How to Run a Great Children’s Writing Camp

For the first time in over two years, I ran a children’s creative writing camp. After such a long gap, the prospect of this camp was quite a challenge. Especially since I had changed the format of the camp. Previously, I had run the camp in five two-hour sessions. But this year, I decided to run a three-day camp, with each session lasting 3.5 hours. Feedback from parents told me that this would be much more convenient for working parents.

The thought of holding children’s attention for that long, and indeed keeping up my own energy levels, was quite daunting. What’s more, the children who enrolled were a mix of ages and abilities. Three of them were boys, and my experience with them was more limited, as it’s usually girls who show more interest in the writing camps I run.

Here are three things I did to help me overcome these challenges.

Prepared Well

I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to hold the children’s attention. As well as my usual writing activities, I thought of word games and picture based activities that would offer a bit of variety and hold their attention. I also had to think about what we would do during the break, rain or shine. In the end, I didn’t need the extra activities. Since the length of time for the camp was more or less the same as in my previous camps, I had enough material with my main writing activities to last for the entire camp. And the children’s concentration never flagged.

Asserted Authority

This is the most challenging aspect of running children’s camps for me. You’re not the children’s teacher or parent, so you can’t discipline them. But you’re also not their friend. Creating a warm, trusting relationship and giving clear instructions for activities wards off a lot of issues. But when issues did arise during this camp, I made it clear what I didn’t like and how I wanted the children to behave, I also took any actions which I felt would be in the best interests of the group. As a result, I felt more in control, and the children didn’t step outside the boundaries.

Set Concrete Tasks

This group of children responded better to activities that had a clear outcome at the end. The more whimsical activities went down less well because they couldn’t see the purpose of them. The boys in particular were more likely to switch on if there was a clear end in sight. As a result, when it came to writing a full-length story on the last day, they were very focused, and you could see their skills starting to come together, they began to see why we had been doing all these activities, and took pride in the end result.

Children's Summer Writing Camp 2017
Children at writing camp hard at work creating stories.

 

Outcome of Camp

Dare I say it, this was my most successful children’s creative writing camp. Much of the credit for this goes to the ten lovely children who came to the camp. They were open, creative, kind and respectful to each other. The children not only wrote their own original stories, but read them in front of an audience of their parents. They may have forgotten about it all by now, but I can only hope a little seed of creativity was planted, which will bear fruit in later life.

If you run a children’s activity, what do you do to make it fun and fulfilling for them? If you’re a parent, what benefits do you hope your children will gain from attending a camp?

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My Big Fat Funding Application

Recently, I handed in a big brown envelope at an office in Dublin. It did not contain money, but it did contain something previous: my application for Irish Arts Council funding to develop a literature project. I applied to the Artist in the Community Scheme, which gives artists funding to develop projects with a community group of their choice.

Application Form
Applying for Arts Council Funding – taking workshops to the next level

In my case, the community group will comprise visually impaired people who are service users of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI). I’ve been giving creative writing workshops there for some time, so I felt it was time to take the workshops to the next level. NCBI have given me great support in my ventures. We’ve decided that a radio broadcast would be the right fit for the group.

Research Into Application

My research for this application and in general over the last couple of years tells me that if you want to get funding for such a project to happen, you need to do it as a group project. Everyone involved contributes to the artwork, but the artist is the leader and kits together everyone’s contribution to create one original piece of art.

This involves a shift in thinking for me, from being a facilitator to being an artist who leads a group towards the creation of an artwork. To manage this shift in thinking and learn more about the process of creating a collaborative artwork, I applied for a mentor as part of the funding.

The mentor I chose is called Ciaran Taylor and he has worked with visually impaired people in a radio drama project called Sightless Cinema. So he understands the needs of my chosen group, and he has loads of experience in bringing together people’s ideas to make an artwork.  

Create, a community arts organisation which runs the Artist in the Community Scheme for the Irish Arts Council, run a very helpful advisory service. One of their coordinators spent ages with me, giving me advice. She really gave me food for thought, about how to turn myself from a facilitator into an artist, and the importance of not presuming to know what a group might want.

If I am successful, the biggest challenge I have will be in recruiting people for the project. Because I’ve been working at NCBI for the last couple of years, the participants have already done several workshops with me, so they may feel they’ve already done enough. So we’ll be widening the pool of participants, and we’ll also invite sighted people who have an association with NCBI to come along. This will make the project more mainstream and integrated.

