Children are born poets; they just need your help to know it. Poetry requires us to look at the world from a unique perspective, to daydream, imagine, laugh, and pretend — all things that children do naturally. Poems help us make sense of the world and express ideas and feelings in ways that everyday language cannot. The playful rhythms, silly rhymes, nonsensical words, and short form of poetry also grab children’s attention and give them a chance to succeed with language. In the words of poet Allen Ginsberg, poetry is ordinary magic.
By introducing your child to poetic forms and inviting her to create her own poems, you can unlock the magic. Poetry allows us to invent language, and anyone, even young children, can write poems. The seeds of poems are everywhere if we train our eyes to look. They appear in the clouds, the wind, a feeling, a cool stream, a friend’s crazy hat, a cat cuddled up on our lap, a dog chasing a ball, or even in a silly dream.
What child doesn’t enjoy making up new words or combining familiar words in silly ways? This experimentation and exploration helps your child build vocabulary, recognize the sounds of speech, express himself, and enjoy working with words. Poetry allows him to write about what really interests him: what he cares about, what he knows, what he sees, and most importantly, what he feels. It offers choices — not just of topic but of words, sentence structure, form, and pattern. Best of all, poetry is a place for his personality to shine through.
Here are some ways to explore the world of poetry together and to get your child’s creativity flowing:
- Read it aloud. Many adults are intimidated by the conventions of poetic form, but poetry — especially children’s poetry — is full of wonder, energy, and a sense of humor. Read poetry by different poets to find those you like; a love of poetry is contagious, so be enthusiastic!
When you share a poem, read it twice out loud. The first time, just read it. Be dramatic and rhythmic and try to emphasize word sounds at the beginning and end of lines. The second time, invite your child to notice what the poet has done. Ask, “What did you like about this poem? What did you notice? What sounds do you hear?” See if she can feel the rhythm a poet has used. Can she tap her foot to the beat or drum her fingers to it?
Listening to a poem usually inspires a child to create her own. Free verse poems are especially good choices. While children love to listen to rhyming poems, they can be difficult to write. Often a child will get stuck trying to rhyme words.
- Put poetry in print. Kids love to see their writing in print. Even if your child can’t yet write, he can dictate his poems to you. Typing up your child’s poetry preserves and honors his ideas and makes them available to others. Invite him to illustrate the poem he created.
- Find a poem in your child’s name. This type of poetry, known as acrostic, encourages word associations and playful nonsense. Your child’s name becomes the “spine” word. Each letter of her name is a seed for a new word. Invite her to think of words that begin with each letter — the new words can relate to her name, things she loves to do, or nothing at all.
Makes me happy
- Make a silly poem together. Read some poems with silly, made-up words, such as “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll or selections from Shel Silverstein’s book Runny Babbit. How do the poems make your child feel? Can he tell which words the poets made up? Why does he think the poets made up words instead of using real ones?
Then invite your child to create a poem using real and pretend words. Start by making up the first line of a poem — be silly: “When the pig made a wig, he called it a pwig!” Invite your child to add the next line. Take turns adding lines to the poem, writing down each one. Read the poem aloud, and invite your child to illustrate it.
- Create a collage poem. Poets are word collectors. Encourage your child to search for words and phrases, in all sizes and colors, from various sources—magazines, cereal boxes, and so on—and cut them out. Explain that you will make “poem art” by gluing these found words into a collage that can be any shape or size. She can arrange the words in any way at all, and her poem doesn’t need to make sense. Talk about the “personality” of words, letters, and typefaces. Find humor in words taken out of context or combined in interesting ways.
- Write a “what’s under” poem. Invite your child to write some lines that describe what’s under, over, in, and out of things. This exercise relies on imagination and explores the relationship of one thing to another. Try making up a poem yourself as an example. Offer a poem-starter phrase such as:
“Under the sky is _____.”
Under the sky is the sea
Under the water is a whale
Under the whale is a rock
Under the rock there are things we can never see
- Find some rhymes. This is an exercise in wordplay. Pick a word and invite your child to think of all the words that rhyme with it. Keep a list of the words he says. Then, together, see if you can create a poem from his list.
- Write an animal poem. Kids love animals, and thinking about or watching animals can help sharpen their observational skills — a big part of writing poetry. Read some animal poetry, such as Ted Hughes’s The Cat and the Cuckoo. Invite your child to write about animals she knows or loves. Help her get started by encouraging her to ask an animal something she’s been curious about: “What is it like to live in a cave? What is it like when you fly? Do you get cold being outside in the winter?” This exercise will also get kids thinking about the animal’s point of view.
- Make it human. Playing with personification (giving human qualities to nonhuman things) builds on a child’s observational skills and imagination. Read this poem by Bobbi Katz and then invite your child to bring something in his surroundings to life.
Hear him tumble
Bash, crash, blunder —
old grouch thunder!
Always in a mood to fight —
morning, afternoon, or night.
Lightning quickly answers back
with a zigzag