Have you ever put off a tough task only to realize it wasn’t as bad as you imagined—once you simply got started? It seems that beginning something new is often the most challenging part of a project. Marquise du Deffand says it perfectly:
The distance is nothing; it’s only the first step that is difficult.
Writing can feel the same way. A blank piece of paper stares back at your child. He imagines how long the writing assignment is going to take and all the drafts and edits that await him. Taking the very first step is the hardest part. Once he plunges in and the words start flowing, he may even find he doesn’t want to stop!
This natural inertia that makes those first steps so hard is why young writers need warm-ups. These pre-writing activities and kid-friendly writing warm-ups provide structure for thinking about the writing task and a low-risk way to take those first forward motions.
1. Writing Prompts
While some students are full of ideas and resist being forced to write about an assigned topic, most children appreciate the nudge that an interesting or humorous writing prompt offers. We have an entire category of writing prompts here on the WriteShop blog to keep you stocked with ideas.
Don’t expect every prompt to appeal to your child. That’s why we write so many of these—so your young writer can choose a topic that genuinely interests him. And since writing prompts are merely starting points, allow your child to tweak the prompt to his own liking. One prompt can even be a springboard to a completely different writing topic altogether.
The point is not that your child sticks with a prescribed topic, but that he has a starting point for his own writing.
2. Story Starters
Again, all a child needs sometimes to begin a creative writing project is a gentle push in the right direction. While prompts offer a topic or ask a question, story starters actually provide the first sentence. Write one of these on a sheet of paper to avoid the blank page panic.
Here is a list of 15 first lines with humorous or far-fetched themes that you can use as story starters. For added fun, print the prompts on cards and let the kids draw a prompt from the pile. Blank game cards from donnayoung.org are perfect for this!
- I will never forget the day I became a whale (mole, giraffe, sea gull, ladybug, etc.).
- I had an exciting adventure when I rode a camel through the desert.
- One day I was walking in the woods when I heard a rustling sound.
- It had rained all night and all day. I was lost and far from home.
- When I looked in the mirror yesterday, a monkey’s face was staring back at me.
- My Uncle Pye lived in an upside-down house.
- Ethan’s pillow told him exciting bedtime stories. One night . . .
- Bella’s aunt invented a board game with pieces that could move by themselves. Bella would tell the pieces where to move and they would obey her voice. One day, the pieces began ignoring her.
- Hunter bought a robot that cleaned his room. But last week, the robot forgot how to do the chores.
- Last year, when I flew to the Grand Canyon, my airplane . . .
- Finola Feather was always floating away. Her feet wouldn’t stay on the ground. One day . . .
- The trouble started when Sofia brought home a _______ last week.
- Yesterday, Grandpa came up with the craziest invention in his laboratory!
- I remember the year it snowed in July.
- Micah flew to the moon in his new rocket ship. But when he landed, he was in for a big surprise!
If your child struggles to put words on paper, it may be helpful to set a timer and write a little each day. Start out with five minutes, increasing the time as his confidence grows. When time is up, he can stop writing. Do a little each day, encouraging him to wrap up the story by the end of the week.
3. Round Robin
In a round robin, players take turns adding to a story as it moves around the table from person to person. The writing prompts and story starters mentioned in #1 and #2 above are great ways to get the ball rolling.
- You can play with as few as two people or as many as five (e.g., you and your child, three or four siblings, or small groups of three to five in a class or co-op).
- There are different ways to play, making it easy to adapt for families whose kids read or write at different levels.
- Remind children that as the story passes from one to the next, it will take unexpected or silly twists and turns. If they understand this ahead of time, it helps ward off disappointment when the story line starts heading in a different direction from what they had in mind.
Oral Round Robin
Oral round robins are ideal for mixed ages. No writing is involved, so even kids who can’t read or write well can play.
Directions: Give an older child a writing prompt. Set a timer for one minute, and have her begin adding to the prompt to tell a story. When the timer goes off, even if the story is in mid-sentence, the child to the left picks up where the tale left off. Keep going around the table from child to child. After 7-8 minutes, give notice that it’s time to draw the story to a close so the last two children will know to wrap it up.
