For many kids today, most writing takes the form of texting—brief semi-coded messages in which speed of response is more important than depth of thought or correct spelling and punctuation. While texting has its place, it’s important for kids to develop the skills needed for the real writing tasks demanded in school and in the working world. This summer, whether your family is traveling somewhere exotic or enjoying the pleasures of home, you can help your kids develop and strengthen some of these “real writing” skills without making it feel like a chore. The season is rife with opportunities to use a couple key tools of the writer’s trade: observation and storytelling.

Here are some tips to get your kids started:

1. Sharpen the senses. Good writing uses description and details that appeal to the senses. Encourage your kids to engage all of their senses. If you’re in the park or at a playground, have your children close their eyes for just a moment. Ask them what they hear or smell. Then have them open their eyes and describe the scene. Try playing a game of “I spy,” encouraging your kids to use precise words: “I spy something golden and glowing” instead of “I spy something yellow.” Playing with sensory detail will help youngsters feel more comfortable using all their senses when they write.

2. Speak figuratively. Vivid figurative language helps writing come alive for readers. You can play spontaneous language games that encourage children to invent metaphors and similes, which compare things in creative ways. For example, if your kids dash into the lake and cry, “It’s so cold!” say, “How cold is it? What does it make you feel like? Is it like being stuck inside an ice cream sandwich? Or is it like feeling tiny frozen feathers prickling you all over?” If your kids are listening to music, have them close their eyes, then ask, “What does the music make you see? Do you see bees buzzing through the air, or geese gliding over a still lake, or fireworks exploding in the night sky?” Younger children might enjoy drawing a picture of their imaginative image and writing a caption that uses figurative language.

3. Keep a nature journal. Good writing often describes the world in clear, precise, accurate language. Your kids can sharpen their skills of description by keeping a nature journal in which they describe different bugs, birds or flowers they observe during summer outings. Kids who enjoy science can keep a journal that charts the stars or the phases of the moon. Extreme summer weather, such as a raging thunderstorm, also offers an opportunity for vivid description. Using words to evoke the world outside the self, beyond one’s personal feelings and opinions, will also help your young scribe develop skills needed for academic writing.

4. Keep a travel diary. Travel has inspired some great writing. Encourage children to write about the places they visit this summer. You can help prompt their travel diary entries by using the “5Ws +H.” 

  • Where did you go?
  • When were you there?
  • What did you see and do?
  • Whom did you meet?
  • Why was this place interesting or important?
  • How did you feel about it? (And why?)

5. Write postcards and letters. Although email and texting have made formal letter writing a rarity these days, knowing how to write a proper letter will help kids understand that writing has a structure and an audience. By using words to share their experiences with special people in their lives, children will understand the importance of having a purpose for their writing beyond texting a few words to friends. They can describe the places they have visited, or share some news, or relate something exciting or funny that happened while traveling. Encourage them to think about the specific audience. For example, Grandma might not understand “LOL!” Or best friend Bobby, who’s crazy about cars, might enjoy reading not only about your visit to Mount Rushmore but also about that cool vintage Mustang in the parking lot.

Whatever activity you choose, remember that summer is a time to keep language skills alive by enjoying words. While today’s travel log entry or poolside metaphor challenge might become the basis for a future story or essay, summer writing isn’t meant to be a school activity, with required revision and points off for mistakes. Summer writing is about fun with language as your children communicate in the real world. Don’t worry about leaping over the big hurdles. Enjoy the little steps as you continue on the learning journey.

Beth Zemble is director of alternative learning strategies and English language arts for K12. She has been working in the language arts for more than two decades. She’s led the development efforts for Internet-based English curriculum as well as integrated instructional systems and educational software.

Additionally, she has worked on lessons, textbooks, test preparation, and practice materials for numerous publishers, and has taught literature and composition courses at Immaculata University. Ms. Zemble graduated with honors and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and earned her Master of Arts degree with honors from Columbia University.