From Little Miss Muffet to William Wordsworth, kids can learn to love poetry from an early age. So swap the storybook for a poem or two and introduce your family to the beauty of rhyme, says Diana Noonan.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother reciting a poem to me. Even though I barely understood what it was about or what the longer words meant,
I was excited and moved by the rhythmic rise and fall of my mother’s voice as she stood at the kitchen sink, reciting the verses as she peeled potatoes. It was no nursery rhyme though. This poem was William Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” was another long, classic, complicated poem that she knew parts of by heart and recited aloud to me. This one was easier to understand than Wordsworth’s mighty epic. It was in verse and conjured up scenes of wild, natural landscapes filled with birds and animals. It was a love story and, even as a little child, the wonderfully-woven words touched something deep inside me.
When we help our children choose books, we tend to forget about poetry. Maybe we don’t feel poems offer enough because they can be ideas and thoughts rather than a story. But poems can create a sense of freedom – their crazy, fun words piling one on top of another, full of nonsense that makes kids laugh out loud and create their own fantastical phrases. They also stick in the mind. A day after hearing a poem, a child may suddenly repeat a line that is wedged in their memory. Sometimes, a more serious poem can cut so directly to emotions that the child being read to may give a deep, shuddery sigh as they listen.
Because poetry doesn’t have as many rules as a story, it can be freeing for children. They relate to poetry because they naturally speak in a poetic way. I remember walking along a disused railway line with my son, then aged about seven, and heard him talking about the foxgloves growing along the tracks. “The hills are streamed with foxgloves,” he said, quite naturally. I pointed out to him that his words sounded like a poem. Because we had been reading poems together, he went on to develop the image as we walked along. When we got home, he wrote it down on paper, and the poem was eventually published.
Any poem will do. It doesn’t matter if they rhyme or not, are story-like or are simply a collection of images. Poems encourage emotional development too. They help children access feelings and lead them to recognise poetry in everyday speech.
There is also a social side to poetry. In the past, all schoolkids had to commit very long poems to memory and several members of a family could recite the same one. This still has a place in life today. When we spontaneously share a poem, such as during a walk, sitting in the car, on the way to school, or at the dinner table, it creates a sense of bonding. In my own family, an elderly neighbour loved to recite poems she had learned at school and we also came to know them by heart. Even now, years later, someone will come out with a line or two and we will all join in. It’s not just the classics like Wordsworth or Keats either. We also do it with Dr Seuss jingles, which we read to our son when he was young, along with poetic passages from favourite picture books.
Just as important as being able to join in is the ability of children to recall poems when they are alone. When a child is lonely or in need of comfort, feels bored and wants entertainment, a poem can be the perfect answer. Begin with simple nursery rhymes and build up to longer passages, no matter how highbrow and complex they may seem. Once they get to know them, enjoy the verses together. It provides a bond between you and your child and strengthens family ties.
Next time you’re on a family trip to the library, be adventurous and pick up a poetry book. You may be surprised how big things can come from a few printed words on a page.
Bring home the poem
While poems are usually found in books, they don’t need to stay there. Poems are meant to be read and said aloud. The more visible and audible they are, the better. Here’s how to create a world of poetic words in your own home.
> Snap up bargain poetry books in garage sales and start your own collection.
> Make photocopies of poems from the library. Cut them out and stick to the fridge, bed-ends, the back of the toilet door, above the hand basin, and anywhere else they will command attention. Replace them with fresh poems every so often.
> Let your child copy out favourite lines from poems, illustrate them, and display them around the house.
> Make poem cards to give to friends and family.
> Create your own family poetry book by copying favourites and sticking
them in a scrapbook.
> Write out a line from a poem and pop it in your child’s lunchbox or pencil case, choosing a different one each day.
Catlins author Diana Noonan is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers for children. A former editor of the iconic School Journal, she writes for a wide range of educational resources, and takes a strong interest in the New Zealand Curriculum.