Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 29, 2024

5 Things Working With Kids Taught Me About Writing

by Ellen Buikema

Working with young children provided me with a different way of viewing and understanding the world. Life lessons from children can serve as invaluable resources for writing and life.

1. Have Patience

When dictating stories for me to transcribe, children either spoke at lightning speed or slowly with great deliberation. The fast talkers needed to be patient with me. And they were. Each and every one of them. Patient to a fault.

Children at the writing table

A pair of fraternal twins, sister and brother, were prolific, creative storytellers. Both spoke at breakneck pace. Sometimes the duo’s words spilled forth with such speed that they tripped over syllables, making them difficult to understand. After hearing me ask several times, “Can you please say that again?” they chose a different method to get their stories across—one word at a time with a few “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” beats between words. I found this maddening, but eventually we developed a flow that worked for all of us. Plus, mutual respect allowed for greater student-teacher patience.

Rushing your book out to the public is tempting but unwise. Have patience. Art cannot be rushed.

Writing and “building a book” requires a lot of patience.

When composing, whether you are a plotter, pantser, or plantser, lack of patience leads to frustration that can hurl you smack into writer’s block. Having patience with oneself is not easy. Remember that a plethora of great writers took many drafts to get their stories just right. After all, first drafts are awful by definition.

2. Be Disciplined

Someone once told me that working with young students was like herding cats. I totally agree!

The attention span of a four-year-old is very short. We’re talking eight to twelve minutes on average if they’re interested in the project being presented. Unless you’re well organized with backup plans in case of emergencies, you are toast—burned extra crispy.

It takes discipline to have all the pieces-parts prepared for the day—as well as a bag of tricks.

Circle Time Disaster

I’d planned a fantastic lesson. It flopped big time. I could tell by observing the wiggling bodies sitting on the floor with me. Time to punt. Beside me, sat a bag containing several items of different shapes and sizes. I decide to call it The Mystery Bag. This went over very well. All forty eyes focused on the teacher holding a large, bumpy brown paper bag on her lap.

I asked the wiggliest student to come over and, without peeking, reach into the bag. “Describe the item for us, just from touching it,” I said. The student holding the hidden item chose each of her classmates in turn, following the customs of our classroom (preventative discipline). The students guessed what they thought the mystery item might be. After every classmate participated, the student pulled the item from the bag. The Mystery Bag activity continued until Circle Time ended.

What preparations do you make to be sure you're organized for your writing day? Some writers have specific goals, like word count or chapters to write per week. Others keep items in their writing area to use to trigger ideas. Maybe a Mystery Bag would help. Pulling items one-by-one to use as part of a suspense story. As for me, I like to start with coffee and quiet time to think about what happens next. Just like I'd ask the kids while dictating their stories, to move the plot forward.

Self-discipline or lack thereof, can make you or break you. It can:

  • Help form positive habits. Successful writers discipline themselves to write, making it habitual.
  • Assist you to be productive. Commit to a timeline for your writing projects. Be an achiever.
  • Help with focus. Focusing on the writing will get your work completed.
  • Increase your self-esteem. Achieving your writing goals boosts confidence.

3. Notice the Little Stuff

Children notice everything. When sitting on your lap to listen to a story, they may look up your nose and comment upon what they see. There is no such thing as a filter with young children. The social filter doesn’t start until around age seven, thanks to children’s increased capacity for empathy.

Everything a child sees and hears eventually makes its way to school, either with friends or trusted adults. Students write in pictorial form or dictate stories about things they’ve seen or heard that evoke emotion—both the good and the bad.

Observation is key to great scenes.

My favorite grade schoolteacher gave us a simple assignment, never graded nor asked about. Find one item on your walk home from school and really look at it in detail. Take time to observe the little things. I have never forgotten this assignment and have often used it over the years. There is beauty everywhere. Sometimes you need to look a bit closer.

Observation is much more than seeing. When writing scenes, the more senses used, the easier it is for your reader to become part of the story.

  • Choose what you want to observe.
  • Record your observations.