Goal of Project

The aim of this phase of the project will be to figure out what type of project will best suit the group. Maybe it will be linked spoken word pieces, or maybe it will be a long, glorious stream of words. Or maybe it’s not a viable project at all, but that will be an outcome in itself. Either way, it will be up to me to make the project a success. That’s quite a daunting thought, but I’m ready for a new challenge.

Have you ever worked on a collaborative arts project? What did you do to provide leadership and inspiration to the group? What process did you use to achieve the final project?

The Challenges of Running Children’s Writing Camps

I’m giving a children’s writing camp this summer and I’m looking forward to it. It’s been about two years since I gave a writers’ camp to children, and in that time, I’ve gathered lots of ideas for working more effectively with children, and I’m dying to put these into practise. Working with children brings lots of challenges, and careful preparation will ensure I can rise to those challenges.

 

Here’s a flavour of the kinds of challenges I’ll be dealing with.

child writing
Writing with children: a joy and a challenge

Condensing five days into three days

I always gave five-day writing camps before, lasting two hours each. But on the suggestion of fellow writer and mother Orla Shanaghy, a great promotor of my camps, I’ve adjusted the format to a three-day camp with longer sessions. I’m hoping this will be more convenient for working mothers. But it does mean I’ll need to hold children’s attention for longer. Other writer-mothers on a Facebook group I run suggested things like adding drawing activities, word games and lots of breaks. I’m confident that if I act on their suggestions, the time will fly.

Dealing with personalities

From previous experience, I’ve found that there are two extremes of personality I need to deal with in children’s writing camps. One is the loud child who is brilliant at distracting everyone else with their lively wit and imagination. The other is the shy child who regards reading aloud as the equivalent of swallowing nails. For the loud child, boredom may be a factor, so I’ll keep the workshop moving and give them tasks to do. And for the quieter ones, I aim to make the atmosphere as warm as welcoming as possible, so they’ll realise that reading aloud isn’t so awful after all.

Managing volunteers

When you run a children’s writing camp, you must have other adults available for health and safety reasons. These people play a very valuable role, but they’re a responsibility too. My main responsibility to them is to make it clear what I’d like them to do, so they’re not just sitting there. They’ll have lots of practical things to do, like hand out writing materials and take children to the bathroom. But they play a creative role too, helping children who are quieter or work more slowly. Essentially, they’re a second pair of eyes and hands.

Have you ever run a children’s camp of any kind? What challenges have you come across and how have you dealt with them?

Three Content-Writing Lessons for Businesses

Last week, I gave a presentation for an organisation called Waterford Chamber Skillnet, which provides courses to help business owners and employees improve their skills. When I looked at their programme, I saw that they didn’t have content creation among their courses, so I approached them and they scheduled me into their programme of social media workshops. I gave the presentation in this beautiful room.

Ship Room Edmund Rice Heritage Centre
I gave my presentation in The Ship Room at the Edmund Rice Heritage Centre. Photo Credit: Edmund Rice Centre Website.

Writing content is essential to a lot of jobs, particularly marketing and communication ones. But a lot of people feel they don’t know where to begin. I’m not a writer, they think. What can I say about my company? I wanted to banish those doubts with my presentation, and give them the tools and confidence to figure out what to say and how to say it.

I had a particular focus on social media content, because there’s a lot of buzz around content marketing, and I wanted to equip people with the skills to avail of it. A lot of the people at the presentation were employees, and I hoped the presentation would make it easier for them to do their jobs. For the business owners who are juggling marketing with all their other jobs, I hope to take the hassle out of creating content.

Here are three of the messages that I aimed to get across to the attendees.

Know why you’re writing content

This is fundamental to the success of your content marketing campaign. The fact is, on a busy day at the office, writing content is going to slide down the to-do list. If you know why you’re writing your content, you’ll find time for it. I told the participants that if they’re lucky, they’re doing it because their business or their job is their passion. But as a lot of them were employees, I said that if you can at least see the merits of writing content in fulfilling your role, that was reason enough.

Be Consistent

As I said, time is a challenge, so I told the attendees to create a schedule for their social media posts based on the time they had available. And I said that it didn’t matter if they only blog once a month. The point is that they do it regularly, on a specific day. Then their customers will know when to expect their content. They’ll be a regular presence in their customers’ lives, making it easy for their customers to stay in touch with them, and ultimately to buy.

