I missed last week Wednesday’s Prompts and Inspirations because I added one extra item to my day. I realize one extra to-do doesn’t sound like much, but in my case, it involved volunteering at my daughter’s elementary school to join her class on a field trip. Normally I’d choose writing over hanging out with twenty, nine-year-old kids on a field trip, but I viewed this outing as research. If I’m going to write for this age group, I figured who better to spend the day with than my intended audience?
I arrived in my daughter’s classroom promptly at 8:45, in time to join a chorus of sweet voices in the Pledge Of Allegiance. I was surprised that after ___ years, I remembered all the words. The teacher informed the class if they wanted to leave their hats, scarves, and gloves at school they could as the entire field trip would take place inside a nature center where they would study water. Twenty, nine-year old students exited as if the room was ablaze to stow their hats, scarves, and gloves in their lockers. The teacher asked if I would like to ride the bus or drive my own car to the nature center. With research in mind, I joined the class, figuring I could listen in on conversations and immerse myself in the language of these children.
Have you ever visited a pet shop that sells birds? If not, picture the sound of a hundred crows chattering into a microphone with the volume stepped up. I couldn’t pick out a single word.
Once at the nature center, we were informed that the hands-on activities would take place mostly outside. After a one-hour hike, twenty, frozen kids raced inside to thaw during a short lecture. Then we followed a young man outside, who clearly had no patience with children, for a hands-on experiment. Each child was instructed to put their hands in a bucket of cold water to retrieve a rubber tube for an experiment in air and water pressure. That’s when the temperature took a sudden plunge from 50 to 30 something, and a freak snowstorm moved in! Everyone chattered and complained to the teacher about her instructions to leave their hats, scarves, and mittens at school. Some of the kids were clearly worried about getting frost bite and losing their hands because of the icy water the center provided for the experiments. I felt terrible for the children. Red hands, teary eyes, and shivering, little bodies. I moved around the group, warming as many children as I could by wrapping their hands in my scarf and rubbing their icy fingers. Four hours later, we were on the bus, heading back to school.
What I learned:
Despite the teacher’s daily immersion in the lives of nine-year-old children, she clearly didn’t take seriously their age-appropriate worries and fears. I see this among my friends who have children. So often adults belittle children’s concerns. As adults, we have learned along the course of our lives that many of our fears are unjustified. But knowing better doesn’t give us the right to brush a child’s fears away. For their handful of years on this earth and their limited life experiences, a child’s fears are as real to them as ours are to us.
And what did I observe when the teacher shooed her students away and told them they were being ridiculous for worrying about frostbite? Those children turned to other children for advice. I zipped forward into their teen years and pictured them facing age-appropriate issues that their parents might brush off as ridiculous. The result? Those teens turning to other teens for advice. Hard as it is, It’s important to take a child’s concerns seriously and help them realize that a parent or teacher is the best person to turn to.
Another age appropriate issue:
On the bus ride to the center, my daughter boarded the bus well ahead of me and found herself seated between two boys. (To a nine-year old girl, this is a fate worse than broccoli for dinner.) So on the ride back, my daughter pleaded with me to sit beside her to prevent a boy from sharing her seat again. Did I laugh, snicker, or tell her she was being silly? No. I slid beside her on the seat and offered her my hand and a feeling of security.
How this relates to my writing:
Writing for children not only means developing a believable and likable child or child-like, adult character, but it also means bringing a problem into the story that is age appropriate. If I’m writing a picture book for 3-7 year old children, the problem needs to be one this age group can relate to, otherwise why would they want to listen to the story? It’s challenging to think back to when I was a child and remember my worries. So, my advice to writers is this… spend time with the age group you are writing to. And if possible, spend time with that age group in the same setting you have chosen for your book.
Happy learning and writing!