For me, brainstorming is one of the most enjoyable parts of the creative process. It’s the moment when I get to hop into a mental sandbox and play, just like I did when I was a kid. For our elementary-level students, who happen to still be kids (and not just at heart), it can be a real blast—or a total bore. It all depends on the sandbox we give them to play in.
In fact, to take our classroom brainstorming sessions to the next level, we have to get inspired and think outside the box. It’s not enough to just cover the basics: keeping topics straightforward, dividing and conquering by separating classes into groups or pairs or setting clear time limits and boundaries. To truly encourage creativity, we elementary teachers have to get a little creative ourselves. Here are just a few tips to get started.
Staring at a writing prompt on a whiteboard or an empty journal page can be frustrating and demoralizing when the ideas just won’t seem to come. That’s why, especially for younger kids, adding a strong visual element can be the key to sparking some inspiration.
Graphic organizers are one common example—but why not take it one step further? Turn story webs into spider webs for a creepy-crawly lesson on your friendly neighborhood arachnids. Get adventurous and transform concept maps into treasure maps. Add fun graphics and clipart to worksheets to match the theme of your brainstorming topic, or ask your students to sketch out a few of their ideas themselves. You’ll be amazed at what a bit of color and pizazz can accomplish.
Eye-catching visuals are a good first step, but why stop there? Engaging all five senses is much more effective than focusing on just one.
- Tap into sound with some music. Personally, I like finding tunes to match the topic my students are covering. For instance, I once played ambient wave sounds for a topic about the beach to give the room a more tropical feel. You can also choose a specific song to be the brainstorming focus by asking students to generate ideas for extra verses.
- Stimulate their sense of smell with stickers. Bring back an elementary school classic and throw some scratch-and-sniff stickers into the lesson plan. Have students choose one sticker at random to scratch, sniff, and use as inspiration for story ideas, or give them out as rewards after the lesson is over. (Just be sure to check ahead of time that the stickers won’t aggravate any allergies!)
- Experiment with new textures. Take a page out of your show-and-tell handbook and pass around a little something to get the gears turning. Have a topic about toys? Ask them to bring in a few to hold and play with (briefly!) to get them thinking about the weight and feel of the toys they like the best. Writing about animals? Try passing around a feather, a shark tooth or a turtle shell.
- Food can be your friend, too. If your topic is something like “Things to Add to the Lunch Menu,” consider planning for the lesson to take place just before or after lunch, when food is at the forefront of your students’ minds. Or, for a winter holiday topic, consider handing out candy canes—peppermint is said to improve concentration!
Tip #3: Get a New Perspective with a Change of Scenery
Exploring new places isn’t just fun, it’s scientifically proven to boost creativity. While travel abroad might not be in the cards, you can still reap the benefits of a change in scenery with a quick jaunt to a new local location. Try heading outdoors to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine, or carve out some time in your elementary school’s auditorium for a more theatrical setting.
If you need to stay in your usual classroom, you can still simulate the experience of being elsewhere by rearranging the room around you. Try moving desks and switching seating arrangements, or move them all to the sides and sit together on the floor. For a real change in perspective, I like to ask my students to lie down on the floor and take a moment to appreciate how different the room looks from below. One of my favorite brainstorming assignments involved having my students gaze up at the ceiling and pretend they were cloud-watching or stargazing, then asking them to describe as many unique cloud shapes or constellations as they could come up with.
Tip #4: Encourage Motivation with a Long-Term Goal
Brainstorming for its own sake can be fun, but can feel a bit pointless if the ideas generated during a session are never put to good use. To motivate your elementary students to really give it their all, present them with a long-term goal, something concrete they can look forward to as the result of their efforts during the brainstorming stage. Go beyond the writing assignment for today. Maybe they’re generating ideas for an experiment to carry out and present at the science fair later this year. Maybe they’ll turn their best sketches into illustrations to hang in a classroom art gallery. Or maybe they’ll write a story to share with others.
Seeing your ideas come to life and take the form of something you can touch and hold and show off to your friends and family is exciting at any age. One of the easiest and most creative ways to do this for your students is by publishing their work in the form of a beautiful collaborative classbook. This project could be the culmination of an entire unit, or a small one-off assignment. Either way, it’ll be something worthy of its place of honor on the bookshelf, cherished for years to come. And from a pragmatic perspective, it’s also cheaper than more grandiose arts-and-crafts ideas, which may require purchasing extra supplies; all you need are a few writing and illustrating utensils—and some good ideas from your brainstorming session, of course. You can even get your classbook professionally published for free.
Engaging the five senses, changing the scenery and working towards long-term goals may be just the spark you need to ignite your students’ imaginations. By making brainstorm sessions more than just a chance to scribble on a worksheet, you’re not only teaching the foundations of writing, but also how to really dig in and enjoy the creative process.
For free resources that can help build the imaginative sandbox for every child in your class and inspire work your students are proud to publish, be sure to check out our online teacher’s lounge, and sign up today for your free publishing kit!