When I was young, my dad read aloud to me from his battered old copy of A.A. Milne’s poetry. He read to my brother and I “Now I am Six” on our birthdays every year. I loved “The King’s Breakfast” and “James James Morrison Morrison.” Thinking of those poems evokes warm memories of my father and I’m grateful for them. I can still recite some of them. That was, I think, my earliest introduction to poetry… the first literature I loved.
What are your favorite books to read with your little one? Do you love snuggling up together with the likes of Shel Silverstein? Do they remember the poems after reading them a few (thousand) times? Whether you (or they) know it or not, your child likely loves poetry. I bet many of those early books rhymed, had a cadence, a rhythm, a beat. Patterns and advanced vocabulary words. It’s probably no surprise to you, parents, that kids love to guess what the next thing is and repeat words or lines they know. Rhyming poetry helps them predict the next word or phrase, is easier to remember, and is a great way to practice speaking and communications skills.
Poetry builds reading and listening skills, language and vocabulary. It teaches children sounds, sentence structure and phonics while encouraging creative thinking and a love of reading and writing. In addition to the rich vocabulary and literary merits, poems are also relatively short and easy to digest. You can read a poem together in just a few minutes. It’s easy to slip in before lights out.
Poetry also teaches readers about imagery, symbolism and metaphor, and helps them better analyze writing of all kinds. Much like classical music has been shown to be beneficial for a child’s brain development, poetry be essential to a child’s creative and literacy growth. It’s also fun to read! Look for poetry books or ask for help when taking trips to the library or bookstore. Jack Prelutsky and, of course, Shel Silverstein are great places to start. Remember favorites like “Goodnight Moon” and “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” are forms of poetry too.
As your kiddos get a bit more advanced, you can introduce poets like Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, as well as more challenging poets like Frederico Garcia Lorca or Sylvia Plath. Billy Collins is also quite accessible and engaging for readers of all ages. Your local librarian or bookseller can surely turn you on to favorite poets in their collections.
You don’t have to leave poetry behind as they get older! Books for older kids tend to shift away from rhyming couplets, though there are also some wonderful examples of contemporary book-length poems for young readers out there, such as “Brown Girl Dreaming” by National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson, and the hip hop/free verse young adult novel, “The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander.
Visit poetryfoundation.org, an amazing resource for poetry lovers, to find poems for children and young adults alike.
Once your kids can write, encourage them to start writing down poems of their own. You can write poems together, taking turns writing lines or pausing to let them fill in the blanks. What a special thing to save and perhaps put in some sort of book down the line; the poems you write together. You can also set aside, say, 10 or 15 minutes to write as many poems as you can and then share them. It gets the creativity going and gives you a laugh together. You can also agree on a prompt: an object and location you and your child choose. Scholastic Story Starters (scholastic.com) also generates random prompts for inspiration. Reading their own work aloud will also raise a child’s confidence and improve their speaking skills.
Things to discuss about the poems you write and read: How it made you feel; what the themes were/what it meant; why you liked or didn’t like it; whether it rhymed or used repetition or other patterns; (depending on age) what the metaphors, similes and analogies were and whether they were effective; word choice; details; rhythm; which writers it reminds you of; and anything else you notice.
When reading your child’s work, always begin with something positive. You can say, “This one’s really funny” or “I loved that description, it was so real.” Then, you can suggest something constructive, if that’s what they’re looking for… something they might explain or develop further, a phrase that’s confusing. But if they ask you not to tell them things they should change, that’s ok too.
A few times, I’ve had the pleasure of judging local high schools’ Poetry Out Loud competitions, in which students choose from thousands of the best historical and contemporary poets to recite their work in a competition. This year’s state finals and national competitions will be held virtually. New Hampshire’s state finals Poetry Out Loud competition was March 12. I loved seeing who I imagined to be aspiring young poets of their own nervously shuffle up to the mic in the school library, take in a deep breath, and astonish me with a powerful rendition of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” (one of my favorites) or Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” I saw students, shaking with anxiety, suddenly straighten themselves and eloquently perform a poem with enthusiasm.
According to Poet/Children’s Literacy Foundation presenter Ted Scheu (“That Poetry Guy”), “Kids often find themselves — their lives, their hearts, their gifts — inside poems, whether they are reading someone else’s verse, or especially if they are writing their own.”
“Poetry is a form, by virtue of its brevity and flexibility, that kids find less intimidating,” he said. “And because it is short, it gently and clearly demands that the writer choose her words super carefully. Every word counts. Poems also encourage imagination, with strong, surprising figurative language and images. And it also fosters the expressing of important truths and feelings right from the heart. As such, it is a great way for young writers to see and experience the importance of ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’ their truths and feelings. In short, poetry helps kids find their writers’ voices. Often the struggling writers are those who are most attracted to [poetry].”
So, regardless of your young writer’s skills, reading, hearing and writing poetry can have many benefits.
The Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF) is hosting a kids’ poetry contest open to children ages 12 and under in New Hampshire and Vermont. Winners of each age category will receive new books. Winning poems will be published online during the month of April — National Poetry Month — with permission. Email entries (one to three poems) to firstname.lastname@example.org by March 31. Please include the poet’s name, age and mailing address (so we can mail the new books).
Erika Nichols-Frazer is a writer, editor, and the Communications Manager at the Children’s Literacy Foundation, which inspires a love or reading and writing among low-income, at-risk and rural kids (ages 12 and under) in New Hampshire and Vermont. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is the editor of the forthcoming mental health recovery anthology, “A Tether to This World.” She won Noir Nation’s 2019 Golden Fedora Fiction Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her writing has been published in many newspapers, anthologies and literary journals, including HuffPost, Lunate, Literary Orphans and Red Tree Review. You can find her work and blog at nicholsfrazer.com. And learn more about the Children’s Literacy Foundation at clifonline.org.