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Poetry for Children

"Poems are like the flower arranging of spoken language."
—Joen Bettman, "Building Spoken Language in the First Plane,"
NAMTA Journal, Winter, 2016

Mother reading with childAll over the world, poetry touches the hearts and minds of adults and children alike. In Chile, everyone - from teachers to truck drivers - knows the poetry of their country's beloved poets. In Iran, the mystical poetry of Rumi and Hafez is recited by children in schools and woven into everyday conversation. In almost every country children, teens, and adults sing along to songs (often poems set to music) on the radio. Spoken word, hip hop, and rap are the poetry of today's youth.

Poetry in Everyday Life

Perhaps more than we realize, adults introduce poetry to children from an early age, simply by singing songs like "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Jingle Bells." Many books for young children are written in rhyme, like Good Night Moon and those of Dr. Seuss. Poetry gives children the gift of hearing language expressed in imaginative ways:

"A Day"
by Emily Dickinsen

I'll tell you how the sun rose,
    A ribbon at a time.
    The steeples swam in amethyst,
    The news like squirrels ran...

With its wide range of beats, styles, meter, imagery, and vocabulary, poetry can express emotions, paint a picture, tickle the funny bone, or tell a story. Reading quality poems delights children, inviting a lasting love of this literary art form.

Poetry for One- to Six-Year-Olds

Teachers should have a memorized repertoire of finger plays, nursery rhymes, jingles, and poems to recite to young children. Reading poems aloud from one of the many excellent anthologies of poems for children is also a wonderful option. The book and CD, Poetry Speaks to Children, includes poems by Langston Hughes, Margaret Wise Brown, Ogden Nash, and many more. If you read the same poem to children over many days, they will automatically begin to memorize it. You might enjoy the You Tube videos of a young child reciting Aline Wolf's poem, "I Offer You Peace" (called "Montessori Peace Poem" on YouTube) or the three-year-old reciting "Hey Black Child."

Poetry helps build skills for emergent readers. In Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century, the authors Wolf & Gotwald explain, "When children from six months to six years are exposed to the various sounds and rhymes awash in children's literature, they are better prepared for the task of decoding the words in text when they begin to read." The authors cite research showing that exposing children to Mother Goose rhymes "made a significant difference in later reading performance."

Poetry for the Elementary Student

The children in my lower elementary class loved memorizing and reciting poems to seniors at a nearby retirement home. When a child memorizes a poem she loves, it becomes hers.

Maria Montessori experimented with teaching Dante's Divine Comedy - first to middle school children and then to ten-year-olds. She began by reading a section of the poem, noting that each line contained 11 syllables. "This called forth indescribable enthusiasm among the children... 'How was it possible,' they asked, 'to write a whole poem in which every line should contain only 11 syllables?'" Spontaneously the children began to copy and decorate sections of the poem and then recite Dante. Every day they said, "Let us do Dante." Later, the children decided to act out the poem. They performed their "Dante Theatre" in Amsterdam in front of 1500 people. (19th International Montessori Training Course, London Lecture 29, 17 November 1933, NAMTA Journal, Winter 2016)

Writing Haiku

One style of poetry that appeals to many children is Japanese haiku. With simple instructions, children as young as six quickly learn to write haiku:

  1. Copy onto a white board several haiku such as the ones below, written by 17th century Japanese poet, Basho. Read them aloud to a small group of children.

       ancient is the pond -
          suddenly a frog leaps - now!
             the water echoes

       lady butterfly
          perfumes her wings by flying
             over the orchard

  2. Ask the children, "What do you notice about these poems?" Seek out key elements, such as, "They all have just three lines." "You noticed that nature is a theme in haiku."
  3. "Let's look at how many syllables each line has." Clap out the syllables.
  4. Guide the children to discover that the first and third lines have five syllables and the middle line has seven.
  5. Take the children outside in nature to write haiku. Trees, grass, or bugs will suffice to inspire. Reassure them that their poems don't have to strictly follow the 5/7/5 syllable format. Help children get closer to the number of syllables they want by adding or removing words, or by choosing a synonym for a word. For example, "Robin has two syllables, bird has one."

My first experience teaching haiku occurred in a lower elementary Montessori class that I took over for a teacher on maternity leave. I was surprised to discover that the children had been given lessons by grade level, rather than by interests and abilities. The oldest children were a closed group with a rather condescending attitude towards the younger students. There was little interaction between grade levels. I invited the nine-year-olds to a poetry lesson, announcing that everyone was welcome. The class seemed shocked; only one brave seven-year-old joined us. But that boy wrote the most beautiful haiku of anyone. Suddenly the older children had new appreciation for a younger student. Friendships began to blossom across grade levels. All thanks to haiku!

Poetry for Big and Small

Give yourself the gift of reading poetry that touches your heart. Then bring that joy into the classroom, with poetry for children, including nursery rhymes, songs, finger plays, and books with rhyming text. Watch as this melodic art form captures your children's interest and perhaps inspires them to create poetry of their own. Poetry can enrich everyone's lives.

I am so small
How can this great love be inside me?
Look at your eyes.
They are small,
but they see enormous things.
—Jalaluddin Rumi, from The Essential Rumi

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.

—Originally Published 2016

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