Worldbuilding

Last month I led a worldbuilding workshop for kids at the summer camp my son was attending. Over the last year, I had been busy building a world of my own, a grassland planet that will appear in my next novel. It’s been a fun and absorbing exercise to invent a whole world, with culture and technology and traditions as well as its own unique flora and fauna. Of course, when I wrote high fantasy, I was building a different kind of world, with magical creatures. But the charge I’ve given myself for my current novel is to create plants and animals informed by the years I spent as a science editor, working with evolutionary biologists. It’s allowed me to stretch myself in ways I know are paying off personally and hope will eventually pay off on the page.

Then suddenly I found myself offering to lead a workshop at Parts & Crafts, a camp where kids learn “to make things, and make things happen.” I’ve previously led kids in writing workshops that used various prompts to inspire their own creative writing. I’ve used a poem by Craig Raine to inspire kids to write “Martian postcards.” And in 2008-2009, I led an afterschool fiction writing club for fourth- and sixth-grade kids. Our writing club had a “shipwrecked” theme, and over the semester of Tuesday afternoons they all managed to get their main characters marooned in various harrowing and hilarious situations, domestic and extraterrestrial. Now I planned to ramp up the workshop to something more ambitious–worldbuilding on the scale of a planet.

I agreed to lead a world-building workshop for kids without being really sure how to go about it. Because it was  a camp and not a school setting, I didn’t want it to feel too structured or didactic. I wanted to coach them more than teach them. There is a lot of good stuff online about worldbuilding, and I put links to a lot of it up on a Worldbuilding wiki on Wikispaces to serve as a resource, in case the kids wanted it.

But in the end they didn’t need any adults telling them how to build a world. It was pretty intuitive for them…and very hands-on. I showed up at camp with a huge tote bag of inspiration books about planets and real and imagined worlds. I also brought plenty of black construction paper and pastels, some drafting compasses, about 1000 blank and lined index cards, modelling clay, a laptop, and a webcam.


It soon became clear we were going to need more clay. Most kids seemed to feel the 2-D art and index cards were too much like a school assignment, but making aliens out of clay was immediately a hit, and by the second day they were using iStopMotion to make claymation films on a set we made with cardboard, paint, and found objects.

Older kids entered data about their planet and its flora and fauna on the Worldbuilders wiki. I’d provided a template to get them started, and then they figured out how to upload images and modify them using an online photo editor, Lunapic. One camper used Lunapic’s special effects to create a sepia map of a city and a “radioactive” specimen.

You can see the worlds they created at the Wiki and some of their claymation films on the Parts and Crafts channel on Vimeo.

What I love about worldbuilding as a creative activity for kids is that it’s almost endlessly scalable–from a single afternoon to a whole semester or summer–and customizable to what you have on hand. One day we did a taste test of “alien food” (exotic fruits from the store); on another day we used gold and silver Sculpey clay to make alien artifacts. It was also a great way to engage kids for whom the written word isn’t the first or best way in to creative thinking. Clay offered a way to create their world physically, and once they could see it, they could begin to put it into words, and create a story.

For more about how the Worldbuilding worked, visit the Worldbuilding wiki and see the How To page.

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8 thoughts on “Worldbuilding

  1. I love it. I want to do it. I want to teach it, too. I wish I were as smart as you. I’m sharing it with my whole facebook.

  2. I love world building based on a single premise — for example, John Brunner’s sci-fi masterpiece Stand on Zanzibar (1969) was based on overpopulation — what would happen if the world was drastically overpopulated? From this key question his entire world sprouts — and from the question even the form of the novel (fragments of invented newspapers, tv jingles — overload, overload) reflects his world. Cultures are unable to maintain their own identities…. Catholicism undergoes a schism between those who advocate birth control and those who don’t…. Etc etc. Along with Dune, Brunner’s future earth is the best world building I’ve read from the 60s.

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