Teaching poetry often makes many adults nervous. Children, too, might freeze up when asked to write a poem and announce, “I’m not good at this.” But exploring poetry with children can be riotously fun. I think it’s often a mistake to focus on reading “the great poets” with younger children and to worry too much about literary terms and conventions. Instead, stick primarily to children’s poets, who know what their audience loves, incorporate lots of music and dance, and don’t try to force poetry out of children (many adults, too, would bristle or find themselves stumped if ordered to sit down and compose a poem).
Children might be inspired to write after reading some of these poems. If so, fantastic! Or they might be open to sitting down and writing a haiku or an acrostic poem. But if you’d like to help kids write poetry, another technique is simply to observe them and note when something they say sounds like poetry (is it a beautiful, unexpected phrase? an interesting thought? something they’re passionate about?). You can say, “That sounds like a poem! Would you like me to write it down?” Sometimes they will say yes, and you can sit down together and see if they have anything to add.
Or if a child is very upset (or very excited), you might say, “Would you like to write a poem about that?” In this case, sit with them and let them dictate to you, as you write. You might even find this is a useful technique for resolving distress in the future. That a grown-up is listening so attentively, and even writing down their thoughts, can be soothing, and the act of an adult reading their words back to them often feels validating, perhaps even thrilling.
But the main idea here is to read a lot of poetry and to enjoy it, to pay attention to words and all the wonderful things words can do.
What Kids Will Do
In these explorations, kids might…
- study a variety of playground and nursery rhymes
- investigate poetry’s role in social justice movements
- play with rhyme and onomatopoeia
- memorize a poem and recite it
- write an assortment of poems to put in their own poetry book
- and more
(Designed for preschool and early elementary students, but many of the assignments and materials may be of interest to older children and adults, too!)
- What Is Poetry?, Michael Rosen and Jill Calder [Amazon | Bookshop] — If you, as a grown-up, feel uneasy around poetry, here’s a book to put you at ease, written by the masterful children’s poet Michael Rosen. I agree with Rosen on so much: it’s hard to say what a poem is, but there are loads of things poems can do and loads that poems are good for. Don’t worry about the rules too much. Have fun. Explore. Enjoy. Rosen uses some older, out-of-copyright poems for discussion here (so there isn’t too much in the way of diversity), but his writing is casual and unstuffy. You’ll find tips for thinking about poetry, for writing poetry, and for learning more about it (his resources section is excellent). You could read this by yourself or with elementary school-aged+ children, too.
- Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs, and Stories from an African American Childhood, Patricia C. McKissack and Brian Pinkney [Amazon | Bookshop] — A truly great collection of poetry made, performed, and/or loved by African American children: hand clap and playground games, songs originating from slavery, parables, gospel music, and more. McKissack has thoughtfully annotated the whole collection, so it’s full of historical information and personal recollections, too. It’s just packed with fun, wonderful things.
- Hip Hop Speaks to Children: 50 Inspiring Poems with a Beat, Nikki Giovanni (ed.) [Amazon | Bookshop] — Poet Nikki Giovanni’s selections here are great, and the book comes with a CD, featuring musical excerpts (like from The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First”) and poems from poets like Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes, read by the authors themselves.
- A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young, Michael Rosen and Chris Riddell [Amazon | Bookshop] — If you don’t know where to start with poetry for children, start here. Many of these excellent and truly entertaining poems focus on silly words and sounds — perfect for very young toddlers and funny enough even for kids in kindergarten and early elementary, too.
- Bananas in My Ears, Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake [Amazon | Bookshop] — For preschoolers and up, another one of Rosen’s superb collections, brilliantly illustrated by Quentin Blake. As with Rosen’s other collections, children might well crack up and request to hear these poems again and again and again. They’re a pleasure to read.
- Dear Ugly Sisters and Other Poems, Laura Mucha [Amazon | Bookshop] — A solid book of poetry with many funny poems and plenty of word play. If you purchase the book, you can also download an audiobook of Mucha reading her poems.
- Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems, Eloise Greenfield and Diane and Leo Dillon [Amazon | Bookshop] — A beautiful, small, and perfectly short book of children’s poetry from Black poet Eloise Greenfield. Some of these poems are sweetly funny (“Fun” and “Moochie”), one touches on slavery (“Harriet Tubman”), some are joyous (“Honey, I Love”), and some are just profoundly lovely (“Love Don’t Mean”). The wonderful title poem is also now a stand-alone children’s book [Amazon | Bookshop].
- The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman [Amazon | Bookshop] — While some of the content of Gorman’s poem might go over the heads of young children, many grasp enough to be riveted and touched by it. We are lucky to have a beautiful recording of this poem available for free, for everyone, online. It’s a wonderful performance of a special poem and a terrific opportunity to show children the relevance and importance of poets and poetry.
- Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, Misuzu Kaneko, Toshikado Hajiri, Sally Ito, David Jacobson, and Michiko Tsuboi [Amazon | Bookshop] — This biography of Kaneko is very interesting but too long for preschoolers and perhaps even kindergarteners. But along with the biography are many of this beloved Japanese poet’s works, in English and in Japanese, and these are remarkable for their immense empathy. Children who love animals and nature might be especially touched by these.
- That Is My Dream!, Langston Hughes and Daniel Miyares [Amazon | Bookshop] — A brilliantly executed picture book version of Hughes’s poem “Dream Variation,” with gorgeous illustrations that complement the poem and can open up all sorts of conversations about civil rights movements and the continuing fight for equality.
- Imagine, Juan Felipe Herrera and Lauren Castillo [Amazon | Bookshop] — First Latino Poet Laureate Herrera’s autobiography moves from his life on a farm in Mexico to his first day of school in the US, when he didn’t speak any English, to being Poet Laureate of the United States. A lovely book all about the wonder of where life can lead us.
- The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris [Amazon | Bookshop] — Master nature writer Macfarlane’s poems transcend age classifications. These are poems for children, and these are poems for grown-ups, too. The book is oversized and almost heartbreakingly beautiful by any measure. Macfarlane’s poems about animals and nature are clever and a joy to read, and Morris’s watercolor illustrations are breathtaking. If you love this one, check out the sequel, this time in a very small package: The Lost Spells [Amazon | Bookshop]. And also its companion CD, The Lost Words: Spell Songs.
- Lemonade and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word, Bob Raczka and Nancy Doniger [Amazon | Bookshop] — Another extremely clever book from Raczka, this time with poems written only with the letters from their titles. It’s a challenging exercise, but these poems are fantastic and extremely funny.
- Guess Who, Haiku, Deanna Caswell and Bob Shea [Amazon | Bookshop] — There aren’t too many great books of haiku for young readers, but this one (while not amazing) makes each haiku into riddles. Guess the animal the haiku is about, then turn the page. Fortunately or unfortunately, the page with the haiku gives the answer away with unsubtle (but cute!) illustrations, so it might be too easy if you don’t hide the pages, or perhaps it just won’t be frustrating.
- If Not for the Cat, Jack Prelutsky and Ted Rand [Amazon | Bookshop] — The same haiku riddles premise as Guess Who, Haiku, though this time for slightly older readers.
- Echo, Echo [Amazon | Bookshop] and Mirror, Mirror [Amazon | Bookshop], Marilyn Singer and Josée Masse — In these books, Singer’s poems are printed two ways: forwards and then with the lines in reverse. Both ways make sense, and the two mirror-image poems take on fascinatingly different meanings. Echo, Echo focuses on Greek mythology, whereas Mirror, Mirror deals with fairy tale characters. Good for kindergarten+.
- Children’s Poetry Archive — A sortable database of excellent poems just for children, with audio recordings of poets reading their own work.
- Poetry Mix-It-Up — From Poetry By Heart, a collection of children’s poems. Choose an image to reveal a poem underneath.
