By Alan Durant, author and Writer Co-Mentor on the Teachers as Writers project
I visit schools a lot as an author and I often ask the children if they have a special place they like to think and write at home. A few hands go up initially – “in my bedroom”, “under my bed”, “at the kitchen table” – then suddenly everyone wants to join in – “in my tree house”, “under the dining room table”, “in the attic”, “in my dad’s shed”. That’s the cue for me to tell them that for years I wrote in a shed at the bottom of the garden (“like Roald Dahl”) and that I thought of it as my Tardis, because inside I could travel anywhere in my imagination to create poems and stories. But they are more delighted by my revelation that, as a child, my chosen place for creating stories was the toilet, where I made up scenarios to go with the pictures I saw in the black lino floor.
I wasn’t very interested in writing stories at primary school and when I became obsessed by it as a teenager, it was something I did outside school, away from the classroom. Some subjects are more suited than others to a classroom setting. In my experience creative writing isn’t. Fortunately many schools now have alternative types of “classrooms” – outdoor forest areas, covered bleachers, gazebos and nature gardens – which are far more conducive to inspiring young writers, especially reluctant ones. It’s great to take children to interesting places away from school – the seaside, an old castle, an art gallery or museum – but that can be expensive and difficult to arrange. But getting them out of the confines of the classroom into the open air can be just as efficacious.
On my first trip to the primary school in Devon where I’d been assigned as Writer Co-Mentor as part of the Teachers as Writers research project, the Year 5 teacher suggested we set up a village of tents on the school field. A keen camper, she provided a few tents and the children brought the rest from home, clustered around a large multi-coloured parachute. I was a little concerned that a whole day working on writing in that environment might be too much and that the children might be easily distracted by the novelty. But, happily, my fears were proved entirely unfounded. They loved the experience and wrote freely and with real enthusiasm all day. They even groaned when they were told it was time to go home! On my second visit the weather was inclement, so we stacked up the tables and chairs and recreated the tented village in the classroom instead. OK, it wasn’t quite as magical, but we had another very successful day. This wasn’t an easy class and there were plenty of reluctant writers, but you wouldn’t have known it from the results. I’ve subsequently run writing days with various year groups in a marquee of bean bags and an open-air gazebo packed with rugs and cushions with the same impressive outcomes. Children write more enthusiastically and more interestingly when they are in surroundings in which they feel relaxed. And, best of all, they have fun!
As one of the year 5 boys said at the end of my first visit, “When I heard it was going to be literacy all day, I went like, ‘Oh no!’ But I really enjoyed the day.”