Children’s librarians and booksellers offer an unparalleled repository of knowledge. You might ask for a picture book for a child whose interests include soccer and dinosaurs, or a graphic novel about a girl navigating the social dynamics of middle school as she prepares for her bat mitzvah, and they’d be able to point you to exactly what you’re looking for.
Now, using ChatGPT, you and your kids can create your own stories according to your personal specifications, making them as zany or as serious as you’d like. The results lack the artistic merit of the titles you find on library shelves, but designing the prompts and reading the stories together makes for a fun family activity — think Mad Libs taken to the next level. The technology also allows parents who aren’t typically writers to craft stories particular to an upcoming transition or a challenge their child may be facing, and filling them in with familiar elements or favorite characters.
Mixing Up Bedtime With Fresh, New Stories
Gavin Braman is a parent of two kids, ages 7 and 4. As the owner of a creative agency, he started toying around with ChatGPT for work-related tasks soon after its release. Then he figured out a way he could use it to entertain his kids.
“One of our bedtime rituals is to read or tell a story. And so I had the kids in bed, I was like, ‘Hey, let’s try out ChatGPT and see what kind of story we can get.’”
As he began crafting a prompt in the app, he realized that it was the perfect opportunity for audience participation.
“I don’t have to come up with this stuff. I’ll get my kids to give me characters,” Braman told HuffPost.
The prompt they crafted together begins as follows:
“Write a 7 minute story for my kids. They’re 4 and 6. Include a character that’s a transformer and can transform into anything . . . Also include a character that’s a merkittycorn which is a part mermaid, part cat and part corn. Her name is Elsa and also has the same powers as the Elsa from the movie. And Elsa has a friend that’s a bunny that’s named cotton ball.”
In truth, the directions are almost more delightful to read than the resulting story, which is good enough for giggles but not the Newberry Award.
Here’s a sample sentence: “One day, while they were exploring a dense jungle, they came across a giant T-Rex. The T-Rex was angry and hungry, and he was not happy to see them. But Bumble quickly transformed into a giant sandwich, distracting the T-Rex long enough for the others to escape.”
The story is interesting on the level of what-happened-next, with the novelty being that AI made these decisions. However, there’s a lack of figurative language, deeper character development and attention to craft that leads Braman to describe the AI stories as, “OK” and “not amazing.”
Braman and his kids enjoyed the activity overall, however, and he posted a video to Instagram detailing what he dubbed his first parenting hack. In addition to having kids come up with the characters and setting, Braman suggested, “Whatever your kid is struggling with, you also slip that in there.”
For example, you might request “some underlying messaging about not being a jerk to your brother.”
Interestingly, the comments on Braman’s post were sharply divided between support and criticism. Some people said that they, too, had tried this, or thought it sounded fun and harmless. Others, true to the reputation of internet commentators, accused Braman of being lazy, squelching creativity and allowing robots to raise his children.
What ChatGPT Can — And Can’t — Do
In trying this myself, I found that there’s an art to writing the prompts in a way that will get you as close as possible to the story that you’re hoping for; while it’s not the same thing as generating your own original stories, it does take a certain level of skill and practice. The savvier you become, and the more work you put into it, the higher the quality of the results.
For my first attempt, I swayed heavily in the didactic direction, asking ChatGPT to write a story for a third-grader about a unicorn princess who learns that friendship is worth more than material things.
Chat GPT named my main character Celeste and gave her a “shimmering mane and a heart full of dreams.”
But I hadn’t finished reading the story’s second paragraph before my own 3rd grader’s eyes had glazed over.
“Too long!” she declared, snatching the phone from my hand to demand a story about a kindergartener who “loves poop.”
Later, reading over the story that my own prompt generated, I found that it was full of cliches — “heart swelled with gratitude” — and a tendency to show rather than tell, stating the character’s emotions rather than revealing them through description, action or dialogue. Like Braman said, the story is “not amazing,” although I admit that if I came across it somewhere I wouldn’t be able to tell that it wasn’t written by a human (albeit not a particularly talented one).