- Michael Rosen’s channel — Michael Rosen’s YouTube channel is full of recordings of him reading his poems and loads of other interesting things besides. Many adults might crack up when watching Rosen read, too.
- One challenge with reading poetry to children is that often you’re reading short poems from many different books, and shuffling between all of these books can be confusing and distracting. But if you simply type them out, you lose many of the wonderful illustrations in the books. If you have access to a copier, you can easily solve this problem, or you might make use of paper flags.
- Sometimes children might be happy to write their own poems, but often it’s quite helpful just to have them speak the poems to you, as you write for them. (This is a technique that works well for all sorts of composition, even with adults.)
- If you can get a children’s rhyming dictionary from the library, this might help kids compose poems — or you can simply use an online rhyming dictionary.
Activity: Make a words-we-love wall
Tape a big sheet of craft roll to a wall and tell the kids that any time they come across a word or phrase they love, for any reason, they can write it on the paper. For many preschoolers or kindergarteners, this might be tough to keep in mind. So grown-ups can listen for any words they might repeat to themselves or any phrases that make them laugh. Or even any words grown-ups say to them. You can always say, “Hey, what do you think about this phrase? Do you want to add that one to the word wall?” The goal is to have a big poster of pleasant, silly, or intriguing words and sounds that (if you like) you can all turn into a poem. (A good time to introduce in the word wall is after reading Laura Mucha’s poem “Words That Make Me Smile,” listed below.)
Activity: Memorize a poem
Even preschoolers can choose a poem to memorize (they probably have many memorized already!) and perform. This is a wonderful way to explore the way rhyming, rhythm, and song are aids to memory and how repetition can lead to deeper knowledge.
Activity: Create a book of poems you love
As you’re reading poetry, let the kids know they can ask you to add a poem to “their book.” If they love something and say so, note it down! Later, you can compile these favorite poems into a little book so that they can easily find their favorites again.
Activity: Clapping games
You could do all of these at the poetry party at the end, or you could use these as poetry warm-ups before every exploration. Find the words and demonstrations here.
Introduction to Poetry
Read: What Is Poetry?, Michael Rosen and Jill Calder [Amazon | Bookshop] 1-6
Watch: Poetry Jump-Up by John Agard
Read and listen: “Words That Make Me Smile,” Laura Mucha
Read: Oi Frog!, Kes Gray and Jim Field [Amazon | Bookshop]
Activity: Printable rhyming board game
These free and printable rhyming board games are quite good for preschoolers or young children just beginning to understand rhyming (but would likely be too easy for anyone much older).
Activity: Rhyming Porch School (adapted from a playground game featured in Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout)
You’ll play this game on a staircase, so be careful! Many children play variations of this game on porches or other places with short sets of steps, so aim for something small. The leader of the game, or “teacher,” stands at the top of the steps and the players stand at the bottom. The teacher calls out a word for each player individually, and that player must say a word that rhymes with it. If they succeed, they get to come up a step. First player to the top wins, or anyone who gets to the top wins. (If younger children are still struggling to produce rhymes but can recognize rhyming words, feel free to give them a choice: “What rhymes with rock? Sock or platypus?”)
Activity: Rhyme scheme worksheet
For kindergarten+, if you like. This is a concept worth mentioning, but I would urge caution in organizing discussions of poems around rhyme scheme (bring it up, if you like, but then let it go). But if children want to mimic the sound of some of their favorite poems, understanding rhyme scheme is very helpful.
Look: List of words that rhyme with themselves
Read: Your preferred book of nursery rhymes
Kids might enjoy thinking about these familiar rhymes a bit more, particularly in the context of how rhymes can help us remember information. You might ask, “Do you think this poem might help a child remember or learn something? If so, what?” Or: “Is this poem suggesting that children act a certain way, or do a certain thing?” Some interesting nursery rhymes to include (which you might not find in typical nursery rhyme books):
- The complete “Old Mother Hubbard” (perhaps excepting the final verse, as children often really enjoy the silly ending on “bow-wow”). If you’d like, here’s a copy, complete with illustrations, from 1790.
