Teaching Writing

Built Environment Brainstorming: Prompts for Writing Outside


This resource is available to support place-based writing outside anytime of year and comes with related resources and age-level recommendations. Originally developed for Write Out (writeout.nwp.org).

“A kid in Minecraft can build a world and inhabit it through play. We have the possibility to build the world that we want to inhabit.”-Bjarke Ingels

It’s hard to believe that the design for the world’s tallest arch began by playing around with pipe cleaners, but that’s how designer Eero Saarinen first came up with the form for what would later be known as the ‘Gateway to the West.’ It wouldn’t be the last time Saarinen and his team of structural engineers, steel workers, and construction workers would have to be creative with their materials and techniques in order to successfully build the 630-foot structure that is now the tallest monument in the Western Hemisphere.

Are there any interesting structures (such as monuments, sculptures) where you live? Have you ever thought of designing your own? With this writing spark you’ll be encouraged to go outside and consider the built environment that is around you. Think about the very beginning of the design process and all the many steps and materials required for completion. Who knows? Maybe a structure near you began with pipe cleaners, too!

Writing “Spark”

As educator Peter Elbow writes, “the most effective way … to improve your writing is to do free writing exercises regularly.” Use these writing “sparks” to get your free writing started. Use a notebook or a journal, go digital or stay analog, feel free to incorporate images and multimedia; use or experiment with approaches that work best for you.

Spark from Gateway Arch National Park—Write about a special structure where you live and why it is meaningful? Or write about one you’d like to design or build.

Content focus: Architecture, engineering and human connections
Age-level recommendations: All grades
Time: Video is 3 mins 45 seconds, writing time as needed

Ranger Matt introduces architectural marvels in the city of St. Louis, and invites you to join to write about a special place in your community.

Sharing your writing

Writing outdoors provides a wonderful opportunity to share your writing with others. Here are a few ideas how do this whether you are in person or at a distance from each other:

  • Come together in a circle to share your writing, or an excerpt from your writing (passing should also always be an option); if you aren’t in person, set up an online video conference to do this;
  • Develop a collaboration on the fly by having each writer share one line of their work to add to a greater whole; if you aren’t in person, you can create an email address, hashtag and/or online form for individuals to submit their selections;
  • Set up a “gallery” of writing which could support browsing, feedback and/or response; this is especially useful if the writing includes more than just text but also images, video, sound. This can happen in person or online using a shared collaborative space like Google Jamboard, Padlet etc.;
  • Especially during Write Out, share your writing by posting on social media using the hashtag #writeout

Related resources

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

Gateway Arch National Park: The Gateway Arch reflects St. Louis’ role in the Westward Expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century.

Dred and Harriet Scott Statue, Gateway Arch National Park

More about … from Wikipedia: the Gateway Arch | Old Courthouse | Eads Bridge

How the St. Louis Arch Stands Against All Odds” 1 October 2019. HowStuffWorks.com

Writing in the Outdoors with the Gateway Writing Project: Throughout the school year, Gateway Writing Project brings local teachers and students a variety of writing activities centered around the outdoors including writing marathons planned at Gateway Arch National Park, Forest Park, and Weldon Springs Conservation Area; two writing contests; and themed social media writing challenges.

* For Write Out 2022, check out the Write Engineering Contest and the Gateway Arch Writing Marathon

Write Out: Write Out is a free two-week celebration of writing, making, and sharing inspired by the great outdoors, and was created through a partnership of the National Writing Project and the National Park Service. It is a public invitation to get out and create that is supported with a series of online activities, made especially for educators, students, and families, to explore national parks and other public spaces. The goal is to connect and learn through place-based writing and sharing using the common hashtag #writeout.


Image source: Photo by Keran Yang on Unsplash 

This post is part of the STEAM-powered prompts for Writing Outside collection.