My daughter’s poop request did produce a couple of gems within its well-worn language. For example: “Timmy had a unique fascination — one that made him giggle and smile more than anything else in the world. You see, Timmy had an extraordinary love for poop.”
For my next attempt, I requested a story in the style of Anna Dewdney (of “Llama Llama” fame) about a young skunk who learns to be gentle with his baby sister. In this instance, it’s clear that ChatGPT understands the concept of rhyme, but missed the lesson on counting syllables. The rhythm just isn’t there, resulting in amateur clunkers like:
“As days turned into weeks,
Stanley’s love began to grow,
He understood the importance of being gentle,
and it began to show.”
Tips For Using ChatGPT With Kids
Frank Milner, president of the tutoring service Tutor Doctor, told HuffPost that when parents are writing stories with their kids using ChatGPT, the most successful stories will likely come from detailed prompts.
“Specify the characters, setting, plot points or themes you would like to see,” Milner said. “If there is any relevant background information or context for the story, share it with the prompt.”
You can “create a narrative structure and direction,” he said, by spelling out “a conflict, a challenge to overcome, or a specific goal for the characters.”
Milner also recommended encouraging description and sensory language, and indicating a word count or length — Braman used time, as in, “a 5-minute story.”
Well-written prompts will produce higher-quality stories, but since ChatGPT will tap out a new story for you within seconds, it’s easy to learn from your mistakes as you go and continue entering revised prompts until you get what you’re looking for.
Milner mentions that you can alternate writing prompts for scenes or portions of the story with your kids as another way to co-create.
In addition to the bedtime stories, Braman has also used ChatGPT to create household scavenger hunts for his kids as well as a game he calls “adventure walk,” which he compared to Dungeons & Dragons.
There are many ways parents can use ChatGPT for both fun and learning. If you have a long car ride or wait at the doctor’s office, it might be just the thing. Milner suggested the following:
- Ask it for a story prompt/outline and student writes the story
- Create a recipe and make the dish
- Help kids break down larger tasks and choose which tasks to tackle first
- Ask ChatGPT to quiz them to help them study for a test
- Create a trivia game for family game night
- Drawing prompts: Ask ChatGPT to write a description of a new creature and draw the creature based on the description
- Explore poetry by asking Chat GPT to generate rhymes or even a poetry challenge where AI and child alternate lines
- Kids interested in coding can use Chat GPT to seek help with programming concepts
- Children can discuss environmental issues with Chat GPT and brainstorm solutions for pollution and sustainability
Stories For Therapeutic Learning
Cindy Graham, a child psychologist practicing in Maryland, told HuffPost that ChatGPT could be a new resource for creating materials for kids with autism.
“I use a specific category of stories and picture books with autistic clients called social stories,” Graham told HuffPost. “Since autistic individuals can struggle with social dynamics that are not concrete, social stories are a great way of presenting this information within a context that is better understood.”
Social stories, for example, might show children how to take turns, raise their hand before speaking or give others personal space.
For all children, said Graham, “Stories are an excellent way of making coping strategies easily understood and relatable.” They also tap “into children’s natural tendency toward play, thereby helping the child to learn without the child feeling like they are being ‘taught,’” Graham continued.
Social stories, for kids of all types, she said, could be made more readily available via ChatGPT, without parents needing to “comb the internet for stories.”
But just as ChatGPT isn’t always accurate, it may not always be appropriate, so make sure you read over anything before presenting it to your children. If you’re dealing with a sensitive challenge, you might even ask your child’s counselor or therapist to read the story before you share it with your child.
Maybe my kids are a little too old for some of these more didactic uses of ChatGPT stories — or maybe I just need to keep refining my prompts. In my house, we’ll probably give ChatGPT another go when we’re presented with some time to kill together.
After not expressing much interest in my unicorn tale, or even her own poop story, my daughter and I snuggled into bed together and I read from one of her favorite series, “The Babysitter’s Club.” She prefers the more recent graphic novel versions of the original Ann M. Martin books that I devoured at her age, and our whole family loved the updated Netflix series. There are, after all, many ways to tell the same story.