character development · creativity · kindergarten

The Power of Animal Characters in Kindergarten Creative Writing

In my current work in kindergarten, we are several weeks into a creative storytelling and story writing unit. This unit is not explicitly part of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project curriculum, but it borrows strategies, craft moves, and story structures from many of its existing units. My primary goal in teaching this unit is to allow children to use their imaginations and enjoy the writing process. I want them to spread their wings and really let loose with their ideas.

Since it takes place during the last third of the school year, the majority of my students are primed for the challenge of developing deeper and more complex stories. They have increased their automaticity with letter sounds and simple spelling patterns, which allows them to put words down on the page with greater ease. This, in turn, helps build their writing stamina and makes the writing process less halting or arduous. Overwhelmingly, writing workshop has become a sort of comfort zone for my students–a time and space in which they can actually relax and express their thoughts, use their imaginations, and develop whimsical and creative ideas.

Each year I approach this unit slightly differently, but one factor remains: I ask my students to invent an animal character that they can then imbue with human characteristics. Initially, they have to consider things like the animal’s name, where it lives, what it eats, and what it likes to do. As their stories develop, they begin to see their characters more fully. Their identities begin to come alive in the classroom–so much so that children get to know each other’s characters almost as well as they do their own and even include them in their stories too.

I always model this character development process first. The kids get a kick out of watching me invent and draw a character right in front of their eyes. They listen intently as I begin to tell about it and share more about my character’s identity and personality. This year my character is a fish named Wishy. He wears a red top hat with a flower, black trousers, and round wire rimmed eyeglasses. Wishy lives in the ocean, likes to eat pizza, and his favorite activity is reading. One student asked me, “If he lives in the ocean, won’t his pizza get wet?” So, on the spot I explained that yes, in fact it would get wet. But when Wishy wants to eat pizza, all he has to do is order delivery and it gets flown in from the local pizzeria where he eats it on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Somehow that explanation was totally reasonable for my class. And if I’m ever writing my story for them and forget to include his top hat or glasses in the illustration, they remind me immediately.

The first year I taught this was in the spring of 2021 during Covid when everyone was still terrified to be back in school together and we had no idea what we were doing or how we were going to stay healthy. The animal character idea came out of my attempt to create some kind of therapeutic writing zone for my students. It felt like we had all experienced a major trauma together (which we had). I wanted to give each child the opportunity to invent and befriend an animal of their choosing and to develop an identity for it–like a teddy bear but for writing. This character could become a companion to take comfort and confide in or a vehicle through which they could share complicated feelings and emotions brought on by the pandemic or anything else for that matter. Whether or not it happened, that was my initial rationale.

The next year when I taught this unit, I considered bringing in people characters, but ultimately I decided not to. I was afraid that it would limit my students’ creativity and I was concerned that some unhealthy social dynamics that had developed between children would start to come through in their writing. I did not want to create a situation in which children would feel social pressure to make their characters look or act a certain way so that they could feel included or accepted by others. The animal characters were a much needed break from reality for each of my students last year, and they produced some wonderful, thoughtful, and imaginative stories.

This year, I have been digging a bit deeper into my own reasoning for having children develop animal characters with human characteristics for their stories. What is it about anthropomorphism that makes so much sense for me and my young students? How does it allow them to really grow their stories with a sense of freedom and purpose? Why do so many children’s books feature animals that walk, talk, dress, eat, and behave like people? What can we learn about ourselves by seeing the world through the eyes of animals who behave like people?

In their 2004 article in Language Arts entitled Animals as People in Children’s Literature, Carolyn L. Burke and Joby G. Copenhaver say of animal characters, “We let them take the risks and absorb the punishments when plans fail or solutions fall through. The intellectual and emotional distance that the animals’ role-playing allows children and their mentoring adults grants space in which to become reflective and critical concerning life problems and life choices.”

There are myriad beloved examples in children’s literature of animal characters who behave like people including Lyle the Crocodile, Angelina Ballerina, Yoko, and Chrysanthemum, to name a few. Animals can be fierce, funny, adventurous, cute, scary, daring, silly, vulnerable, and even nonsensical. People can be these things too, but it’s less acceptable for a person to behave in unexpected ways. When animals behave like people, we’re all in on the joke. We suspend reality and allow for the impossible to be true.

In many ways, animal characters that behave like people act as mirrors and windows to our own human condition. As Burke and Copenhaver write, “Having animals do the acting and mistake-making allows the face-saving emotional distance often needed to be able to join the conversation.” Just as children need opportunities to build empathy by imagining what someone else could be thinking or feeling, writing stories with anthropomorphic animal characters allows them to experiment with complex or unfamiliar situations and emotions and see the world through their character’s eyes. It gives children permission to experiment with plot and language to create a perfectly imperfect world. It also gives them a space to take risks, grapple with the unknown, and ultimately, have the kind of fun with writing that spurs them to want to write even more.

Works Cited:

Burke, Carolyn L. and Joby G. Copenhaver; “Animals as People in Children’s Literature,” Language Arts, Vol. 81 No. 3, January 2004.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Animal Characters in Kindergarten Creative Writing

  1. Everything you said here is fantastic! Many of the books we read to young children have animal characters with people-like traits. Bravo for making space for this in your classroom.

    Looking at this post with the lens of joy, this stuck out to me, Jenna: “[W]riting workshop has become a sort of comfort zone for my students–a time and space in which they can actually relax and express their thoughts, use their imaginations, and develop whimsical and creative ideas.” Do you realize how incredible this is?! You’ve truly fostered a strong community of writers in your classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this feedback, Stacey! It’s so important to me that my students find joy in writing. It’s so much fun to watch them get excited about their stories. Some of the kids have even been joining forces to write stories about their characters together. It’s such good energy!


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