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Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. ---Robert Frost-

Introducing your children to poetry

--by David Griswold, May 31, 2014

Growing up isn't what it used to be. Today, our kids, from even the youngest of ages, are bombarded with stimuli far exceeding what we, or any of the generations preceding us, ever had to cope with. How do we keep our kids grounded in the midst of iPads and pop up ads, TV screens and Twitter memes? How do we help bring meaning and balance in the midst of a hyper-demanding (and often overwhelming) world?

As a preschool teacher, I believe that introducing our children to poetry at a young age holds at least part of the answer. While technology has brought so much to our lives, and completely changed how we learn and interact, I am hard-pressed to believe that a computer will ever teach a child how to live a purposeful life of love and connection. To pass on these life lessons, I think we have to turn back to the stories and songs of our past, and continue to inspire a sense of wonder in children through our words.

So why poetry in particular? As a former English major, I could give you an academic response, but I will tell you what I see as a preschool teacher. Poetry is basically like magic for kids. Before they even fully understand the meaning of the words they hear, I've seen how children respond to how words sounds and fit (or don't). When two words rhyme, it has all the satisfaction of two puzzle pieces clicking together. Even without rhymes, underneath all the words in a well written piece of children's literature, there is a flow, a tone and a timbre that kids pick up on, and these are some of the first things that help them to understand and organize their world.

Today, as America struggles to catch up to the other nations of the world in math and science, the arts and music are always first up on the chopping block. Poetry and its companions are certainly “nice” and all, but really, are they going to help our children get jobs? While I see the sense in this perspective, and I am all for improved math and science, I don't think these disciplines by themselves will help prepare kids for the lives we really hope they'll lead: lives not just of material prosperity and security, but lives of depth, wisdom and sincerity.

I should know–I used to work at Google, and I was miserable! I got to where everyone said I was supposed to be, and when I looked up from my computer and saw the prospects of a 9-5 (more like 7-6) pecking away at a keyboard, I leapt into the unknown and began to lead wilderness trips in Yosemite. This isn't a reflection on Google of course – there are many friends of mine who are happy with their jobs in Silicon Valley - but more a realization on my part that I wasn't where I was supposed to be or doing what I was supposed to do. I believe my next steps only came about because, somewhere along the line, the message of “follow your heart” made its way into my ear. It was embedded in the stories I heard as a kid: both those told by my parents and teachers, as well as those told by the books I read and cherished.

Poetry, in particular, teaches children that there is no right answer, and that the process is as important as the end goal. Even more so than with prose, poetry is all about what isn't said, and what is left for us each to fill in. These are the lessons I hope get passed on to the four year olds I teach: that there's always more than one way to look at things, and that some questions are ones we need to keep on asking. The very sound of poetry teaches children to pause and to listen closely, to live right now. It tells us all to slow down, and look once more with awe at a butterfly opening its wings, or a leaf falling to the ground.

To help introduce your children to poetry, here are some activities for various age groups that I would recommend trying at home.

1-2 year olds

1.Simply reading poetry to your kids is a perfect place to start. Poetry makes for wonderful bedtime reading, as the sound of children's poetry is often predictable and soothing. Read children some of your favorite poetry (they'll hear the tone and rhythm more than the words), or if you're look for a place to start, check out some of the classics from William Blake or Christina Rossetti. It doesn't always have to rhyme!

2.Make up songs or poems for different parts of the day, for example, singing “Breakfast time, breakfast time, a happy, sunny, Sunday rhyme,” changing the weather and day of the week accordingly.

3-4 year olds

1.It's never too early to share Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss with your children. As kids start to get a stronger grasp on the meaning of the words they're hearing, Silverstein and Seuss combine great poetry with silly sounds and ideas that all kids can relate to (not to mention some really important life lessons).

2.Play a simple rhyming game with your children. Pick up objects from around the house, or point to things in images, name them, and see if your children can come up with a rhyming word to complement that object (don't point to an orange though–that's just cruel).

3.Play “gobbledygook” (kind of like magna-poetry for kids): Cut up a bunch of words, and have them create an art project where they paste the words together on a piece of paper in whatever order they want. When they're done, read the finished piece to them as if it's a beautiful work of art, even if it's just gibberish. As they get older, add in more rhyming words, and encourage them to start making sentences and rhymes. Using lined paper may help too.

5 and up

1.Take the rhyming game to a new level: now instead of just rhyming words, work with your kids to come up with rhyming sentences. For example, you start by saying a sentence: “The lioness went to the store,” and your child then has to come up with a response that (more or less) makes sense and rhymes, such as “Her cubs broke down the door.” See how many rhymes you can come up with before moving on to the next word (“The owner let out a roar”), and before long, you'll be writing poetic stories with your children! You can also adapt this to paper or a screen as your children become more adept with writing or typing.

2.Encourage your children to tell stories from their day with metaphors and similes. For example if they tell you their day was awesome, ask them, “as awesome as what?” providing leading questions like “as awesome as a sunset?” or “as awesome as a whale jumping out of the water?” This sort of metaphorical thinking really helps push kids to make new connections and develop their out of the box thinking (another valuable academic and life skill).

3.Model poetry writing for your children. It doesn't have to be a work of incredible depth, but if you write and share your writing with them, they'll be more likely to write and share with you. Any time you or your child share something one of you has written, take some time to explore and ask questions, such as “why did you choose this word?” or “what does this mean to you?” Remember, there's no right answers.

Growing up, my father would give me two digit numbers to multiply in my head on the way to school. One of my proudest moments as a kid was successfully multiplying 99 times 99 on my way back from the bus stop in first grade (9801 for anyone wondering). These skills later opened doors: they helped get me into Yale, they helped me land a job at Google, but these days, they mostly make it easier to calculate what to tip at restaurants. It's been poetry I've turned to in times of need, and the magic of language that has helped me to navigate the trials and travails of life. Hand in hand with our focus on math and science, I think poetry and the arts are needed more than ever to help our children find meaning in a world that is constantly calling for their attention.

David Griswold is a preschool teacher at the Gan Ilan Preschool in Lafayette and a children's book author. He has just published his first children's bedtime book, Mother, What is the Moon? which you can learn more about at whatisthemoon.com.


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