Thursday, January 28, 2010

Using Toys as a Springboard for Writing

I have already used some toys of my own to create stories. I shared a story via PhotoPeach about my fairies, and an elf called Jack. At Notaland, I used a picture of a feral fairy called Nancy. And I made a short video with iMovie, using those same pictures.

Because I am currently enrolled in a wonderful online course called Images4Education through
Electronic Village Online, I prodded myself to take some new pictures. I am not the world's best photographer, but my photography is way better than my drawing. So I decided to use these new photos, and document some ideas I had for encouraging kids to write, in this article.


Kids love their toys. Do you remember wondering what your toys got up to when you were asleep? Famous creators have wondered that too - stories like Corduroy, Pinocchio, The Velveteen Rabbit, or Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite rif on this theme. Your kids might be aware of movies like Toy Story, or Jim Henson's
Secret Life of Toys.

Why not tap into that fascination and encourage your child to take photos of his toys? Use those photos to spark some writing OR plan your story first, and work out what pictures you need to accompany the story.

Here are some ideas for children's writing that use such photos of toys as their focus:
  • Make an alphabet, counting or simple book
For an alphabet book, try to find toys that start with each letter of the alphabet, and write the names underneath the photos you take. "A" might have a picture of a plastic ant, with "ant" typed below, "B" could be a bicycle etc.

For a counting book, choose the numbers you want to practise, and take photos of that many toys. It's probably best not to decide on "bicycle" for 12, or you may have trouble assembling so many bikes. Like creating any book, planning first pays off. Say you decide to make numbers 1-10, the first page might have "1", and a picture of one teddy bear, "2" could be two Barbies. Add some fun by using alliteration, and you could have "one wonderful wagon, two tiny teddies" etc. (Good luck with explaining that "one" starts with a "w" sound! )

For a simple book, you can just take random photos of toys, and write/type underneath the name of the toy, or whatever your youngster wants to dictate or write herself.
  • Make a caption book
Caption books are one degree more complicated than those in alphabet books. They involve creating a simple sentence about each photo. You don't even need to have a sequence of events or a narrative, but narrative will add an extra degree of complexity. Once you have your photo, ask your youngster to tell you about it and record what he says as your caption. If you want to have whole sentences, you might need to model them for him eg "This is my transformer, Optimus Prime." "I like my teddy. His name is Ben."

If your child wants to write a whole story, it might be best to create the story first, work out which sentences will go on which page, then decide on the photos you want to accompany them. The creation process might start with acting the story out by using the toys, moving them around the way kids do naturally when playing, then evolve to recorded sentences. One way to do this if your child is comfortable with it, would be to video his play. If digital storytelling really interests your older child, you might want to introduce him to the concept of story-boarding as preparation, and use a template to organize scenes.

Here's an example of the sort of simple narrative your child might come up with, plus the pictures you might help him decide on, and photograph.

One day, Teddy went for a walk in the garden. (Pic here of Teddy walking) He met a fluffy pink bird. (Pic here of Teddy meeting the bird) "Hello, Bird," said Teddy, "what are you doing?" "I'm looking for my friend, Gorilla," said the bird. "I can't find him anywhere." (Pic here of baffled bird.) "Don't be sad, I'll help you look for him," said Teddy. (Pic of Teddy peering under bushes.) "Grrrr!" What was that? (Pic of Teddy looking worried.) Teddy and Bird got such a fright they fell over. (Pic of two, stunned.) Can you see Gorilla hiding in the bushes? (Final pic Gorilla in his disguise.)

Once I had my pictures, I uploaded them to PhotoPeach, and matched them to my captions. Then I previewed and made some changes. Total time taken, from finding toys, writing the story, deciding on the pictures I needed, photographing the toys, creating the book on PhotoPeach, was about an hour. You can see the little "book" by clicking on play below.

Monkey Business on PhotoPeach



  • Make a chapter book
Once your children are older, they might be inspired by the wonderful books they read, and decide to try writing one themselves. Some kids will want to plan, try an outline; others will want to plunge straight in. Your own computer software will help make a digital story for the narrative. If your child wants to write a choose your own adventure style narrative, here's a step-by-step guide at ehow. There is also Twine, which gives you free Mac and Windows software to download, that helps kids organize such stories.

In the publishing world, children's chapter books usually don't have photos, but that is not always the case, and besides, your child's book probably won't be submitted to a publisher. Kids might enjoy setting up elaborate scenarios with their lego toys (say), then taking photos and using those pictures to fuel their own writing. There's a cute website called
MiniMizer, where you can decorate your own digital lego person, and take a screen grab of the character(s) you create, which might inspire some writing too. Book Chook reader, Chase March, and his class made a movie based on MiniMizer "toys". Here's a little movie made about lego toys - it might be all the inspiration your budding Spielberg needs.

Format: All of these books can be print, or digital. For print, use blank sheets stapled together, a cheap scrapbook, an old photo album, or boost the economy and buy a Moleskin. For digital, try online editors like Bookr and PhotoPeach, a slideshow maker like PhotoStory (Windows) or Keynote (Mac), or your own word processing software. My favourite is iWork's Pages (Mac).

I love story, and much of my life revolves around it. But not all kids are interested in fiction, or in narrative as a type of text. For them, photos could be part of a "how to" explanation, where they take procedural shots to illustrate each step. Maybe they like to create toy aircraft or want to write an informational text about painting Warhammer models. Separate chapters could be devoted to different models, or even different types of decoration. The nonfiction section of your local library will have some great samples of this kind of book.

Some kids won't be interested in writing at all. I accept that. But if they see us modelling writing as a way to record our communications, particularly as a way to share stories, it might jump into their mind as a fun thing to do when they are ready. As with reading, if we start when they're young, and make the activities enjoyable, they are likely to come back for more. Using toys, and photos of toys, gives their stories a focus and makes the finished product more personal. Books that we create as a family are read over and over, contributing to literacy, and making happy memories.

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