To young children, words, sounds, and rhythms offer endless possibilities, and poetry is a wonderful way to express and explore emerging language growth.
POETRY IS AN EXCELLENT way to play with language and to develop vocabulary, literacy, and language skills. Rhymes make poems accessible and predictable. Poetic rhythms make poems easy for children to remember. Through repetition, children quickly gain familiarity and then mastery. In fact, a favorite short poem may be the first successful "reading" experience for many children. Remember, times are different from the days when children were required to stand in front of the class nervously reciting a poem from memory. This is the age of exciting and nurturing group times when reciting a poem can be a choral experience -- shared and enjoyed by all!

Getting Of to a Special Start

Begin your week with "Poetry Monday." Choose a short, fun verse that relates to children's interests. Write it in large letters on an experience chart so everyone can see. (It doesn't matter if children can't read the words. Following along will help them make important links between oral and written language.)

Introduce the poem with an open-ended question, related riddle, prop, or puppet. Then "perform" the poem with the same dramatic elements you use when you read a book to children or tell them a story. (Remember, nothing ruins a poem more than a flat, unpracticed reading!) Over their cries of "Do it again!" repeat the poem, this time inviting children to participate by saying any rhyming words they remember.

Fill each of your Mondays together with poems: Read the week's special choice not only several times at group time, but also throughout the day; recite it together on the playground and, of course, at least one more time at the closing of your day.

Keep the Fun Going

Throughout the week, bring poetry into group time:

  • Create experience-chart poems. Write each poem on its own sheet of oaktag to hang on a flip-chart stand so children can revisit their favorites.
  • Invite children to add illustrations. Have markers available so children can draw directly on the oaktag, or encourage children to tape their illustrations to the appropriate pages or make rebus pictures that go along with the poems.
  • Use pocket charts. Help children understand how to use this strategy to add or change words.
  • Make flannel board pieces. Encourage children to use the pieces to dramatize the words of their favorite poems and nursery rhymes.
  • Tape-record children sharing poems. Put recordings in your listening center, along with copies of the poems and appropriate props so children can explore poetry independently.
  • Collect your "Monday Poems" into a class book. Make copies so children can contribute their own illustrations and then take home their own book at the end of the year to add to and cherish.
  • Encourage children to be creative. Introduce a predictable poem or rhyming story, and then ask children to help you make it their own. For instance, one kindergarten changed "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" to "I Know a Poor Pelican Who Swallowed a Pie." Everything the pelican ate began with a p!
  • Invite children to choose a poem to illustrate in book form. Help children write each line, or two, on a separate sheet of paper, illustrate the pages, and then gather them into their own book.
  • Use poems with "big" words. Part of the fun of language is learning new words and enjoying their sounds. Alpha Beta Chowder by Jeanne and William Steig is a great alphabet poem book with words in it that you may have to look up!
  • Share your favorites. Don't feel you have to read only poetry that was written for children. Your enthusiasm is contagious, and children will enjoy hearing a few of your favorites. Remember, the world of poetry is as vast and wonderful as the sky and as close as your heart.

Poetry and Picture Books

Try expanding children's interest and understanding of poetry by sharing picture books that are based on poems or song lyrics. Here are just a few: Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson (Dutton), The Cat Came Back by Bill Slavin and Kathleen Tucker (Albert Whitman Books), Go Tell Aunt Rhody by Aliki (Demco Media), Jewel by Shelley Harwayne (Mondo Books), My Father by Judy Collins and Jane Dyer (Little Brown), This Old Man by Carol Jones (Houghton Mifflin), Today Is Monday by Eric Carle (Philomel Books), and The Wheels on the Bus by Paul Zelinsky (Dutton).

Toddlers and Poetry

While you probably won't be sitting your toddlers down in front of a poem chart anytime soon, there are many terrific ways to incorporate poems into your day. After all, just as toddler group times can be spontaneous, so can toddler poetry.

  • Use poetry to accompany children's actions. "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick," is a perfect sing-song to quietly recite as children play on the low climbers. Use their names instead of Jack, and change candlestick to whatever parts of the climber they are conquering. You can also change the action word jump to other movement words that fit the gross-motor abilities and interests of your group.
  • Repeat poems wherever you are. Snack, outdoor play, and rest time can all be poetry times for toddlers.
  • Keep poems short and interactive. Nursery rhymes and four-line poems are just the right length. Add motions, sound effects, and props to encourage children's participation.
  • Don't forget nonsense rhymes and words. Although we don't expect very young children to recite poems, toddlers are usually enthralled by the sounds and can surprise us with what they do remember and say!
  • Most of all, have fun! Your joy will help convey the wonder of poetry.