readers pick up an innate understanding of story structure. Without being able to name a noun, a verb or an adjective, they understand how stories go together.
If you want to encourage your kid to write, encourage them to read. And if that means borrowing every book in the library until they find an author they like, then so be it.
If they’re actively writing stories, encourage it by finding a writer’s group for them to join. Or remember that the internet isn’t all bad – if you’re looking for writing tips for kids, start with this fantastic series at The Guardian.