5 Ways to Teach Young Children With Comics

by | Apr 20, 2018

My earliest memories of holding a pencil were as a 4-year-old, drawing the same stick figure character on recycled computer paper from my dad’s office (probably with proprietary company secrets on them). I was drawing different things in boxes (which I later found out were panel borders): I was drawing comics before I realized that’s what I was doing! This has been my muse ever since. 

I made comics on the side for years, but in 2007, my long time mentor, Tom Motley, decided to move to New York to pursue his cartooning career, and he trained me to replace him as a teacher for a series of Summer Camp sessions and school workshops through the Jewish Community Center’s Mizel Arts and Culture Center among other places. 

When I started, I simply followed Tom’s lesson plans verbatim, but I quickly determined that I needed to find methodologies that made intuitive sense to me and began to reverse engineer my process to modify and invent lessons that seemed to resonate more effectively with the kids I was teaching. 

Along the way, I noticed something: not all of the teachers that were securing my services were art teachers. In fact, many of them were language arts instructors asking me to teach about writing. The other thing I began to notice time and time again: teachers were taking me aside to point out how impressed they were at the dedication with which some of their “problem” students worked on creating their comic strips. 

In 2009, the Community College of Aurora (CCA) hired me to help teach and develop a Graphic Storytelling degree program, during which it was clear how important the emphasis on “multi-aspect learning” was in education. To me, the success I had reaching learning-challenged students was clearly a result of the integration of drawing in the story writing process. 

So, here are some of the comic and cartooning games I’ve developed over the years for various grade levels as young as K-2. They not only address visual story writing, but are fun ways to address problem solving and to think about non-verbal communication. 

  1. Daredoodles (thanks to T. Motley): The most fun version of this shape identification game is with 2 or more players, where each player starts by drawing a simple geometric shape. Then everyone exchanges drawings, to try to turn their neighbor’s shape into a character design. I added additional rounds which continue with the shapesturning into numbers, letters and eventually short words. (I give “extra credit” to students who can successfully turn their word into a drawing of the word.) The goal of this game is to help budding illustrators learn how shapes can be used in planning out drawings, especially for characters or objects that need to be repeatedly drawn, often from different angles and engaged in different activities. This is a game that can be used with even the youngest students. 
  2. Opposites: This is a “telephone” style game that uses blank notecards and binder clips and an odd number of players. Each player secretlydraws something on the top card before passing the deck to their neighbor. Each player, without consulting their neighbor, tries to decipher what the drawing is. They then place the card on the bottom of the deck, and draw what they believe is the opposite of the drawing they’ve been handed. Players mustn’t peek at any other card in the deck than the top one they’ve been handed. There are an odd number of rounds, before players reveal the drawings in their decks. If all players thought identically, every other card would be identical. But the fun is in finding out what other players thought their neighbors drew and what they drew as an “opposite.” This is a game that focuses on clarity in (visual and written) communication, when players can’t talk to one another. 
  3. Exquisite Corpses (a.k.a. “Heads, Bodies and Legs”): This is a game that I’ve played with my sister since I was very young. This interactive character design game ideally requires 3 players, and like Opposites, drawings are done in secret. Each player draws a head at the top of a blank page, then folds it over to the back, so the next player can only see the “neck”. Next, each player draws a body connected to the “neck” and folds the page over, so the last player can only see where the “hips” connect to the legs. The punchline comes when the pages are unfolded to reveal the often humorously grotesque character players have collaboratively created. While being able to be creative in a vacuum can be an asset in this game, direction following is key!
  4. Accordions (a.k.a. “Mad fold-ins”): One of the most clever things I’d ever seen growing up were those Mad Magazine pages that would instruct you to fold the pages to change the drawing into a completely different scene. I teach students to make these, which can be tricky. The trickiest part is in the initial fold. When I demonstrate this, I often will ask for random suggestions about what to draw on folded paper, then unfold the paper to draw the interior.Sometimes it can be hard disciplining oneself to not draw back into the original folded drawing space, so I encourage them to start in pencil, and then go over them in ink so they can test and erase. This can be done alone or with a partner. Not only is this another great instruction-following activity, but it certainly flexes one’s problem-solving capabilities. 
  5. Improv Comic Strips: This is typically a game for students that I’ve already taught how to write comic strips (which I describe as “a very short complete story”), with key elements every story has (protagonist, motivation, conflict, etc.). Once they’ve learned how to do a “hard punchline” formula (per Drawing on the Funny Side of the Brain by Christopher Hart (Watson-Guptill)), it can be a fun challenge to create an add-on story with brainstormed story seeds. Each player writes a character idea down on the upper-left-hand corner of a blank 4 panel template (that I can e-mail you), then passes it to the next player. That player writes down an idea for a setting and passes it. Finally, each player writes down an object, and passes it to the player that is to draw the first panel, referencing the story seeds as a launching point. Each panel should ideally be drawn by a different player, so having 4 or more players is preferable. The last panel artist not only needs to come up with a punchline, but needs to make sure that all of the story seeds have been included in the comic strip, and they get to come up with a title. Unlike the previous games, this one can be more challenging for younger students, but I’ve successfully done these with first and second graders who have limited writing skill.  

 

These games, like a lot of collaborative games, can be liberating, as relinquishing creative control can alleviate so much of the creative paralysis that a lot of creators can experience when they become overly precious with their work. It can also be an exercise in cooperation and leadership. Granted, this doesn’t work for every student (especially intrapersonal learners, although many of these games can be modified to be one-person games), but it can be a valuable weapon in a teacher’s arsenal for connecting with more visual, social or kinesthetic learners. If nothing else, you’ll end up with a classroom full of fun and creative artwork to display and show to parents (be sure to make photocopies for each of the participating students to take home). 

In all of my years of teaching week-long summer camps, these five games have been the ones that I’ve kept most consistently in my rotation, culminating the week in “Choose Your Game Day,” where each table is a station where students can participate in games that they learned during the week. And, not all of the students will go to the same tables, nor do I expect them to. But, often, finding those areas of interest by introducing them to fun activities that secretly also teach them skills, can open the door to learning in ways we as teachers and parents don’t expect. (To be honest, I hear that parents have just as much fun playing these with their kids at home -myself included.) 

These games can be great primers for launching kids that are more serious about learning about this medium into comic-book making classes, which are available all over the country. I even teach a few myself. Let us know how these games work out for you! 

 

Stan provides one page instructional sheets for each of these games by request at his website at http://stanyan.me. And as always, don’t forget to subscribe to our site for more info (in the top right of this window). 

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