One of the first things we try to drill into the heads of young writers is to "write using senses" - describe for the reader using sight, sound, smell, touch. This is one of my favorite activities for demonstrating to students how they can do that, and all it takes is a trip to the home improvement store's paint aisle.
I usually do this with middle school classes, but this past week I tried it in a 5th grade classroom and the kids loved it.
First, head out to your local paint store and browse the paint chips. Look for some visually stimulating colors. With the 5th graders I went bright, but with the older kids I was able to mix it up. You'll want to grab the single color chips that have names that the kids will be able to visualize. For example, I was able to grab a bright green chip called Amazon Parrot, and a gorgeous yellow called Warm Sunrise, among others. You'll find many great names - Pacific Surf, Tropical Paradise, Cowboy Hat, Desert Oasis, Wet Riverbed, etc.
As I mentioned, for the older kids, I stuck with more muted colors which were named a bit differently, with names like Midnight Fog, Sea Spray, Thunderstorm, Harbor View, Gentle Moss.
For the activity, you'll need a graphic organizer such as the one I've shown below. You'll review with them the importance of "creating a scene" when writing, of being so graphic that the reader feels as if he is right there with you in that moment. Also, read a great passage or two from a book that they can relate to, pointing out how the author uses different senses to help the reader get pulled into a scene.
I also explained how color is tied to emotion, and I read the text "My Blue is Happy" by Jessica Young. It goes through each color and shows how people can respond in different ways to each one. It's a great mentor text, and the illustrations are perfect for this activity. I also went around the room and asked each student what their "happy" color was. The responses varied, which further illustrated how color draws different emotions from each of us.
I drew an organizer on the board and then used the name from a paint chip (not revealing to them yet what they would soon be doing!) and asked them to help "visualize the scene using the name". After brainstorming a bit, I told them to now continue with a few words knowing that the name corresponded to a color - and I showed them my paint chip. Harbor View - was the name and evoked great scenery of standing on a dock looking at sailboats. But the color was grey, so now we looked at it as a rainy, or foggy day, and that changed our descriptive words.
I told them that writers can be inspired by anything - even paint chips - and that doing practice writing exercises will help authors become better at their craft. Then I distributed their own copy of the graphic organizer and followed that with one paint chip. They couldn't choose the chip. It was dealt to them to give them a bit more of a challenge. They were told to write words and phrases inspired by both the color and name on the chip.
Following a fifteen minute brain dump into our graphic organizers, during which everyone participated enthusiastically, the next task was to write a one-to-two paragraph "scene" based on what the color and chip brought to mind.
For example, for the grey Harbor View chip, it came out something like this:
"The early morning fog settled heavy onto the water as I walked to the end of the dock. The stillness of the air seemed peaceful, and allowed the mist to envelope me, swallow me up. The faint sounds of gulls and voices of fisherman, their yellow raincoats barely seen, were about the only sounds I heard. Fog horns interrupted my thoughts, and I watched as small boats and fishing vessels moved carefully about. The grey skies reflected my somber mood. A chill went through me, but the smell of the salt air still made me feel wonderful, and I continued to watch as the harbor's day went on despite the weather."
The students glued their paint chip right onto their graphic organizer and stored it in their Writer's Workshop binder as a reminder to write using senses. The paragraphs they wrote became part of their writing portfolio.
This was definitely an activity that they enjoyed, and hopefully will try to do with other writing props.