One of the best parts of being an author is receiving handcrafted stories from the youngest Otis Goes to School fans, learning to fashion their very own tales. As a mother, it’s that much more special to hold my very own children’s crumpled up, notebook-papered accounts of vacations and childhood shenanigans, and interpretations of “what if?” The subject of creative writing has, thus, become a platform for me as I visit schools and spend time with young folks, and it is my hope to nurture their love for literature and its composition, in honoring the ones who did so for me. To that end, I share with you my thoughts on writing with our own children:
“Mommy, I see a puppy! He has a ball! Oh, wait… now he’s a sailboat! And there’s a train! Do you see it? Mommy, look! It’s a window! Do you think the train is gonna choo-choo through the window? I do, and… oh! Look at that castle! I’d like to see that castle up close. I wonder if I look small from there. Do you see, Mommy? What do you see…?”
Have you heard your little one rambling in such a fashion? Did you slam on the brakes for the puppy that was not, in fact, chasing a ball down the road? A sailboat and a train? No, we are not at the beach, and nowhere near the tracks. Yes the car has windows, and what castle? Ahhh… it’s the view from Wonderland–the world where children don’t need glasses and near-sightedness often blurs the reasonable, busily practical adult’s vision.
Children do have their heads in the clouds. At least, that’s where they start. That’s the leaping point… the endless possibilities of soaring have everything to do with seeds of encouragement and droplets of inspiration (or the lack thereof), and then the patience of time in all its unfolding, surprising power.
And as adorable, cloud-gazing moments march further into the realm of smile-worthy old memories, words and phrases that could only have come from the mouths of your own babes will fade, and we will not recall the specifics. Of course, you’ll likely have old photographs that cover your walls, fill your albums, decorate your desks and dressers and deplete the memory space available on your phones and tablets and computers, and without a doubt, they are to be ever cherished.
What, though, of the fleeting words that go with them? What of the uncatchable moment that passed from the back seat of silly cumulus concoctions? What of the rip-roaring playground adventures of braving a tightrope walk above the lava, from swing to swing, without daring to touch a toe to the ground of sure doom? What of the cops-and-robbers escapade that played out in the backyard while you cooked supper? What of the Matchbox car chase through Barbie’s Dreamhouse and My Little Pony’s stables? Their preservation is, no doubt, in your smile, your laugh lines, yours happy dreams, the locked vaults of your heart… and theirs.
If I said there is a way to harness a just a bit of those effervescent clouds, that disappearing castle, the childish adventures and observations that we chalk up to the earliest parts of all our lives… if you knew that the passion for avoiding the dangerous playground lava and always catching the bad guy could be lassoed and bottled… if you could see that puppy chase the ball right into a sailboat transformation from your child’s perspective, would you lean in? How about if you knew that such a capturing could spark your child’s interest in reading, give them a foundation of confidence in schoolwork challenges, hone fine motor skills, provide an outlet for emotion and creativity, and a hobby that requires no plugs, wires, or noise?
You’ll need a pencil and paper. Actually, your child will.
It is not humanly possible to hook the whole view from Wonderland, so there is no need for mommy-guilt, kid comparisons or one more line item to add to your super-mom CV. Your maternal role, in this opportunity, is quite simple after securing the pencil and paper: to encourage, and to give your child the time and wiggle-room to do the rest… on their own personal level.
Let them write. Tell them to write. Believe that they can. Forget proper spelling, punctuation and capitalization for the moment. This is not about syntax and grammar. This is about that leaping point, from the edge of that crazy-shaped cloud they think looks like a butterfly with tennis shoes and a unicorn’s horn… write that down, child.
Is the sky blue? What kind of blue? Like an island’s ocean? Your sister’s eyes? Your favorite crayon? Put it into your beautifully childish words and sound them out right onto the paper waiting to come alive by the shape of your squarely printed letters, your curly-q swirls, and the meaning and sentiments behind it all.
What is that tickle in your mind? That’s the birth of your imagination. And just where did that butterfly go? The tug from the tip of that pencil will take you there.
“Mommy, what should I write? What should I say?” This is where you give them encouragement and time to let them do the exploring. Sometimes it’s hard to allow our children time to figure things out on their own. It’s easy to assist in the story, to give them the words, to entertain them so they are comfortable, to then cross that activity off the list and move on to a movie or video game, something to keep them occupied while you fold laundry in peace (or grab a precious minute or two to catch a well-deserved breath)!
Stretching muscles doesn’t always begin with ease. But let them get bored… it’s their imagination’s cue. Nourishing a child’s independent vision does take patience and inspiration, but once their wheels begin turning, once they see clearly that they are quite able to work out an original thought and transpose it to something on paper, your role slowly changes from “Mommy, Keeper of the Bottomless Activity Grab-Bag,” to “Reader of all things Wonderland-born.” Your child naturally becomes “Preserver of Fairytales and Memories.” And after some time, the words—especially the phonetically (mis)spelled ones–will be treasures that have magically captured those vanishing moments in the ever-evolving experience of parenthood.
Moms always love a sword with double edges… not the kind with a win-lose slicing pattern. No, this saber carves with love and purpose, both ways. Wield the power of writing and imagination, don it like knighthood on the shoulders of those tied to your apron strings, and watch them grow in a developing love for books and reading, with the added bonus of tuning the little muscles in their hands that move the pencil on the paper. While they begin to craft the butterfly’s flight path over the playground lava and through the window of the highest tower of the cloud castle, they are flexing far more than the glorious muscle of imagination.
Lipscomb Academy Reading Specialist, Suzanne Howell, says “A child’s literacy development will flourish when their reading and writing instruction is woven together. Research shows a natural connection between the two subjects. The relationship is reciprocal… [like] the chicken and the egg. One cannot exist without the other. The act of writing words… expands the child’s ability to read.”
And if they really take to writing like a hobby, put a journal in their hands. Let them carry it everywhere they go, and encourage them to stop right in the middle of their hippity-hopping tracks and jot down whatever it is that has made an impression on their hearts. Let them add their own doodles and illustrations if they feel so inclined (ok, so pencil and paper, plus crayons or paints or stickers, etcetera… for the ankle-biters who really run with the opportunity).
Writing certainly won’t be every child’s favorite pastime. But think of it this way… every single child has a story to tell, and every single one of those stories is magnificently worthwhile and wonderfully different. As an author, I’ve visited many schools and classrooms to encourage reading and writing, and I can tell you firsthand… the stories your children can weave are truly moving, drawn from the wells of youth and its endless supply of creativity.
I encourage you to put the pencil between their fingers, guide it to the paper, and prepare to be impressed. Be it about the weekend football game, the tree house stunt, the neighborhood dog who barks every time a car drives by, the lunchroom rumpus, the fairy who flutters in the garden, the Olympic gymnast and her lucky, pink and purple leotard, Bob the frog who lives in the creek or the time spent with Grandma counting cars going by from the front porch swing… there is a story that only your child can tell.
From the leaping point, give them the chance to soar beyond the puppy dog clouds, and bless them with the time to do it. You’ll find yourself inspired with your own imagination’s answer when they ask you, “Mommy, what do you see?”
I see no limits, sweet child. And the view from Wonderland, through your imagination-painted glasses, is quite spectacular.
Does your child enjoy writing? If you are a teacher (and thank you for what you do!), do your students enjoy writing? Share your children’s wordly creations with me, and I’d love to post them on the Otis blog, along with your child’s (or your class) picture! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.