- The complete “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which many children might never have heard.
Read and do: “Finger Story,” Michael Rosen (Great Big Cuddle 20)
Activity: Nursery rhymes with actions
(As some of these rhymes involve tickling, they are best done with one’s own children, and of course make sure that the children are okay with being tickled.)
Read: “Betty Botter” and “She Sells Seashells”
Also see: “I Don’t Know,” Laura Mucha (Dear Ugly Sisters 82), “The Button Bop” and “Wiggly Wiggly,” Michael Rosen (Great Big Cuddle)
Activity: Make a word bag (adapted from Lynda Barry’s books, like What It Is [Amazon | Bookshop])
For this activity, kids will help make a bag of words to help them decide what to write about when they’re feeling stuck. You want to choose words that relate to their lives or their interests, such as “castle” and “race car” and “picnic” and “drippy ice cream cone.” Cut up index cards into six or so small rectangles. On each side of the rectangles, write a word (in different colors, if you like). Place them all in a bag (a special one, if you have one), and when kids are stuck, they can pull out as many cards as they like, until they find something that inspires them. (If you’re working with preschoolers or kindergarteners, you might consider writing a big pile of words on your own beforehand, then doing a smaller number with the kids.)
Activity: I Can’t Write a Poem poem (from Kenn Nesbitt)
An inventive way to write a poem while just talking about why you can’t. Begin every line with “I can’t write a poem today because…” and have kids provide the reasons, as silly or serious as they like.
Although it’s popular to have young children write haiku, I don’t think it’s the most fun you can have with poetry with this age group. Of course there’s nothing wrong with trying, however.
Activity: Syllable hopscotch
Start by clapping through a few words (like their names), then move to jumping on a hopscotch-inspired syllable counter, made from painter’s tape. Full instructions here. (If you’d like to make a word wall, like in the inspiration, go ahead, but I find that no one minds just shouting out whatever words come to mind and using those.) Another way to count syllables is simply to put your hand under your chin as you say words and count how often your chin goes up and down.
Read: Several haiku of your choosing (perhaps Matsuo Bashō’s “The Old Pond” or Kobayashi Issa’s haiku about animals, at bottom of page).
Guess Who, Haiku, Deanna Caswell and Bob Shea [Amazon | Bookshop]
If Not for the Cat, Jack Prelutsky and Ted Rand [Amazon | Bookshop]
Activity: Write a haiku
- Kids can either start with a blank slate or use the word bag.
- Everyone can write a group haiku, with one person writing one line, and someone else writing the next. (You can either do this with everyone listening, or everyone can be assigned to write, secretly, one line with five or seven syllables, either about one communal topic, or about anything you like. Then combine! It might be great, it might be awful, or it might be so awful that it’s great.)
- Or how about trying to deliver bad news by haiku? Think up a ridiculously bad scenario, and turn it into a haiku.
Poetry, Slavery, and Social Justice
You might take this as an opportunity to talk to children about how poets are often seen as cultural commentators, prophets, truth-speakers, and fighters for justice, and how poetry and song are often at the heart of social justice movements.
Read: That Is My Dream!, Langston Hughes and Daniel Miyares [Amazon | Bookshop]
“I, Too”, “My People”, and “Dreams”, Langston Hughes
Read and listen: “Harlem Hopscotch,” Maya Angelou (Hip Hop Speaks to Children 39)
Listen to Angelou read her poem here and find the printed text here.
Listen: Caged Bird Songs (2014) (more information about this album here). You could also listen to this album with the rhythm section (below).
Read: Rosa Parks, Lisbeth Kaiser and Marta Antelo [Amazon | Bookshop]
Read and listen: “The Rosa Parks,” Nikki Giovanni (Hip Hop Speaks to Children 38)
Read and Listen: Excerpt of “Ladies First,” Queen Latifah (Hip Hop Speaks to Children 17)
Listen: “Ladies First,” Queen Latifah feat. Monie Love
Watch: Amanda Gorman Reads Inauguration Poem “The Hill We Climb”
Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman reads “Talking Gets Us There”
Amanda Gorman: Meet The First African-American Youth Poet Laureate
And/or read The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman [Amazon | Bookshop] aloud.