Use a cellphone camera, still or video camera, make a note on paper or an App like ColorNote, or audio recording App like Voice Recorder for future reference. Sensory memories are strong, but life is busy and it’s easy to forget.

4. Use Forgiveness

It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to hurt other people or yourself.

When my students hurt each other’s feelings in the classroom or playground, they were responsible to find a way to make the hurt person feel better. It’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.” Finding a way to make it better takes thought. Forgiveness was implicit in accepting that gift, whatever it may have been. This didn’t happen overnight, but over time made a huge difference in the way students treated each other.

No one has the same writing path.

Mentors can steer you toward new possibilities, challenge you, and expand your imagination, but no one can tell you exactly what your writing process should be. Forgive those that suggest the “right” way. You will develop a system that may borrow from many but become your own.

There will be fantastic days when your writing flows like a bubbly brook. Others are drought days with a blank screen or page. If you lose patience, forgive yourself.

5. Laugh Often

Once our school nurse fell ill and needed to spend time in the hospital. The students made a book for Nurse Rita to help her feel better. Each child received one page to draw a picture, write their names to the best of their ability, and dictate a sentence or two to cheer her.

Rita smiled throughout the book until she found the last page. Then she laughed hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. On the last page was a drawing of an Angry Bird with the caption, Angry Birds will make Nurse Rita feel better.

Laughter is good medicine. Nurse Rita agrees.

There is a healing quality to humor. Laughter releases feel-good hormones, and a jolly belly laugh is a good workout.

Find more tidbits about humor in writing on the blog. Writing Humor to Heal Mind and Body

And remember that a day without laughter is wasted.

Happy writing!

What life lessons have you incorporated into your writing? Do you have a favorite recording device?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works in Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and The Crystal Key, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi, a glaze of time travel.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Михаил Мингазов from Pixabay

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15 comments on “5 Things Working With Kids Taught Me About Writing”

    1. Hi V.M.,
      Working with classrooms full of young students was a challenging and eye-opening experience.

      A little part of me will always be four years old, you can see it in my humor now and then.

      There is nothing more important than the well-being of children. Working with them definitely influenced my writing and how I look at the world.

  1. Learn YOUR kids. Each child, each bunch of them, is a unique entity.

    I homeschooled my three, thought it would be the same for each, until middle child needed phonics and had to learn Algebra with manipulatives! And third child had her own ways.

    You have to be flexible - harder to do in a school environment and with children not your own and a prescribed curriculum - but still possible. Or strong personalities (good) wouldn't go back to the classroom each fall - to do it a little differently this time.

    1. Hi Alicia,

      I totally agree. Each of our children are different. Sometimes vastly different.

      My children were not homeschooled, but they were home-assisted whenever necessary. They were and still are highly motivated. After a long day teaching I would thank them for being such wonderful people.

  2. Hi Ellen,
    What sweet insights. Thank you for this uplifting post as I head into a sunny weekend here in the rainy PNW

    The grab-bag activity is a cool idea and it gets me thinking about how using only some of our senses can tell a story in new way. 😉


    1. Yes! That grab bag saved my day.

      I think that particular activity would make a fun small group project for writers at a conference, as well as a possible party game! Makes me think of Clue.

      Have a lovely time in the sun!

      1. I love hands on learning. 😉

        And I think you're on to a good idea there.

        We have weather in the 70s for the next few days. So looking forward to it!

  3. I love this post, Ellen! And I absolutely laughed about the lack of filter in the wee ones. It is hard to explain to people who have never been around kids that they will absolutely say ANYTHING.

  4. Hi Jenny,

    I'm glad you had a good laugh!

    The four and five year olds are something else. The are observant and hear everything. Often repeating in school what they've seen and heard at home, along with action and intonation.

    The housekeeping area which changed monthly to different types of businesses, was rife with tidbits.

  5. I have yet to get recordings to work well for me, but I've had the most luck with my phone!

    My favorite part of this post was the reminder not to rush writing! Love it! Thanks for this post, Ellen. And laughter really is the best medicine!

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