“To read a poem is to hear it with our eyes; to hear it is to see it with our ears.”
~ Octavio Paz
Teaching has inspired me to explore the treasure trove of poems available for sharing with young children. Autumn has provided the opportunity to enjoy a number of poems about leaves – to picture images inspired by the words, as with James S. Tippet’s poem Autumn Woods, to learn counting concepts, as with Five Little Leaves, or to play with words, as with Rain of Leaves by Aileen Fisher. But poetry comes in many forms: lullabies, sleep rhymes, bounces, fingerplays, tickles, tapping rhymes, clapping games, singing games, counting out rhymes, jump rope and bounce-ball chants, nursery rhymes, folk rhymes and songs, jingles, riddles, tongue twisters and word play. Knowing that such a wide variety exists opens up all kinds of possibilities for inviting children into the world of poetry, from infancy onward. While poetry can be a wonderful teaching tool, more importantly, it can bring beauty into our lives, for its own sake.
Children seem to have an affinity for poetry, responding naturally to the musical qualities of rhymes, songs and fingerplays. Infants and toddlers respond to the prosodic (or speech rhythm) qualities of songs and rhymes, enjoying the experience of being bounced and rocked, or having fingers and toes tickled. They feel the beat and rhythm through physical, linguistic and social interactions with adults and caregivers. Older children can use actions to represent the words and are more capable of clapping, or patting the beat on their laps, or tapping it with an instrument, and of synchronizing body movements for fingerplays, singing games and clapping rhymes. The unique meter, rhythm, lyrical sound and rhyme of poems can evoke movement, as can linguistic devices such as rhythmic beats that occur in natural speech or chant, onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhyme and repetition. This kind of immersion in poetry play can prepare children to eventually use their collected words to create their own poems.
Teaching poetry to children accomplishes many things. It allows adults to be enthusiastic role models who enjoy poetry and music themselves, and to set the stage for children’s enjoyment of poetry. It allows children to have exposure to qualities of poetry such as rhyme and rhythm and to react to poetry both verbally and physically. Falling Leaves by Robert Heidbreder (in the book Don’t Eat Spiders) is a fabulous poem for encouraging children to dance like leaves to the words. Try providing scarves and playing music in the background and see how they react! Poetry builds children’s vocabulary, presents opportunities for matching spoken words to print, and can give them an appetite for learning to read. A while back I asked a group of children what they thought a poem was. One child said, “A poem rhymes.” This is often true. But it does not tell the whole story. Another child said, “A poem is like a song with no music.” I love that answer, because it tells me that child not only hears the poem, but feels it. I believe that given enough exposure to poems in their various forms, more and more children can appreciate poetry for its aesthetic qualities as they get drawn into its beautiful world, and as they permit it to become part of theirs.