Social Distancing Blues? Outsource Your Kids to Creative Writing through Google Docs and Prompts
Creativity, quiet… and spelling help that parents don’t have to provide.
Writing helps us develop our creativity, executive function, and the ability to influence others through persuasion. Most importantly during the coronavirus outbreak, it also takes a child off your hands for a (nice long) while, helps them self-direct, and prevents families from weeping.
School is out, freedom is in! You can let your kids write up their wildest dreams. Discovering the many powers of the imagination is something school curricula often underemphasize, prioritizing spelling quizzes and analytical skills and critical thinking instead. For me, it’s also freedom: when my 8-year-old son types, it’s quiet in the room — save for the keyboard clacking — and actually possible to focus on my own writing and teaching.
Where to begin your child’s journey? One easy way to get started is to do a “fan fiction” of their favorite book. My son has written his (very approximative and short ) versions of books from the Goosebumps horror stories to Dog Man graphic novels, and, strangely, Alice and Wonderland. Right now we have Slappy, that ventriloquist dummy that is everywhere, talking to McFly from Back to the Future.
Another way to start a story is with a picture clipped from a magazine, catalogue, or just found on social media. Let your child find their own picture or give them a few to choose from. You can provide them with a phrase starting with, “Once upon a time,” to help them jump into narrative. Once your kiddo has finished the story, let them share it with the world — virtually with a friend, or by reading out loud to you at lunch.
Writing as a pleasure (gasp) for both the child and their family. My son burrows into his writing and can hang out and write for 30–40 minutes. Writing, for him, is a way for him to have some semblance of an escape while we are cooped up, with even the closest park closing today. “Sometimes get to write something a little fake, like fiction…” my kid says. “You can make up a lot of things that can’t happen in real life, but usually it’s impossible. Like pigs flying in the air, or dummies talking.”
Here’s a cherry on top of the delight of writing with Google Docs: they are accessible on any device in the house. If siblings are fighting over limited resources, no need to save, email, or transfer files: just get to writing, kid.
No more need to spell things out for the small humans (again and again). Young children often have trouble with dictionaries. Macs, iPads, and iPhones come with Siri. Call her your child’s dictionary — and your new BFF. You can ask her, “How do you spell ‘to’?” She will suggest four possibilities (“to,” “too,” “two,” and, for reasons unknown, “tout”), and, after you choose one, will pronounce it, spell it out for you, and define it. My son will then type it and learn muscle memory. Similarly, an Android device includes a Google search bar on the home screen and a mic button. Just press it and it’ll tell you how to spell a word.
Google Docs will also underline words for you, and then if you click on a word, it will suggest a possibility. Together, these features have saved me from endless questions, often about the same word. I’ve also noticed a sizable uptick in my son’s spelling. Connection hands! …as they say in kindergarten.
Kids can write together with friends — even now that they are apart from friends. Got a little extrovert? Boy, do Docs have an activity for you. Share your child’s blank Doc with their friend, and they can write fanfic or made-up stories together, in real time. Collaborative writing is immensely fun for kids — and will help them thrive in isolation.
Working together teaches a whopping number of interpersonal skills. Right now, my boy is negotiating with his Skype friend in another state on characters: he wants zombies, she would like flying princesses. Enter the need to take turns, use active listening, and negotiate different ideas and voices from each co-author. Oh, and watching over each other’s spelling can be nice; that red line reminds children of what might be misspelled.
From writing to cartoons, publishing, and other multimedia awesomeness. Your child’s story can serve as a script for a cartoon with Toontastic, a free, easy-to-use app that works on iOS or Android. This is a bit more hands-on at first, as the little author might need help with breaking a story into scene, identifying characters that they will draw or design in the app, and talking about what type of character they are.
It gets hands-off — and exciting — soon. Toontastic provides excellent built-in storytelling supports that are geared towards children. A child chooses a genre, such as a short story, classic story, or science report. They build the story around a familiar story arc (from setup and conflict to climax and resolution). They can even draw their own settings, which my kid likes to do, or choose from the settings Toontastic provides. And they offer many choices of background music.
Book Creator is a popular tool for publishing illustrated books, comic adventures, “about me” books with elements of video and audio, and lots more. It is not free (the cheapest version comes at $60 a year), but if your child is into it, it can really help channel their creativity into writing, creating, media art, and producing an artwork that works with multiple senses.
Word to the wise: We are tired, irritated, and forced to multitask in ways we might have never had to before. We may be tempted to critique our children’s creations or even want to edit them. This is not a good time to do that — for anyone. The genre here is a beautiful wild weed, not a pruned flower — a little tale, rather than an Ivy admission essay. You get my drift. To foster creativity, we have to let go of some control. If your child is seeking feedback, by all means, provide it. But try to avoid harsh criticism on any aspect of your kid’s creative output — even length. Remember that the very act of finishing a story can make a child (or anyone else!) feel incredibly proud. So what that their magnum opus has three pages, one paragraph per page? Let them have at it.
Creative writing is freeing and productive in lots ways. Now to have children earn money with their writing — and have a career of it — excuse me, just kidding. A mom can dream…
But allow your kid to write, and soon, among their repertoire of “Mom!!” and “I need a salami-and-peanut-butter sandwich,” you might soon start hearing, “Siri! How do you spell ‘fascinating’?” — and even “I’m proud of myself.” Heck, you might just start hearing the coveted sound of (near) silence.
Olga Livshin, PhD teaches children English, reading, and creative writing, and organizes children’s book clubs, online (olgalivshin.com). Her poetry collection A Life Replaced: Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman (2019) was called “inventive” and “an impressive feat of translation” by the Los Angeles Review of Books.