No one would deny the importance of reading stories to children to give them the gift of appreciation of the beauty and art of literature. Great books do that and so this is why we as parents and caregivers feel guilty when we let story-time slip a day or two. And, rightly so.
But if story-time only includes prose, then, I am going to make the case for your good consideration, dear reader, that you might be limiting the extent of your little one’s ability to experience and build language skills. I am going to share with you what I learned in my research about how poetry can build a more profound understanding of words, imagery, and rhythm in the mind of a child. And after looking through a range of poetry published over the last two hundred years, there are a number of poets who stand out in their talent in writing lovely, rich poems that are great for children.
Poetry vs. Prose – Form and function
So let’s distinguish prose from poetry, I suggest that difference can be hard to discern and I am not going to suggest that poetry is better for children than prose, but to me, there is an important difference to consider and, if it helps, I’m going to offer a couple of metaphors to make the point. For instance, when I think about how much of a punch poetry packs within a small number of well chosen words, I liken prose to chicken noodle soup, and poetry to a spicy pho ga (Vietnamese chicken soup). And when I think about the exacting structure of meter that poets must often work within, I think of prose being a tuna steak and poetry being like sushi. Again, I’m not saying poetry is better than prose, but there’s no denying that through its structure, meter, verse, and rhyme, poetry is like adding jet fuel to words to help them soar.
If you’re like me and did not seek out poems to mix in to reading time when my kids were very young, do not despair. I was inspired to research this topic, to make it easier for parents to find really great, quality poetry that your children will love. And this is important point that it seems is being missed in the world of the experts. If your child doesn’t like it, well, that will be the end of that, so it is quite imperative to make sure the poems we read to a child have the best chance of being a hit. But the experts out there seem to be missing that. There are many studies that demonstrate that poetry is like vitamins for the mind, but the studies don’t actually go the proverbial “last 3 feet to suggest what poems are truly great for kids versus poems that are boring or just plain rubbish. I hope to help here by making a few recommendations.
Choosing great poetry for your great kid
For Infants and Toddlers – Beauty and simplicity
There is a lot of poetry out there, so it makes it easier to choose poetry for your child’s age and personality when thinking about the different genres. For infants and toddlers, I suggest to look for poems that emphasize rhythm and rhyme and with short, simple phrases since for very young children, that will be the closest to a soothing lullaby. Even with simple structured poems, there is room for beautiful words and imagery. Robert Louis Stevenson offers a gorgeous, full collection of poems that fit this bill in his volume, A Child’s Garden of Verses. This link here will take you to Project Gutenberg’s free online copy.
Get silly with your 3+ year olds
For 3 years and older, children really develop their sense of humor and are delighted by silly play. There is an abundance of silliness in Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense. Project Gutenberg’s free copy is here. Lear was a nineteenth century illustrator and author but his with feels fresh even today. There is some great vocabulary here too as you would expect from a Victorian writer. Lear’s The Owl and The Pussycat is my personal favorite.
Open up greater levels of imagery and beauty to your school-age kids
The skies the limit when it comes to poetry works for your older child. Consider A. A. Milne, Shel Silverstein and even “adult” poets such as Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.
Poetry is a boost to early readers
Research points to poetry providing powerful support in develop a strong foundation for reading. Dr. Amy McClure, a professor of early childhood education at Ohio Weslyan University found evidence that “poetry can help children build phonemic awareness” which is a fancy word to mean that words are built with individual sounds. This is an important foundation for children to be ready to read.
Poetry’s patterns help with Math concepts too
Though that may sound rather obvious, what is surprising is that researchers have found that there is a relationship between poetry and math. As strange as that may sound, researchers studied the effects that the patterns in poetry’s structure has on children and found a positive relationship to a child’s success in bridging patterns to numbered sets, a critical concept in learning math. Math and poetry can go hand in hand even directly. This pin, for example, is a great way to help make number leaning fun. https://pin.it/ri6cgdxhfrcfwh
Another great way to experience poetry is via YouTube. There are many videos where the poem is read by talented voice artists and engaging music and sound effects are added in. We posted our first enhanced video. You can watch it here. Robert Louis Stevenson Condensed Poetry Video
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a poem might just be worth a thousand pictures. A poem allows the listener to quilt together the varied elements of sound, sight, and feeling. Poetry is not literal like prose and so it entices the listener, young and old, to put the image in their mind together in an unparalleled creative and personal way. This is health food for the mind and when you and your child begin to experience poetry, you will wonder how you ever went so long without it. Enjoy the journey.
References: The Power of Poetry, Parents Magazine