Poetry and Feeling
Read and listen: “Honey, I Love,” Eloise Greenfield (Honey, I Love, poetry collection) or Honey, I Love [Amazon | Bookshop] (stand-alone)
“I Am Brave,” Laura Mucha
Listen: Happiness Spells podcast
This podcast recites lovely things, with long cushions of silence in between, to relax and cheer its listeners. The episodes are all fine for children, though some contain content they might not relate to (“getting a compliment from your boss” or “getting a tax refund”). Here are a few children might particularly like:
- Episode 62: The Simple Joys of Childhood
- Episode 85: A Celebration of All Things Blue
- Episode 67: A Happy Thing for Every Color in the Rainbow
Activity: Write a happiness spell
A simple kind of poetry: a list of anything that brings kids joy, or a list of joyous things around a specific theme (a color, a place).
Nonsense, Coinages, and Rhythm
Read: “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat,” Edward Lear
Watch: The Quangle Wangle’s Hat, a puppet show by Pinwheel Theatre and Little Angel Theatre (available until 2022)
Read: “Willoughby, Wallaby, Woo,” Dennis Lee
“Tippy Tappy” and “Once,” Michael Rosen (A Great Big Cuddle)
And listen: Michael Rosen reading “Once”
Read: “Eletelephony,” Laura Richards
Read: “Oh, Words,” Eloise Greenfield (Hip Hop Speaks to Children 14)
Listen: “Rapper’s Delight” (selection), Sugarhill Gang (Hip Hop 16)
“Jackdaw,” Robert Macfarlane (Lost Spells [Amazon | Bookshop])
Watch: Jackdaws Calling
The Unappreciated Genius of Jackdaws
Read and listen: “Let’s Give a Cheer for Onomatopeia,” David Foster
“Listening to,” Laura Mucha (with list of bird calls at the bottom)
“Silence,” Laura Mucha (Dear Ugly Sisters 24)
“Riding on the Train,” Eloise Greenfield (Honey, I Love)
Activity: Onomatopeia poem
Together (with very young children) or separately, make a poem that’s just a bunch of noises. Make it rhyme if you like, or don’t.
Silly and Impossible Poems
Read: “There was an Old Man with a Beard” and “There Is a Young Lady Whose Nose,” Edward Lear
Read and listen: “Three Limericks,” Michael Rosen
Read: “Fun,” Eloise Greenfield (Honey, I Love)
Watch: Michael Rosen Nonsense (14 great minutes of Rosen reading his silly poems)
Read: Excerpts from Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit: “Tunafish Sandwich Piece,” “Painting for the Wind,” “Painting for the Skies,” “Kitchen Piece,” “Pea Piece,” “Cloud Piece,” “Light Piece,” and “Air Talk” [Amazon | Bookshop]
Note that while Ono’s Grapefruit has many sections that might appeal to children, the book itself is not a children’s book (some content is not child-friendly).
Read and listen: Imagine, John Lennon and Jean Jullien [Amazon | Bookshop]
It’s worth discussing the similarities between Ono’s poems and Lennon’s song, as well as noting that years later, Lennon credited Ono with the idea behind the song (and she is now credited as a writer on it as well). See here for more background.
Watch: Michael Rosen’s “What If” poems (Bananas in My Ears [Amazon | Bookshop])
Activity: Write a “what if” poem
Start with “what if” and create a silly scenario. No need to rhyme or resolve it, just ask, “What if…?”
Extra Poetry Explorations
Read: Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, Misuzu Kaneko, Toshikado Hajiri, Sally Ito, David Jacobson, and Michiko Tsuboi [Amazon | Bookshop]
For younger kids, selections of the above book might work best, as it’s somewhat long. Poems of particular interest include: “Wonder,” “Fish,” “Snow Pile,” “Are You an Echo?,” “Stars and Dandelions,” “White Hat,” and “Bird, Bell, and I.”
