Just because your kids are little doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy poetry. On the contrary, poetry is a great early literacy tool. Here are seven ideas for how to make poetry fun for kids, even preschoolers!
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Did you know that April is National Poetry Month? Probably not (kudos to you if you actually did know!), but I’ve loved celebrating poetry month every April since way back when I taught middle school English.
I love poetry. I know that puts me at odds with the vast majority of people in the world. In fact, a national poetry survey in the mid 2000s indicated that 9 of 10 American adults don’t like poetry.
Poetry’s bad reputation
When I taught middle school English, I was amazed by the intense opinions my students had on the subject of poetry.
Most of my kids were vehemently opposed to the idea of poetry. In their minds, poems were just old, weird words written by a bunch of old, weird, dead guys. (Can’t blame them; in some cases, they were right.)
Then there were the honors students who “liked” poetry because they were supposed to (love them…I was one).
Lastly, there were the few writers-at-heart who truly enjoyed exploring poetry.
Or at least those were the obvious camps I could divide them into. But I’m more about including than dividing, so I made it my goal to help my students discover that they ALL liked poetry, just maybe in different ways.
Many of my students (and I’m wagering many of you as well) had negative experiences with poetry involving terrifying attempts to recite poetry in front of a class of unforgiving students, a domineering teacher who insisted that their interpretation was the only correct one, or perhaps even well-meaning teachers who made you examine and pick apart poems until you had dissected all the fun and beauty right out of them. Whatever your past negative experiences, I hope you’ll give it one more chance today.
The truth about poetry
My theory on poetry is the same as my philosophy on reading. You can’t just hate reading altogether. If you think you don’t like reading, you need to find the right books and develop the skills for reading better.
It’s the same with poetry. There are SO many different kinds: rhyming, free verse, haiku, limerick, acrostic, etc. There truly is something for everyone to enjoy.
Why poetry is important for kids
I don’t teach in the public schools anymore, so everything I teach is aimed at my own kids…who can’t read on their own yet. Can they appreciate poetry, too? Surely, I should just wait until they are older, right?
Exploring poetry with young children is an important way to help them develop essential literacy skills. Think about it. Poetry is the ultimate playground for words. In poetry, kids can explore so many literacy skills and concepts:
- rhyme and rhythm
- phonemic awareness (the sounds letters make)
- sentence structure
- creating mental images
Those are just a few. These concepts are the building blocks of language. As kids become more aware of words and learn to use them through poetry, they will become better readers. In fact, experts in literacy and child development suggest that, “If children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.”
So, dust off your Mother Goose, and dive into poetry with your kids!
Still not sure how to engage the littlest of learners in poetry? It’s easier than you might think. Here are seven strategies for teaching poetry to kids. For each one, I’m including specific activities you can use right away to make poetry fun for kids, even ones that are too young to read it themselves.
7 sure-fire ways to make poetry fun for preschoolers
1. Sing songs
The first thing I always taught my students is that if they like music, then they like poetry. “WHAT?” they would exclaim. Take away the notes in a song, and what do you have left? A poem, right? Music is a great way to introduce kids to the idea of poetry. Sing songs to them, make up silly songs together, and play around with changing the words to songs you already know.
Activity: Sing the “ABC song,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and “Ba Ba Black Sheep.” Point out that all the songs are sung to the same tune. Explain that you can switch out the words of a song to create a whole new song using the same notes. Make up a song about your child’s favorite book, movie, or TV show using the tune of a familiar song.
This is actually one of my kids’ favorite activities. They love to have me make up songs at bedtime that tell the story of the book we just read. Sometimes my rhyme is atrocious and the rhythm of the song gets really awkward, but I they love it!
2. Introduce nursery rhymes
Nursery rhymes are simple poems that make a great first introduction to the genre. They provide a great opportunity to talk about rhyming words, and kids can learn and recite the rhymes with you so they get a feel for the rhythm of poetry.
Activity: Act out the rhymes with your kids. Connecting the words to movement will help them memorize them. Here are some great crafts and activities to go along with nursery rhymes:
- Little Miss Muffet (or Itsy Bitsy Spider) hand puppet craft
- Humpty Dumpty broken egg craft
- Mary Had a Little Lamb cotton ball sheep
- Jack be Nimble gross motor jumping activity
3. Have a poetry party
I first stumbled across the idea of a poetry tea party a year or so ago here. I thought it sounded like fun, so one day I got out my old tea set from when I was a child and showed it to Little Man. I was a little nervous about letting him touch it (little boys are not known for being the most delicate creatures), but he was SO careful. We had “tea” (juice) and an assortment of simple snacks while I read a few poems to him.