You’re the Expert

A lot of people feel that because writing is not their forte, they’re not in the best position to write their content. But they’re the ones who are doing their job, day in, day out. That’s what qualifies them to write their content. They don’t need fancy words or an elegant turn of phrase. They just need to tell customers clearly what their customs can do for them. In my presentation, I aimed to give them tips and resources that would help them to do this. Only time will tell whether I’ve succeeded.

As a business owner or employee, do you write your own content? How do you approach it? What do you find difficult about it, and what do you enjoy about it?

Writing with the Visually Impaired: The Next Level

On Saturday, I’ll be giving the next in my series of creative writing workshops for the visually impaired. It’ll be at the National Council for the Blind in Dublin, Ireland. It’ll be a memoir workshop using the three-act structure, which worked very well at the last workshop. The pieces will be on the theme of journeys.

Journeys can be quite different experiences for visually impaired people. Without sight, they become a feast for the senses in other ways. And even the most everyday journeys, to the shops or on a bus, can turn into adventures. That’s the theme we’ll be exploring, not just in this workshop, but in a bigger workshop that I have in mind.

visually-impaired-writing
How visually impaired people write. Photo source: NCBI Website.

A Full-Scale Project

I’ve been feeling for some time that I want to go to the next level with the writing workshops I give, to help individual people and groups to fulfil their ambitions to be published in some form. With regard to these workshops, I’ve been thinking for some time about a radio-based writing project and now I’ve taken the plunge. I’m applying for the Artist in the Community Scheme to create a piece of spoken-word art for radio.

I’m conscious that ultimately, this is my ambition, and the group I’ve been working with may be happy to keep going as we are. So to make it easier for them to take part in the project, it’s going to be an oral storytelling project rather than strictly a writing project. That takes the pressure off anyone who finds writing a piece for broadcast intimidating. And it allows the group’s natural storytelling abilities to shine through.

Mentoring

I haven’t done a collaborative arts project before. My own instinct is to give people their individual voice and let them write their own pieces. But telling a story as a group will widen the appeal of the project. So I’m applying for the Research with Mentoring strand of the funding. This will give me the chance to work with someone who has done collaborative arts projects before.

If I get the funding, I will be the one leading the project. I will create this piece of spoken-word art based on what the group of participants share with me. But I will also make sure that each of their voices is heard, as part of a greater tapestry of voices. Though it wasn’t quite what I envisaged when I first thought of doing this kind of project, I now realise it will still give the participants a taste of the power and liberation that the arts can bring. And that is my ultimate goal.

I’ll be keeping you updated about my progress with the application and whether I’m successful. If not, I will find other ways.

A Wonderful Writing Workshop

In February, I was to give a memoir-writing course in Dungarvan, but the numbers weren’t high enough for the course to run. This was becoming a regular pattern for my workshops, and I decided it was time for a workshop revamp. After all, I love giving them, and the people who come to my workshops seem to love attending them. I decided I would take back control of my own workshops and promote them myself. My promotional campaign was a success, and on the day of the workshop, 12 souls arrived – my biggest number ever. People were even fighting for places, which was a great boost to the ego.

Workshop Introduction

The workshop was being held in a truly heavenly location, the Coastguard Cultural Centre in Tramore. The day happened to be sunny, and the sea views were stunning. The windows are deep-set, and some of the participants used the window ledges for their writing, looking out the window for inspiration.

Coastguard Cultural Centre

Coastguard Cultural Centre. Pic taken from the centre’s website.

After introducing the workshop and talking generally about the evolution of memoir as a form, we kicked off with the warm-up exercises, which were all designed to help people tap into their natural storytelling abilities. A Chinese Whispers style exercise showed them that stories can take you to unexpected places. A paired exercise where people told stories about their day helped people to see that ordinary lives are rich with events that provide inspiration for stories.

Shaping the Story

In this workshop, my goal was to give people the tools and confidence to put a story together and realise how doable it was. As it was a three-hour workshop, a relatively short space of time, I kept the focus on plot and structure, in particular, the three-act structure. This is a classic structure. In the first act, you set the scene, in the second act, the action unfolds and in the third act, the story reaches a resolution.

