Secret Notebooks, Secret Dreams

Journaling with kids

I got my first journal for my fifth birthday: hardbound, lined, a blue cloth cover with laminated pressed flowers framed in gold in the center. Its elegance and blankness impressed me, and I wrote in it all of elementary school. In the first entry, my C’s were still three sides of a square, like a robot’s.

That journal was followed with a hand-me-down diary with a brass lock, a real key, a page for every day of the year, and a cover with two mice sitting on stools sharing a milkshake. I was by then a very angsty seventh grader. So I wrote mean boys’ names down in that cute little book and scribbled them back out and it was nobody’s business but my own.

After that came a whole string of other journals: spiral bound notebooks with recycled pages from the food co-op, years and years of identical black hardbound books, a handmade leather journal, and a shiny gold journal with dot paper. I still journal today. By journaling, I articulate my own stance, make sense of my own confusions. I remember experiences and I set intentions. But all that came later.

A Private Space

The important thing about a journal is that its writing belongs to no one but the writer. It is writing without a reader, without an outside judge. The author can choose to share it, but they don’t have to and their privacy should be respected.

Some of my teen journals open with warnings to unwelcome readers:

Oh, nerdy, nerdy fifteen-year-old me. Write a warning, make it as engaging as you can, start journal entries ON THE OPPOSING PAGE and expect your sister not to read more? Failed strategy. Luckily, I had totally illegible cursive to keep her out.

The Possibilities

A journal can be many things. It can be a dry log of events, or torrid torrent of feeling. It can be a daily ritual or a sporadic activity. It can be a private diary, or just a regular spot you write.

You can use journals to write about:

  • Things that happened to you

  • Feelings

  • Observations of an unusual experience, like a trip – or a pandemic

  • Dreams

  • Wishes, plans, and goals

  • Quotes, lists, and marginalia

  • Memories

  • Ideas you’re thinking about

  • Raw material for creative writing

  • And of course, teen angst.

How I Journal with Kids

My students LOVE having class journals. We make them out of printer paper, with fancy-paper covers, more or less (depending on the child’s sewing skills) held together with sewn bindings. I’d give instructions but I’m sure the internet has lots of snazzier designs. Store bought is great too. Something special is nice, but a notebook works!

We often set aside fifteen minutes for journaling time. I give a prompt and they can use it or write anything they want. They just need to keep their pencils moving. (Technically, this is something called freewriting.) Then we take a minute to hear anything anyone wants to share. Often some kids choose to keep writing during this time. Some kids love to share; some never do. Either way is fine with me – the journals are their space. I don’t read them. I don’t care what their spelling looks like, or if they just write I LOVE CATS LOL on every page. I don’t even really care if they just draw – it’s only fifteen minutes and also drawing is important. And the important thing is their sovereignty as journal writers, as people.

I’ve found that having this space gives them something that spills into their other writing: the experience of writing without being judged. And how often is it that fear of messing up, or being critiqued that paralyses young writers – or honestly, most writers?

Journaling also helps us integrate experiences and big feelings. Articulating experience is cognitively and emotionally useful to humans, especially children who are still learning to put things into words. This is particularly important when confusing and hard things are happening, (ahem, 2020).

Journaling can be a nice family ritual too. My 2.5 year-old likes to journal with me at home. She scribbles or writes A’s and T’s (her two known letters) while I write and it’s really sweet time together. There are plenty of academically interesting published journals and notebooks to check out as well: Anne Frank’s, Lewis and Clark’s, Charles Darwin’s Voyages of the Beagle, Leonardo DaVinci’s sketches and notes, poet Gerard Manley Hopkin’s nature observations….

"Leonardo Notebook" by twid is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Some Journal Prompts

There are endless possible ideas:

  • your earliest memory

  • popcorn

  • ice cream

  • the color blue

  • your obsessions

  • family holiday traditions

  • a meal with your family

  • summer

  • a memory of drinking out of a bottle

  • a hill you know

  • a memory about shoes

  • a memory about dinosaurs

  • a memory about boats

  • start every sentence with “I see”

  • start every sentence with “I wish”

  • start every sentence with “I don’t remember”

  • first memory of a friend

  • your mother’s jewelry

  • a tree

  • describe something you love from the point of view of someone you hate or don’t understand

  • describe a grandparent

  • write about getting caught           

  • every detail of something ugly

  • an object that makes you think of someone

  • a time you felt big and a time you felt small

You could also have a journal with a specific focus. The poet and naturalist Aimee Nezhukumatathil suggests keeping a sunset journal, where you write your observations at sunset. Some other ideas:

  • A dream journal

  • A catalogue of birds in your yard

  • A sports journal, following the events of a team’s season

  • A journal about another interest, where you write thoughts and ideas on a subject you like to think about

  • A weather journal (I did this for a year Seattle school year growing up. It can be summed up as stratus clouds, 52 degrees, lightly raining….)

And where else but a journal could a person put the photograph (photocopied, folded) of the Civil War soldier they have a crush on? Don’t judge: he was only slightly more unattainable than your garden-variety movie star crush, and Christian Slater had nothing on him.