The Picture/Caption Game

Here’s a great game for all those boring travel moments. All you need is a few pieces of paper (or receipts or envelopes or old boarding passes) and a few pens, pencils, crayons, or Hello Kitty Multi Color Pens — whatever you’ve got. Adults enjoy it, kids enjoy it, pre-literate people can play too, and it teaches non-pedantically about parts of speech.

Misunderstood Umbrella (photo by sektordua on Flickr)

This game (which needs a better title, I know), is a variation on Exquisite Corpse. It works like this:

~ Someone writes a phrase at the top of the paper. I like to play that people write an adjective and a noun — Hungry Cat, Misunderstood Umbrella, etc. Pass it to the left.

~ The next person draws a picture of the phrase. This gets especially fun if the phrase was kind of abstract. Then they fold over the phrase so that only the pictures shows and pass it to the left.

~The next person writes a adjective/noun caption for that picture. They fold over the picture and pass to the left

~ The next person draws a picture for that caption, and so on until the paper is full.

Then you open the paper and look at how the Misunderstood Umbrella became a Groovy Manta Ray, which became a Talking Leaf etc. Pre-literate kids can be positioned so that they always draw. And those older folks who cringe because they “can’t draw”? Tell them that’s an asset in this game, like mumbling is in Telephone.

Another fun version is to write full sentence captions instead of a two-word phrase. This version is especially good for older people who can make the sentences weird and abstract instead of descriptive. It’s much more fun (and challenging) to draw “Maybe no one speaks Umbrella said the umbrella” than “There is an umbrella with a frown in a corner.” And after all, the whole point is to have fun writing.

(And if you try this one out and come up with a better name for it, please let me know!)

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Pretty Beautiful

“It’s so pretty! Wow, it’s so beautiful! Look at that, it’s so pretty! Isn’t it beautiful? Oh, PRETTY!!!”

That was me, age ten, hiking with my family at Mt. Rainier.

“It’s just so beautiful. Oh wow, it’s so pretty!”

This went on for a long time. Everyone got very tired of my inarticulate gushing. That’s when my parents made a rule: no reusing adjectives. If that wildflower was pretty, the next view of the mountain better be magnificent, gorgeous, stunning, awe-inspiring, triumphant, Olympian, mesmerizing, or at the very least amazing.

These days, I’m picky about my adjectives. I want them to pull their weight, to be more than a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Sometimes I say something several times, searching for the right description. I’m sure that can be annoying in its own way, so I won’t blame it on my parents, but I will give them this credit: even at 4,000 feet, with no paper in sight, they made language matter and they made it fun.

Which is just to say that children’s relationship with words and writing is constantly developing. We don’t need to turn summer hikes into mini academic lessons. That wouldn’t be pretty. However, we do model literacy all the time, even on mountains, and we also model what counts as fun.


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Three Minute Poetry

Here’s a quick idea to get the creative juices flowing this summer: Three Minute Poetry. Good for adults too!

Three minute poetry is a great way to help people break through the idea that they can’t write, or that they are not creative writers. It works best (and is most often relevant) for late elementary age and older. For younger children, three minutes is just not enough time to write down a thought, and while many younger children struggle with the mechanics of writing, most of them have not yet judged themselves to be uncreative. Three minute poetry is particularly fun in a group.

How it works:

~ Select three random words, the more interesting the better. For instance: Alligator. Pineapple. Thermodynamics.

~ Set a timer for three minutes and on the count of three, start writing.

~ Everyone has three minutes to write a poem that uses all three of the random words. Don’t worry about spelling. Remember, a poem does not have to rhyme, or be in full sentences, or make any logical sense at all. The crazier it is, the better!

~ When the timer goes off, everyone has a chance to share what they have written. It is amazing how different the poems will be, even though they were written in the same room at the same time using the same inspiration.

Because you can’t write something “good” in three minutes, all the pressure is off. And sometimes, a three minute poem can turn out to be something beautiful or funny, or can prompt a second, more leisurely draft. At the least it is a demonstration that creative writing can be fun. Shocking!

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In Defense of Boredom

Happy summer, everyone! I’ve got some fun ideas of ways to play with writing and language that I’ll share throughout the summer, but I want to start out by saying how important summer vacation is.

Edward Arthur Walton – A Daydream 1885

It’s important to have unstructured time. It’s important to have time to daydream, to wander, to tinker, to putz.

It’s important to get bored.

That’s right. Bored. As I understand it, boredom is a necessary blankness that makes space for truly awesome ideas.

“Only boring people get bored,” my mom used to say when we were whining about having nothing to do and begging to watch something. Then, “If you’re really bored, why don’t you clean the refrigerator?” We’d figure out something to do real fast.

The ideas that came out of my childhood boredom weren’t boring, and I’m sure your children’s aren’t either. We trained our chickens to stand on our heads, earned our way to Wild Waves by playing Suzuki songs on the Birke Gilman trail, and strung a tin-can telephone from one tree fort to another around two sides of our house (it never worked, of course, but the can may still be in one tree). I made my own bow and arrows, sat on our grape trellis and burned pirate treasure maps with a candle (safely, somehow), invented a language no one now speaks (or ever spoke), and tried to make things grow in the paint-chip invested no man’s land between our house and the neighbor’s driveway.

I could reminisce about all of this for a long time and I will spare you, but that’s partly the point: these are bright memories, and they all came out of boredom.

Sitting out boredom is also great practice in sitting out anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and every other uncomfortable thing life shoves at us. If we learn how to go through boredom without anyone fixing it for us, we’re that much better equipped to sit out the rest of it without reaching for screens or drugs or work or alcohol.

And there’s more — just like land, people need fallow times. We need the time to compost our experiences. Every moment does not bear fruit. Gary Snyder says it well in his poem “On Top”:

All this new stuff goes on top
turn it over, turn it over
wait and water down
from the dark bottom
turn it inside out
let it spread through
Sift down even.
Watch it sprout.

A mind like compost.

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