Read: Reverso poems by Marilyn Singer and Josée Masse, from Echo, Echo [Amazon | Bookshop] and Mirror, Mirror [Amazon | Bookshop], Marilyn Singer and Josée Masse
Read: Imagine, Juan Felipe Herrera and Lauren Castillo [Amazon | Bookshop]
Here’s the time to do all the clapping games and action songs the kids have learned (or to learn new ones), as well as these things, too. All of these poetry-based playground games feature improvisation (or are compatible with it):
Activity: “If You’re Happy and You Know It” (Let’s Clap 38)
Or from your own memory, as just about everybody knows this one! Make up your own verses if you like. Each person can take a turn calling out a verse and command.
Activity: “Shake Your Body” (Let’s Clap 43)
In her book, McKissack includes lyrics to a 1960s playground game inspired by Harry Belafonte’s popular calypso hit, “Jump in the Line” (written by Trinidadian calypso artist Lord Kitchener). If you have McKissack’s excellent book, you can play this game, then listen and dance to Belafonte’s song.
Listen: “Jump in the Line,” Harry Belafonte
Watch: Reaching New Lows with the Queen of Limbo
A more manageable limbo competition, with real flair
And/or UniverSoul Circus – Limbo Dancing | LIVE at The Kennedy Center
Activity: “Under the Rope” (Let’s Clap 43)
McKissack writes about “Under the Rope,” a playground game derived from the Trinidadian limbo tradition. Watch the video interview with a Trinidadian limbo champion and a video or two of limbo competitions, and then try the playground game! Or, if you don’t have the poem, try limbo with a jump rope or a broomstick. If you want music other than the famous Chubby Checker song, try looking at this album.
Activity: Write a poem using the word wall, if you made one
Kids can arrange the words in any order they like, without adding anything, or they can use several words and phrases and create a narrative poem around them. Anything goes.
Read On, Grown-Ups
- Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death, and the NHS, Michael Rosen [Amazon | Alibris] — Michael Rosen contracted Covid near the start of the pandemic and was gravely ill. He has now written a book about the experience, a combination of his own prose poems, his wife’s emails, and the diary his nurses and attendants kept for him while he was in a coma in April and May of 2020 (he himself has no memory of this time). The diary itself is exceptionally moving, a beautiful, exquisite example of the kind of love and care we are all capable of and worthy of receiving. And Rosen’s book is light and quick and witty, but also profound, just like his children’s books.
- The Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay [Amazon | Bookshop] — Ross Gay’s “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” from this collection, is a beautiful distillation of his spirit and ethos, interests and passions. Other poems, like “Spoon,” reflect, profoundly, on the experience of being Black in America. These poems are not difficult or laborious reads; they are beautiful and full of joy and insight.
- The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris [Amazon | Bookshop] (from above) — Master nature writer Macfarlane’s poems transcend age classifications. These are poems for children, and these are poems for grown-ups, too. The book is oversized and almost heartbreakingly beautiful by any measure. Macfarlane’s poems about animals and nature are clever and a joy to read, and Morris’s watercolor illustrations are breathtaking. If you love this one, check out the sequel, this time in a very small package: The Lost Spells [Amazon | Bookshop]. And also its companion CD, The Lost Words: Spell Songs.
- The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman [Amazon | Bookshop] (from above) — Even if you watched Amanda Gorman’s reading at the inauguration, it’s worthwhile and rewarding to the read her poem yourself.
- What It Is, Lynda Barry [Amazon | Bookshop] — Lynda Barry’s singular books are not about poetry, but they are about accessing the joy we found in art and creation when we were young, why that joy is often lost, and how to access it again. Some of her other books, like Making Comics, feature complete exercises from her university courses, and they’re all worth reading. This particular one is meditative, dreamlike, and uplifting, and it discusses the concept of the “word bag” (used above) in more detail.
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