Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Let Them Play in the Backyard - Guest Post

It's my pleasure to welcome Australian author, Katrina Germein to The Book Chook today. 

Australian Children's author Katrina Germein wrote her first book 'Big Rain Coming' while working as a teacher in a remote Aboriginal Community. Katrina has remained passionate about writing for children ever since. Some of her other titles include Littledog and My Dad Thinks He's Funny. Katrina lives in Adelaide with her husband, their three children and a lovable old dog named Sunny.

Let Them Play in the Backyard
Supporting children to become better writers
by Katrina Germein

My son Hugo doesn’t want to be an author when he grows up. He wants to play AFL. And even story-loving, football-loathing me can see why. For Hugo, football’s a combination of structure, boundaries, and freedom. What can sometimes be missing from children’s writing programs is freedom. When all that’s on offer is structure and boundaries, it’s hard for anyone to stay motivated.

Weekly Training and Match play (Genre Writing and Spelling)

Hugo’s training involves drills and explanations. He learns the rules of the game and refines specific and necessary skills. Training is predictable and Hugo enjoys the support and security of routine. He appreciates expert advice from his coach. Come matches, Hugo is confident and prepared. Training for match play is essential but for a child to choose to play football, for a child to love it, more is needed. A focus only on drills will probably have a child wondering when the season will be over.

Many children are well versed in the writing of genres. They’ve been given expert advice and opportunities to practise. They enjoy the security of clear guidelines and have the skills they need to perform confidently on match day. In a world of mandated national testing this is essential. But for a child to choose to write, for a child to love it, more is needed. When it comes to writing, given the choice, many children would opt not to continue when the season is over.

Solo Drills (Indulging in Purposelessness)

Before school Hugo can be found kicking a ball against the side of our house. He kicks it and catches it, kicks it and catches it, kicks it and catches it. Sounds boring doesn’t it? I’m sure if I set Hugo the same thirty-minute task he’d probably think it was boring too. It would be a chore to be completed and he wouldn’t feel the soothing comfort of repetition. He’d stop setting himself private mini challenges (How many balls can I catch on the full? How many balls can I catch with my left hand?) and his catching and kicking would become sloppy as his concentration lapsed. The joy in the activity comes from self-directed exploration. Hugo notices small things like the way the balls comes off the wall when he points his foot a certain way.

What you discover for yourself is often far more meaningful than what anyone else can tell you.

Young writers devise their own kicking and catching models. They do things like set themself a challenge to write the longest story they can, write only detailed accounts of motorbike races, insist on using five adjectives before every noun and fill entire notebooks with messy handwriting. These tasks sound boring but are comforting and satisfying for the individuals who choose them. If children are given the freedom to experience the peacefulness of self-directed writing, they are more likely to appreciate writing for enjoyment. While Hugo’s kick and catch may look pointless his concerted repetition improves his ball handling skills.

The more you write the better you become, even when it looks mindless. It’s okay to write without obvious purpose sometimes.
Lunchtime Footy (Relaxing the Rules)

Lunchtime footy is competitive. It’s like Sunday morning matches without a referee, and, because of school rules, no tackling. The boys devise their own modified rules. This doesn’t mean they’re confused when they play on Sundays. Hugo isn't going to forget to tackle on the weekend. He can move between rule sets. Lunchtime footy is a fun, relaxed way to practise game play and it doesn’t even feel like practice.

Children should know that genres can be tampered with. Writing should not be a prison. Sometimes narratives can simply be stories. There ought to be more joy in story telling than just orientation, complication and resolution. Let children begin with the action, start with the complication. Journaling is a great tool for self-expression but not when every page has to be written in a perfect recount structure. Children can move between rule sets. Relax the rules and it won’t even feel like writing practice.

Commentating out Loud (Time to Dream)

Hugo plays out entire matches, for two teams, on his own in the backyard. I hear snatches of the play from the kitchen: and he takes the mark, and he’s kicked it straight through for a perfect goal. (As a girl who’s not really into footy, I think this is kind of weird but I remember my brother doing the very same thing so maybe it’s normal.)
Hugo plays out these matches lost in his own world. At the same time his brain is retrieving and processing everything he knows about the way the game is played.

Allow children to dream and write for fun. Let them create a world and wallow in if for a while. Let them write down their dreams or experiment in the style of their favourite graphic novel. Let them write a script for their favourite television show or draw and create visual texts. Let them write a poem. Let them know that it’s their space and their choice, even if what they choose seems kind of weird. Let them write the story they want to write, not the one we want them to. Let them be lost in their own world.

Playing with Dad (Sharing the love)

It’s not the score that’s important when you kick with Dad; it’s the knowing that Dad cares. It’s about having attention from an adult you love.

Children value what the people they care about value. If the adults in their life see writing as only mechanics, so will children, and well, that’s pretty boring. Children need to know that adults find writing interesting and fun.

Maybe this happens:

• by listening to a child read the ten pages they’ve written about motorbike racing
• by telling stories in the car, or by writing a note on a child’s work
• by making up silly rhyming songs
• by keeping a blog together
• by offering to scribe or type a story for a child
• by co-writing and creating a book with them

Nurturing a writer is more than checking for full stops and spelling mistakes. It’s not always the score that’s important.

Time constraints on parents are teachers are enormous. The pressures are huge. It can seem hard to justify allocating time to let children fool around randomly. But if the sun is shining, why not let them play in the back yard occasionally? At first they might stand around looking unsure but given enough time they’ll soon make up their own games. Then who knows, they might even choose to come back for another season.
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