The Future Is Make Believe
I don’t remember much of primary school. But I have never forgotten the feeling of pride and delight at having my stories turned into books at school.
I started Fabled to capture that feeling, to help kids create and share their tales. I created the web app, aimed at home use (though I love seeing it in schools!) for the joy of it, for the 8 year old still in me. But 18 months of running it has turned me into a zealot for your cause – Literacy For Pleasure matters now more than ever.
I had a podcast, a newsletter, social media – but none of it felt enough. I wanted to shout far louder about why kids’ storytelling matters. And that’s why I’ve just launched a Kickstarter to publish a beautiful book of kid-authored tales – we’re calling the book, and the movement, The Future Is Make Believe. And it needs your help – spread the word, and please send me your kids stories (email@example.com) – there’s room in the anthology, the podcast, and anywhere I have space I’ll be celebrating kids writing!
Now I could rant up and down a thousand story-mountains, but none of you need preaching to. Instead I thought I’d share a couple things I have learned since starting Fabled to see if they resonate.
Those are: how little Kids need to tell their stories; how much Grown-Ups need to remember why that matters.
Fabled is alarmingly simple. There’s an invitation to ‘tell your story’, a button to press if you’re looking for inspiration, one to request a kid-collaboration. And That Is All. I’ve not had a single 6 year old not be able to tell me a story. I’ve not had a single of those stories not have something brilliant and worth remarking on.
I was scared to release something so basic, so no-frills. But the response – from kids and parents – was wonderful. It’s reminded me that simple works, because its not less – it’s just less from me and more from them. It’s kids first. And their delight at that has shown me the deep hunger from children to simply be heard, and to have their voices respected.
On the other hand, I’ve been sometimes depressed and taken aback at the extent of Grown-Up skepticism about the endeavour, and about their own kids. In my first testing, I found a stark contrast between the natural delicious exuberance of the stories kids are sharing, and the panic of parents hiring tutors for their writing. A perversity in parents telling me their kids weren’t imaginative, and then in the next breath that they spent all their time reinventing the worlds of Beast Quest – (what is that if not storytelling? Am I going mad??).
I couldn’t match the joy and ease of kids stories with accounts of the same children having crises of creative confidence at school; with children’s self-admonishments to work on their ‘front-loaded adverbials and expanded noun phrases’.
It’s not that these things shouldn’t be taught, but you wouldn’t get a kid to love art by teaching them the rules of perspective first. Grammar, structure, spelling – these are all tools. But first they need to feel why they are worth building, what they are for. We need to showcase kids’ story doodles, we need to encourage ‘messy play’ with words, we need the verbal equivalent of sketches on the fridge-door. My hope is that this will help undo the strange perception of creative writing as a niche activity, something add-on for future novelists only.
Our society is in danger of flash-carding the joy out of our kids. There needs to be a rebalancing. And I am now fervent that that balance is to be found in encouraging adults to just listen to, inspire and celebrate kids stories. To allow story play. To connect writing to the imaginative impulse which precedes it, and which is strengthened through the written expression of it – Make Believe.
All mammals play, and that play is how they prepare for adulthood. Human play is extended and deepened by language, and stories are its currency. As we get older, we engage more formally with the story part — we structure it, codify or write it — but the source, intent, and impetus is the same. It’s all Make Believe.
And engaging in imaginative play of that sort has been found to be one of the strongest predictors of all-around academic success. A 2012 study of Nobel Prize and MacArthur Genius Grant winners even discovered that they did more imaginative play as children than peers in their fields.
Yet, trying to find my community on social media I’ve been struck by its absence – there are arts and crafts accounts galore, kids book accounts, but few celebrating kids words and voices. Verbal creativity is one of the most accessible forms of creativity. It’s the first human artform, the one we engage with the most over our lives, it comes absolutely naturally – and you don’t need a single bit of kit to play! Kids creativity is more than crayons, but you wouldn’t know it browsing Instagram.
We all want to let children be little children longer. Longer to see cardboard boxes as space rockets and dishtowels as superhero capes – longer to see stories everywhere. But we also want to future-proof them – to make sure they grow up with all the skills they need to thrive as adults. And parents especially fear the future might not be so kind to dreamers. But I want to tell them they needn’t, that Make Believe isn’t just for poets. That it’s for the nuclear physicists, and dentists, and accountants. I want to show them how storytelling builds hearts and brains – everything from logic to literacy, from empathy to emotional resilience. After all, all writing is ultimately narrative. I want them to put growing their kids imaginations first – because that is the difference between having blocks and building with them, between information and learning.
Our Writing For Pleasure movement is leading the way, I am playing at the fringes (it’s fun here!), but any way I can help or support I am here – teach me! (And then send me a story I can share, and spread the Kickstarter news!).
We need to save the green space in kids’ heads where the wild things live. To raise the most imaginative generation the world has ever known. And I know we can. We just need the Grown-Ups to remember how.