Poetry is an aural art form; it was meant to be read aloud. Forget all the deep metaphors (which your preschooler probably won’t get anyway) and just enjoy the sound of the language as it rolls off your tongue.
Activity: Get a book (or books) of poems for kids, and set up a celebration to share poetry with the kiddos. If tea parties aren’t your thing, try having a poetry picnic or a poetry pajama party. Same idea…endless possibilities!
I LOVE these Poetry for Young People books because they have great illustrations to help kids visualize the ideas in poems that would otherwise be considered “for adults”. I bought mine as a big set through a Scholastic book catalog years ago when I was teaching, but they have them individually on Amazon, too.
4. Draw pictures
We live in a visual world. Young kids especially depend on pictures to help them make sense of the world around them. Drawing what they learn is a great way to help kids visualize what they are reading (or listening to), and it increases their comprehension. In educator lingo, we would call this a “sketch to stretch”–you sketch a picture to stretch your understanding of a topic.
Activity: Give your child crayons and paper. Read to them the poem “Street Music” by Arnold Adoff. After reading it, talk about the sounds of a big city, and what a big city looks like. Read the poem again (reading poems repeatedly is important to increasing comprehension), and encourage your child to draw what they picture in their mind. If you live near a big city, go on a field trip and walk around to listen for the sounds described in the poem.
5. Play with rhyming words
My kids LOVE rhyming words, and since rhyming skills are correlated with increased reading ability, I try to find ways to encourage “rhyme time.” Many times our rhyming activities are really unstructured. Sometimes, we’ll be reading a book and one of my boys will point out, “Hey, that rhymes!” Then we’ll try to think of other words that rhyme with the first one we found. Here are some more rhyming activities:
Activity 1: When you’re driving in the car (or anywhere else), prompt your child with a basic word, like “ball” and ask, “How many words do you think there are that rhyme with ball?” Then, take turns supplying rhyming words: call, doll, hall, mall, tall, etc. Once your child gets good at simple, one-syllable words, you can make the game harder using words with two syllables. (Note: Don’t worry if your child rhymes nonsense words. Rhyming “flower” and “clower” is totally okay in this game!)
Activity 2: Sing the classic song “Down by the Bay” with your child and then play this Free printable “Down by the Bay” matching game.
6. Encourage kids to become poets
Notice, I didn’t say that your kids have to write poetry. Most preschoolers don’t have the skills to write out words let alone complete stanzas of a poem. But there is a power in sharing ideas, in expressing one’s thoughts creatively. While your child may need a lot of support, you might be surprised by what he or she can compose given the chance. When helping kids compose a poem, let your child give as many of the ideas as possible, and try to write things down exactly as they say them. Resist the urge to “correct” or improve their writing…let their best be good enough for now. If you have older kids, they can write their poems more independently.
Activity: Try writing a super simple poem with your child. Here are some preschool-appropriate poems you can write together.
7. Go for the funny bone
When all else fails, make ’em laugh. Kids love anything silly, and there are some great poets who write nonsensical, goofy poems especially for kids. Many of you probably grew up on Shel Silverstein, although I have to admit that I am partial to Jack Prelutsky’s The New Kid on the Block, which I read over and over again as a child. It’s okay to just read silly poems for the fun of it, without worrying about the “deeper meaning.” Preschoolers aren’t going to grasp the symbolism and figurative language, so DON’T worry about it. Just let them develop a love of words and associate poetry with fun and laughter.
Activity: Introduce your child to the poem “The Jabberwocky.” It’s full of ridiculous, made up words like “frabjous” and “gallumphing” that will get your little ones giggling. To enhance their understanding of the story within the poem, try watching The Muppet’s version of The Jabberwocky. It’s completely hilarious…and weird. You can’t go wrong with the Muppets, right?
Fabulous children’s poets to enjoy:
Before you go, I wanted to share some of my favorite children’s poets with you. Here they are, in no particular order…
- Shel Silverstein Where the Sidewalk Ends
- Jack Prelutsky The New Kid on the Block
- Roald Dahl Revolting Verses
- Bobbi Katz Pocket Poems
- Edward Lear (The King of Limericks) The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear
- Francisco X. Alarcón Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems and Bellybutton of the Moon
- Robert Louis Stevenson A Child’s Garden of Verses
- Sharon Creech Love That Dog
Learn more about these and more poets: 10 Wonderful Children’s Poets You Should Know
Some of these I’ve known since I was a child. Others (like Francisco Alarcón and Bobbi Katz) are new to me. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
How do you feel about poetry? Love it or hate it…or somewhere in between? Do you have any fave poets or poems? I’d love to hear!