“Why don’t you write a nice story for me?”

            “Aaaaahhh . . . I don’t know what to write about.”

            You had the right idea. You’re encouraging your bored child to fill the time creatively and constructively, by exercising that most important of mental “muscles,” his imagination. Instead of saying, “Why don’t you draw a picture?” you’ve offered a better challenge to his creativity. But then he’s come up blank in the idea department . . . and your great idea comes to a screeching halt.

            It doesn’t have to. With a little prompting, your child can think of plenty of stories. He just needs a little guidance. And writing a story is such good exercise for his creativity, his imagination.

            If he’s not yet of writing age, that doesn’t preclude his making up a story. He has other options besides writing it on paper. He can simply tell it to you (or to his favorite teddy bear), he can dictate it to you and have you write or type it for him, or he can even dictate it into a tape recorder.

            If he gets—or you get—the story down on paper, he can even illustrate it if he wants, perhaps even turn it into his very own “book” with construction paper covers. (And wouldn’t a book like that be a great present for Grandma?!)

            But he doesn’t have to turn it into a book or even illustrate it. Those are simply “bonus activities”—perhaps for another day when he’s bored. Right now, the important thing is to get him to write that story.

            In fact, boredom doesn’t have to be the only occasion for your child to make up a story. How about your family having a Backward Story Night? Once a week (or more often, if you’d like), instead of your telling your child a bedtime story, let himtell you one . . . of his own invention?!

            But you’re still facing “I don’t know what to write/tell.”

            Not for long.

            Kids often have trouble getting started with a story . . . but give them a little gentle direction—kind of a jump start—and they’re fine taking it from there. You can help your child by suggesting a character for him to write about, a situation, or both. Once you give your child this framework, it will be easier for him to write the actual story.

            One suggestion you can give a child who’s just beginning to learn to make up stories is that he write about a character he’s already familiar with. Surely he knows the story of Cinderella . . . but what happened to her after she married the prince? And did she and Prince Charming have kids? Your child can make up stories about them.

            Then there’s the fairy godmother . . . whom did she help next, after she’d solved Cinderella’s troubles?  Now what about the wicked stepmother and stepsisters? What did they do once Cinderella had moved out of their house?

            Your child can take the characters from almost any story—the major characters or minor ones, the heroes or the villains—and make up further adventures for them. There’s even a precedent in published stories . . . look at all theOz books that followed the original, to take just one example.

            When Hansel and Gretel escaped from the Wicked Witch, what happened to them next? When Aladdin was finished with the magic lamp, who did the genie belong to next? (For that matter, they could write about a different magic lamp, with a different genie . . . or about a genie who lived in some other container. A tea kettle? A spice jar? A vase?)

            So when your child complains that he can’t think of what to write, your first suggestion might be that he write a further adventure of a favorite character—or that character’s kids. Or the story of two of his favorite characters meeting each other.

            • “Cinderella’s Children”

            • “Robin Hood Rescues Joey”

            • “The Three Little Pigs Meet Goldilocks”

            • “How Jack Climbed the Beanstalk to Meet Rapunzel”

            • “Baby Bear’s New Little Sister”

            • “Snow White and the Prince Return to the Forest”

            • “Santa Claus Meets the Easter Bunny”

            Since kids love to be the center of attention, suggest that your child write a story about himself or herself in a familiar storybook setting:

            • “The Day I Found Aladdin’s Lamp”

            • “The Day I Met the Three Bears”

            • “I Shot an Arrow off William Tell’s Head”

            • “My Adventure Riding with Robin Hood”

            • “My Visit to Santa’s Toy Shop”

            • “How I Got the Best of the Big Bad Wolf!”

            When she’s comfortable making up that sort of story, “promote” your child to a more creative type of story by suggesting she invent tales about herself that don’t necessarily involve familiar storybook characters:

            • “My Visit to the Ocean Floor”

            • “The Fairy Who Granted Me Three Wishes”

            • “I Found a Magic Apple!”

            • “My Trip to the Moon”

            • “The Day I Turned Invisible”

            • “The Mysterious Object I Found in the Park”

            • “When the Space Travelers Visited My House”

            • “How I Learned to Fly”

            When your child can tell this type of story without it being a chore, it’s time to “promote” her again—to stories that don’t necessarily revolve around her at all. Now she’s creating both the character and the story entirely from her own imagination, even though you’re still prompting the plot or setting. Suggest such story topics or titles as:

            • “The Enchanted Beach”

            • “The Seashell That Sang Lullabies"

            • “The Dump Truck That Flew to the Moon”

            • “The Gnome Who Lived in the Library”

            • “Anna-Banana’s Polka Dot Bandana”

            • “The Boy Who Only Spoke in Rhyme”

            • “It’s Snowing . . . in July!”

            • “The Moose Who Wanted to Be One of Santa’s Reindeer”

            • “The Night the Sun Shone at Midnight”

            If she still writes herself into the story, there’s no harm, but the child who visits the enchanted beach could just as easily be someone she invents for the occasion.

            And when she’s able to make up stories like these without a struggle, she should be ready to graduate and “fly solo”—by making up a story entirely on her own, without your giving her an idea for a topic.

            Her imagination has been getting lots of exercise, and whether it’s a day when she’s bored, a day when you think she’s watching too much TV, a night when you’ve decided it’s her turn to tell you a bedtime story, or just a day when you think it would be nice if she made up a story—for fun, for Grandma, or just for an imagination-stretching exercise— she’ll be ready, willing, and able . . . and creative.

            Once upon a time there was a child who didn’t know how to make up a story . . . but we don’t know anyone like that anymore, do we?