This week I have been blogging about the Five Hundred Words short story competition on Radio Two.
You can find details here.
Using a competition as a prompt to secure great creative writing from children in school can really work.
Children like a challenge. They like to do things for a reason, and they like to win prizes, so a competition like this, with fantastic prizes on offer can elicit amazing responses from children, and quite often children that you would not expect to see submitting an entry.
We run workshops in school at this time of year, so that children who want to submit an entry can get some inspiration and support. We do not make the competition mandatory, but we offer the children every encouragement to write a story and it is amazing how many children come along. Not all the children who come to the workshops end up submitting a story, but even if they only come along to one or two of the events, it can still inspire them to up their game in class.
One thing I have noticed is that children can be very nervous when it comes to having total creative freedom when it comes to what they write about. This is understandable when the general every day activities in school are all geared around getting children to do what they are told, and getting them to respond to prescribed themes or styles of writing. When you take the brakes off completely and exhort them to just ‘use their imaginations’, you can be presented with a sea of anxious faces. Children want to do it right. They want to please you. They don’t want to make mistakes.
It is very hard to make children understand that there is no right and wrong when it comes to what their imagination can offer, especially when they are still expected to tame that imagination by setting it down on the page in a fashion which still allows everyone else to read and understand it. What you are actually saying is that they can operate without rules but within a structure (grammar, punctuation, spelling). This is a tricky concept to grasp, and it is no wonder that children struggle.
One of the things that we have found works really well, is setting an activity during the workshop time, to give the children inspiration, or at the very least pegs to hang information on. One thing that is a lot of fun and which works excellently with a group of children is the story telling game.
You will probably have played the story telling game at some point in your life. It is a staple of the long car journey or dreary indoor play day of childhood. It is incredibly simple.
Someone starts a story, probably with the classic opening line: ‘Once upon a time…’
They keep telling the story for a minute or two until they get to a place where they are happy to stop, some kind of cliff hanger is usually a good place to do this.
The next person in line has to take up the story where the first story teller left off.
The story continues around the room until everyone has had a go, or in the case of small groups, you as the leader of the group decide to finish the tale.
Building a story in this way means that the children get to be creative, but they do not have all the responsibility for the story on their shoulders and they are not expected to perform solo. The ideas of the other children act as a trigger for the children who come next, and the fact that they only have to contribute a little, and they have time to think means that the story flows much more smoothly.
If you are doing this game in a class situation it is always best if the teacher or co-ordinator takes the first story shift, because the set up is always the hardest bit with the most responsibility, and it can shape whether your story flies or crashes and burns.
This kind of story telling game can provide a fantastic springboard for children’s imaginations to really blossom and make children reassess what they are capable of in terms of their ability to tell a story.