Write Around the Table
This activity is better for children who are reading and writing independently.
Directions: Each child chooses a story prompt and begins writing. When the timer rings, stories pass to the person on the left, who will add to the plot. Each time papers are passed, increase the amount of time allotted, as children will need time both to read and add details to the growing stories. When four or five students are playing, they will write the conclusion when their original story finally makes its way back to them. Alternatively, you can simply give a heads up when it’s time to wrap up the story that’s in front of them.
4. 6-word Rhyming Poems
Challenge your kids to write 2-line, 6-word poems using active, descriptive words. Here are three examples:
Climbed the tree,
Skinned my knee.
Crashing waves frighten me.
Baby shakes toys,
Rattles make noise.
Rhyme Zone is a friendly, helpful resource to share with your kids whenever they write rhyming poems.
5. Poetry Strips and Word Banks
Writing is made up of words, so words themselves may inspire your children to write. Offer themed word banks of related words you have pre-selected, or let your children help you create the word banks.
Content-area word banks are a great warm-up for writing across the curriculum. Use new vocabulary from your science or history lessons to make word lists that can then inspire creative writing. Upper-elementary students may enjoy browsing the dictionary for interesting words to include in a story. Try this free printable of poetry word strips or, better yet, make your own!
Storyboards are great for children who like to draw. Their sketches can serve as a launching pad to creative writing.
- Provide writing prompts or StoryBuilders and ask your kids to choose a story idea.
- Give them nine index cards. On the first three cards, invite them to draw simple pictures of what might happen at the beginning of the story (one scene per card).
- On the next three cards, have them draw pictures of what might happen in the middle of the story.
- Ask them to think about how their story could end, and draw their ideas on the last three cards.
The beauty of storyboarding? They’re not getting caught up worrying about word choice, spelling, or grammar. They’re just playing with ideas. And it’s so easy to move those ideas around—or even change them out with others—if they choose.
7. The Sound of Things
Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates a sound. Here’s a fun exercise that helps kids think of sound words.
- Talk about water in its many forms and the different sounds water can make. What sounds would you hear from rainfall or waterfalls? Puddles or oceans? Little creeks or rushing rivers? Hoses or pipes? Faucets or fountains? Straws in a glass of lemonade? What about melting icicles or slush? Together, come up with a list of water words, such as plop, drip, and gurgle.
- Play again, coming up with sounds animals make, such as chirp, hee-haw, and moo. Other categories could include air or wind sounds (hiss, rustle, gasp, flap), machinery or vehicle sounds (whirr, thrum, clank, chug), explosion sounds (bang, kaboom, crash), or different sounds voices make (mumble, blurt, groan). You can also ask for “quiet” words or “loud” words.
Hiss can be an animal sound, the sound of an air leak, or a “quiet” sound. A pipe, a person, or the wind can groan. So don’t worry if there is overlap between categories—it’s just fun playing with the sounds of words!
If you need help guiding your kids, these websites features lists of onomatopoetic words.
8. A Great Book
Picture books, chapter books, and read-alouds can inspire great writing too.
Write fan fiction that remains true to the setting and to the character’s personalities. Invite your child to:
- Choose a pivotal decision that a character made in the book, and rewrite the story with the character making a different decision.
- Extend the story beyond the ending. Write the sequel or an additional chapter.
- Put the characters into a brand-new setting (maybe via a time machine, for example).
Picture books make great kid-friendly writing warm-ups. Many picture books are based on a formula or structure that serve as a model for your own story on a different topic. For example, the familiar book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie can serve as a model for writing a chain of hilarious events sparked be a single, innocent action.
While wordless books have no words, they certainly have a story. Your children can put that story into words after reading a wordless book. This can be especially fun to do in a group setting where kids can compare versions with each other. It’s fun to see how motives and feelings were interpreted by different writers in the group.
I hope these ideas encourage you to mix it up a bit in the writing department! Even if you’re doing a formal writing program, starting off with kid-friendly writing warm-ups can put a positive spin on writing for the rest of the day!
Sign up for the WriteShop list to get your free 240 printable writing prompt cards.