We did brainstorming to help the group come up with an event in their lives that they could develop into a story. I asked them to identify three events in their lives, big or small, recent or from the distant past. Out of those three, they would choose one to expand into a story. At this point, there was some confusion. The group were finding it hard to see how this process would lead them towards a story. There is always this point in a workshop, and as workshop facilitator, you ask yourself if you’ve taken the right path, or brought the group beyond where they’re able to go.

Writing the Story

But then, once they had chosen the event, I gave them a questionnaire to fill out, based on the three-act structure, and once they started to fill that in, the structure started to make sense. As the group started to write the story itself, “the hum” had begun. This is what I call that moment when all the pieces start to fall into place and a workshop group starts to understand how powerful writing can be. The air goes still, but there’s a current of concentration in the air, a current so strong, you almost fancy you can hear it come.

Some groups need a lot of time to put their story together, and I had allowed plenty of time for that. But the stories came together remarkably quickly for this group. I had noticed that before when I used this structure with the group, and I thought that was a one-off. But it seems that using the three-act structure really does help ideas to fall into place. Some of the group read their stories, and the room filled with laughter and tears. By the time the workshop ended, each person had created their own unique story, something I hope they will always treasure.

My Big Fat Sightless Writing Project

Followers of this blog may vaguely remember that in recent years, I’ve given a number of workshops for service users at the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) in Dublin, Ireland, which supports people with sight loss throughout Ireland. Stuart Lawler, who runs its training centre, has been of great help in getting these workshops off the ground, and by and large, the take-up has been enthusiastic.

visually-impaired-writing
How visually impaired people write. Photo source: NCBI Website.

But now I feel it’s time to take all this good work and good will and expand it into something bigger. I want the participants to feel that they have something to show for their efforts, and I hope the process will bring them a lot of personal satisfaction.

The idea I had was for a series of recordings of people’s writing, mixed with music. There’s an Irish radio programme called Sunday Miscellany, which features reflective writings based on people’s memories, especially if they tie in with significant historic events. These are interspersed with pieces of music that match the mood of the piece. From working with groups over the past two years, I’ve noticed a great interest in writing about real life and recording experiences. Many of the members also have a great interest in radio. So a Sunday-Miscellany-style radio programme would be a good fit for the group. And as broadcasting is deemed to be publishing, the participants can be proud to call themselves published authors.

Building Confidence

For logistical reasons, it will be some time before the project happens, and Stuart and I will be using the time to build people’s confidence and build up enthusiasm for the project. The thought of producing a piece that’s good enough for publication/recording may be a daunting prospect to someone who hasn’t done much writing, so we’ll run a few writing workshops before the project to help people overcome those hurdles.

The next workshop is on 18 February and I hope I’ll see familiar faces at it. The project will have a greater chance of success if there’s a core group who’ll commit to it. The workshops will help people the skills they need to take part in the project and take them step by step through the process of creating a short memoir piece.

Conceptualising Work

When the project gets underway, the participants will do more workshops, but this time, the emphasis will on getting participants over the line and helping them produce a polished piece of writing. We’ll rope in other writers who have experience of writing for radio. To give people a sense of the sort of language and writing style that comes across well on radio. Many arts facilitators conceptualise the work through group discussion and prompts. This will be more of an individual process, as participants will have strong ideas of their own. But they will give each other feedback, which will help people identify ways of improving their pieces that they mightn’t have spotted on their own.

Recording the Work

After the workshops, it will be time for the participants to record their pieces. This will be the most nerve-wracking part of the process. Most people feel extremely uncomfortable at the sound of their own voice. To get around this, we’ll have a rehearsed reading or two, to get people used to the studio and familiar with the recording process. This will hopefully remove the fear factor in time for the final recording. We haven’t decided yet what will happen to the final recording. It may be broadcast in front of a live audience of family and friends, or be aired on a local radio station as part of its programme schedule.

Funding and Collaboration

Stuart Lawler has been talking to a local community radio station and to a disability arts organisation about what form the project will take. I’ll be updating you on how these discussions evolve, and I’ll be taking part in them at a later stage. But we hope that the radio station will broadcast the programme and provide support in helping people write for radio, and that the arts and disability organisation will fund the project. Whatever happens, NCBI and myself are committed to ensuring that this project will see the light of day.

Have you ever facilitated a project for people with disabilities or other minority groups? How did you secure funding and what did you do to keep the participants motivated right to the end?