Playing with words and ideas
by Pie Corbett
Several years ago, we ran this little unit of creative work. Here is what happened. The poem ‘The Cave of Curiosity’ is based on the simple idea of creating a place (cave) and linking it to an abstract idea (curiosity). To begin, we played an abstract noun game.
Divide the children into pairs and sort them into ‘A’s and ‘B’s. On their mini whiteboards, ‘A’s write a list of common nouns that are places, such as park, pavement, castle, cave, etc. ‘B’s write a list of abstract nouns. It can be helpful for the children if you explain that these are things you cannot touch and with some classes brainstorm a list, e.g. happiness, jealousy, greed, kindness, etc. Some children came up with what we called ‘magical’ nouns such as stars, clouds, moon and we added those to the list of abstract nouns.
Collect as many of their ideas as you can on the flipchart and show the children how they can combine their ‘A’s and ‘B’s in a variety of ways.
Help the children put their ideas together. They might have a mountain summit of majesty or a tower of air or they might prefer a mountain of imagination or a tower of taste. Encourage them to say their ideas out loud and listen to the effect. We wanted them to surprise the reader with new and startling combinations and amazing juxtapositions, avoiding cliches. Having done this, we read ‘The Cave of Curiosity’ and ‘In the City of Silences’.
We read the first poem several times, with the children joining in on the second and third read so that we were speaking it aloud with expression chorally. We discussed our initial likes and dislikes, favourite sections and then took each verse in turn to explore the meaning as well as notice how the effect had been crated. This led to a simple toolkit:
To create a playful poem, you can:
– use a repeated opening line, e.g. In the cave of curiosity, I created …
– use a place + abstract or magical noun
– tell the reader what you created, saw, found, noticed, watched, discovered, uncovered, etc
– list three or four ideas for each verse
– play with alliteration, e.g. an angry ant
– juxtapose ideas, e.g. humming birds/ lorries
– personification, e.g. silence closing g its liups
– the senses, e.g. the touch of smooth pebbles
– invented ideas, e.g. a computer calling to a King
We discussed the second poem, noted the simple pattern and then talked about the way in which the first line linked to the second. For instance, you would get a surprise and a shock if an alley was full of electric eels! There is a link in each couplet (pair of lines). Can the children find and explain the links?
This sort of writing hinges around a child’s natural inclination to play with language. Very young children will do this when they are toddlers but as they grow older, children often lose the pleasure in language play. Words and sentences can become increasingly frightening and bound by rules and checklist. Here, we were developing what might be described as ‘writing for pleasure’ – it is a game but a serious game.
I borrowed aspects from both poems as a basis for our shared writing. First, I wrote up one of my own ideas as a model, explaining what I was doing, talking aloud as a writer.
On the mountain summit of majesty,
I hunted for my surroundings,
frozen rocks danced in the glimpse of a perilous peak
and a forgotten galleon surfaced as clear as an eye’s coating.
The children then joined in. Someone would suggest an opening place (e.g. the tower of air) and then we chose a preposition to go with it, e.g. Inside the tower of air. This gave us our first line. We then had to decide on the verb, e.g. I noticed, found, saw, listened to, watched, uncovered, captured, trapped, etc. We made a list of these possibilities that lots of the children used when writing. We then extended the sentence and I would occasionally prompt them into the challenge of using alliteration, similes, metaphor or personification. All the time, we were pushing ourselves to come up with surprising combinations.
Our shared writing
We used a ‘Save it’ box at the bottom of the flipchart paper to write down as many of our shared ideas as possible. Children also jotted any independent preferences in their magpie books. This gave everyone a bank of ideas to draw from for their independent writing and meant we could go back at the end of the shared writing and consider any other options. As you can see, the children often wanted to join two of their paired choices to extend their sentences.
Examples of Children’s Independent Writing
You will notice that there are the odd words that are invented (flareless) or a slight grammatical awkwardness (determinedly disguised). We left these as they are good examples of children striving to create new utterances and pushing the boundaries of language purposefully. If it was ok for Shakespeare to create new words then Bethany can as well!
This idea would work well with almost any age group. You might have to adapt the main model or just use the Cave of Curiosity with younger children. Keep the shared writing enjoyable but challenge them so that they find new and startling combinations. You may find that the invitation to be playful leads to children trying out the occasional ‘silly’ idea. I would suggest reminding them that we are aiming for something that is playful but sounds serious so they have to maintain the tone of the writing.
© Mel and Pie Corbett 2018