My disclaimer (a confession if you will) as I start – the things to avoid that follow are because these are mistakes I have made.
I have been ridiculed, blanked, dissed and disregarded in a myriad of excruciatingly embarrassing ways by children over the years. Deservedly so.
If you are doing an event, speaking to, engaging with children in any capacity and haven’t done much of that please don’t think they are benign little darlings. Children and young people are amazing, creative, forthright, inspiring, challenging and well, just wonderful. They can also be nerve shreddingly terrifying when they think you are winging it, being boring or from a different planet.
Here, from my own painful experience, are five things to avoid :
Patronising the hell out of them.
Ok, yes children are different.
They are not adults. They are not just “miniature” adults.
Yes, depending on their age and what you are doing with them – be it art, creative writing, drama, film or whatever, they will need to learn and discover and be inspired by you and what you do in an age appropriate way.
BUT, don’t dumb it down and don’t speak in a baby voice. Speak properly, introduce what you are going to be doing in a fun way – but with expectation too. Here in this very room, space, hall or theatre you might discover some budding film makers, artists, writers, actors. Treat them with respect.
Grab their attention with the passion you have for your topic, subject, session – kids have BIG imaginations, they can take it. I have been on creative journeys with kids through art and storytelling in a way I never have with adults.
Take them seriously, draw them in, give them your best.
Looking the other way.
Always face your audience!
Sometimes when engaging with adults, whether that is one to one or in a room full of people I can find myself, mid flow, staring into the middle distance. Sometimes this is because I am grasping for what needs to be said next, but often it is just, well, the way I talk when talking to adults.
Adults are, on the whole, more benign than children they may sit there, join in, appear to be engaging but children NEED you to be giving them your attention. ALL the time.
Especially if you are presenting something, talking through how something works, giving an example. Make eye contact as much as you can. Think about the pitch of your voice, make what you are doing leap out at them. Children need to know you are engaging with them (that is the individual children, not as a pack!) I know you can’t look every child in the face but, make it intentional to grab eye contact, look at them, help them get excited about what you are doing and saying.
Do this and you are telling the children “what I am sharing is important” AND, more importantly for the children at least “I am interested in you and finding out what you think about this too.”
Speaking in Iambic pentameters.
Shakespeare and Chaucer are masters at this.
It might of course be that you have to speak like this a bit, because you are doing Twelfth Night or introducing the children to the Canterbury Tales (age appropriate ones!) but, moderation is key and so is explanation.
You might have other technical language as part of your art that you take for granted (we have – in the church – our own language called “Christianese”), but – don’t assume knowledge. You need to think through your words when speaking to children. It is easy to slide into what we feel comfortable with, our art – whatever it might be, has a rhyme and rhythm to it, language unique to it, ways of expressing and observing what is going on – be sure to act as a guide for the children rather than a know it all guru.
They won’t be impressed, and they also won’t know what you are on about. Don’t go too far though – or you’re not avoiding the first pitfall I mentioned.
Choosing a random volunteer.
Now this can be the most disastrous of all things.
I sometimes do a bit of illusion in my presentations / assemblies / session with children and often need a volunteer. To my cost I have learnt to always try and “pre-arrange” a willing helper with a teacher, leader of the group in advance – or take their tip of who would be good when I arrive, especially with a crowd of children I have never worked with before.
Through just taking the first “waving hand” I have :: picked children who have cried; children who have known what I was going to do and how I was going to do it (an illusion) and delighted in telling everyone; children who have just stood there frozen; children who have simply gone totally loopy in front of their classmates . . . I could go on.
IF your life is improvising and comedy you might make the random pick work, but with children you have to be seriously “on your game” or going with the first hand in the air could destroy you.
Being precious about your work.
It might be that you have just given birth to a new novel and you are on a book tour round some schools, you might have completed a monumental art project that has taken a decade, or – if you are like me – you might have written a three line poem five minutes before you are “on”.
It is important to hold lightly to what we have created, made or produced when discussing it, showing it, or presenting it to children.
If you can do this then it can be pretty amazing to go with the flow and engage them in conversation. Aspects of a story for example, that are incidental to me, can really grab the attention of children.
They might interpret or see something in a dramatic presentation that is not intended, they might laugh when it isn’t funny and just sit like stone through the humorous aside that should have them bent double.
Be chilled, go with it. Explore their points of interest and be amazed at what they contribute!