Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Playing Writing With Kids

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Playing Writing With Kids

Although I do write for children and teens, and that is an amazing pastime which occasionally makes me some money — what I really love to do is write with kids. As I said in my Dirty Dozen, I much prefer kids over adults. Kids are clever. They take risks. They grow.

I run a number of projects where I work directly with kids in a creative atmosphere. One of my biggest endeavors is the Reality Is Optional kids’ writing club, or RIO as we generally call it. RIO is NOT a class, as the kids who attend will tell you loudly if you accidentally call it that. In fact, they proudly proclaim they learn nothing at RIO, which isn't entirely the case. The thing is they do learn, but not from lessons. They learn by playing.

Play is the natural state for children and although the school system abandons it the minute the kids leave kindergarten, I have always felt it is the best way to get a lesson through — even if that child is in junior high or first year university. Play is amazing. One cannot fail at play. You can’t play wrong. You can muck up the rules, but at some point the rules will inevitably be changed to suit the players. Play is ever evolving. Play is fun.

So when I originally started RIO with my daughter we decided this was not going to be your average writing club. “Don’t make it boring,” my daughter advised me, “and no homework.” I have tried to stick as close to those rules as possible. So when the RIO kids have a game of Ninja poetry – they technically learn what a tanka is, but they don’t realize it or care. They are just trying to write a better tanka than the other team. And when they are told to write an Ode to your big toe, an activity drawn from of The Box of Randomness, they technically learn how to write an ode – but it doesn't matter much at the time because they are just having a giggle. The thing is they retain this knowledge. It becomes a part of them. I hear over and over again – we took XYZ in school today and I knew what it was because we played that game. This accidental learning really came into focus for me at this last RIO meeting when we had our annual Dead Author’s Night.

Every meeting before Halloween we resurrect a dead author. This serves two purposes: 1) it introduces kids to classic authors they may have heard of but don’t know very well. And 2) it lets them explore the word play and style of that author. This year we resurrected Dr. Seuss. Now, because I don’t teach at RIO I didn't present the author in a classroom fashion. Instead the avid readers of our group talked about why they liked the author, we read a sample of his work, and then we did our own take on it. In the case of Tolkien last year, we re-enacted the Hobbit in video format – complete with dragon’s horde. This year we wrote Dr. Seuss books. Now Dr. Seuss books generally rhyme but one set of older kids didn't want to do that, or even draw pictures for their picture book. In a classroom lesson, this would be a problem. In play, it’s not. Not at all. Instead, the kids took the opportunity to show off their knowledge of how to change the rules of a genre. Their book, I am Not Going to Rhyme Today! Cause I’m a Hipster perfectly showed how changing the established norm is fine as long as it is justified. By doing this they demonstrated this principal to a group of younger kids who chose not to rhyme but didn't justify it. This lesson was never set down on paper, nor did the teen writers lecture. They demonstrated the concept through play and the kids understood it, simple as that, and that alone is invaluable.

I use this play as teaching concept in more than just RIO. Like I said, I run or teach at a number of projects such as DramAntics — a theatre camp where the kids write and produce their own play, RIO Word Adventure Camp, WordsWorth — a summer youth writing residency, Drink The Wild Air a youth writing retreat where I’ll be taking the activity of Live Action Role Playing and combining it with the idea of the Epic into a physically active writing lesson, and for the next couple of Saturdays— a teen writing workshop run by the YWCA and the Calgary Public Library. In all of these, to varying degrees, play will be at the forefront of education.

I’ll say it again. Kids are clever. Kids are sponges. Teaching kids doesn't have to be a “sit down and listen” kind of thing. In fact, the more movement, the more laughter, the more joy kids have, the more they will take in, understand, connect with, and want to explore on their own. Kids play. So let them do it.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kim Firmston

Kim Firmston is a writer and creative writing instructor in Calgary. Her teen novels Schizo and Hook Up were Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Bet Selections. Her short story "Life Before War" was shortlisted for the 2008 CBC Literary Awards. Her most recent novel for teens is Touch, about a teenage hacker with a troubled family life.

Go to Kim Firmston’s Author Page