Stimulating the Senses: The Art of the Descriptive Essay

Stimulating the Senses: The Art of the Descriptive Essay

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Updated on Mar 11, 2008

After Shane Cucksey’s seventh graders returned to Corte Madera School after a trip to Yosemite, their classroom swirled with conversation about their jaunts through forests, climbs to awe-inspiring panoramic views, and challenges overcome. The kids were proud of their feats: some crawled through the cold, dark spider caves. Others trekked a steep, dizzying hike to Vernal Falls. And some troops came face-to-face with a stealthy coyote in a serene, misty meadow, with the granite behemoth of El Capitan looming 3,000 feet above them.

Yosemite National Park pulsates with life, from its vistas of towering mountains, sounds of crunchy gravel on trails, scents of fresh grass, tastes of edible wildflowers, and textures of smooth, untouched sand along riverbanks. The countless letters, essays, and books of John Muir recount these sensory layers, particularly within Yosemite Valley.

Before their trip, the students read excerpts of Muir’s writing, and when they returned to class, they were asked to write a descriptive essay about an experience in this vast wilderness. I met with each student, read their rough draft, and then discussed how to expand it by sprucing it up with details that tickled their reader’s senses.

Most fourth to eighth grade writers rely on sight to breathe life into a description of a place, person, or object. Interestingly, current research in neuroscience shows that smell and scent, not sight, induce more vivid memories in one's mind. Most students also lack details that evoke a particular mood, as well as reflections about how they feel at a certain moment. (Some kids are so used to being told not to use “I” in other assignments, so when it comes down to tackling a descriptive piece, they hold back!)

Writing a descriptive essay may be challenging, but children have the material, in their memory and imagination, to create a successful one. Writing a descriptive essay is an important skill that will last a child through college and beyond, and opens creative portals that will invigorate your child's writing and make them more perceptive about the world around them.

Let’s say your child is writing a descriptive essay on their descent into the spider caves of Yosemite. Sounds frightening, doesn’t it? Well, some of Cucksey’s seventh graders feared this activity on the itinerary, even though they were told they wouldn’t encounter any creepy arachnids. After the experience, the kids described the journey as adrenaline pumping, terrifying, yet rewarding. I knew, then, they had the potential to evoke this place. 

Before picking up a pencil, however, your child should consider these questions to figure out the essay’s mood and purpose.

  • What place will I describe to my reader, who probably hasn’t been there?
  • Why am I choosing this place, and not another?
  • Where is this place? How did I get there?
  • Does it remind me of other places I’ve been?
  • How was I feeling? Did I feel different at the end of the day?
  • Have I felt this way before? If so, where? Can I make a connection to both places?
  • What do I want my reader to feel after reading my essay?
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