Why your child needs to start journaling now

Plus 12 thought starters to help inspire young writers

“Dear coronavirus: You stink. Because of you, I’m stuck at home, miss my friends, can’t play sports, and am trapped with my parents and my little brother, who is always farting.”

It seems like the pandemic will never end, and kids are likely boiling over with frustrations, questions, concerns, ideas, and stories they want to share. Journaling is a perfect outlet to express everything on their mind. “If kids can put events and observations on paper, it helps makes sense of this bewildering and frightening time,” says Melissa Hart, author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. “A child’s emotions seem less scary when they see them on paper.”

Even during “normal” times, journaling helps kids become more confident in their ability to express themselves and promotes writing, language, communication, and art skills. But forget the old-fashioned idea of a diary that recaps an ordinary, sometimes mundane, daily routine. “A journal lets your child articulate ideas, art, stories, and feelings,” Hart says. It can also be a collection of things the writer wants to remember, a funny conversation they overheard, something they’re curious about, or an idea for an invention.

“Journaling provides a place for an active mind to store ideas and an outlet for pent up intellectual energy and emotions,” says Peter Gwin, National Geographic editor at large. “I think of it as a mad scientist’s laboratory, a place with complete freedom to explore and say whatever the writer wants. It's really that sense of freedom that’s important.”

Journaling basics

It certainly doesn’t take much to get started. “Kids simply need paper and something to write with,” Gwin says. In fact, the perfect journal is whatever fits your child’s style: a spiral notepad, mixed media paper, sketchpad, bound notebooks with lines, graph paper, or blank pages. “Add a great pen, plus color pencils, paint, glue sticks, and scissors, and your child’s imagination can go in any direction,” Hart says. Your child might prefer to keep their journal on the computer or make photo or video journals.

Some kids might need more than one. “I keep a few pocket-size journals going at any one time,” Gwin says. “I have one by my bed for those flashes that come right before sleep or that wake me up in the middle of the night. Others are filled with newspaper clippings, pressed flowers, lists, crazy ideas, and rants about my favorite sports team.”

Let children be in control of their journaling journey. Allow them to find the right time and location to write: Even just a few minutes a day a couple times a week keeps things fresh and fun, plus reduces pressure to be creative on demand. Make sure they’re writing for themselves. “Your child doesn’t have to write specifically about emotions or feelings,” Hart says. “Often those feelings will end up on the page in an organic way.”

And remind your child not to worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. “It’s a structure- and rule-free zone,” Hart says.

Perhaps the biggest question on parents’ minds: Should you read your child’s journal? Both Hart and Gwin agree that privacy matters.

“Parents will approach this differently, but my feeling is that for a kid to feel truly free and empowered to explore, they need a nonjudgment zone, beyond the prying eyes of parents,” Gwin says. “Though my kids often want to share what they've written.”

How to get started

As any writer will tell you, the blank page can sometimes be intimidating. If your child is stuck or can’t think of anything to get started, give them a challenge or a prompt. Below are some ideas to kickstart your child’s journaling.

—Make lists, such as a child’s top five ice cream flavors, books, songs, jokes, or words
—Write a backstory for a minor character in a favorite movie, book, or TV show, like Ollivander the wandmaker in the Harry Potter book
—Write a one-paragraph story about a photo of a vacation, relative, or funny moment.
—Sketch or doodle.
—Write a letter to the coronavirus or another issue your child might be stressing about.
—Describe how the house has changed now that parents and kids are home all the time.
—Finish this sentence: This is why I’m angry / sad / scared.
—Describe the unexpected benefits of sheltering in place.
—Write a story about a superhero and the coronavirus (or another topic that’s causing stress).
—Tell a story about everyone being at home all the time—but from the perspective of your family’s pet.
—Write five wishes.
—Compare a typical day now to a typical day from a year ago.

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