Childhood Poetics: Why You Should Teach Your Kids to Write Poetry (and How to Do It)

You need to teach your kids to write poetry.

That’s right: to write, not just read, poetry.

Don’t worry, it’s not as daunting as it sounds. Poetry gets a bad rap. Somewhere between Beowolf and T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, the word “poetry” became compounded with “confusing.” Sure, some poetry requires analysis and perhaps the aid of a thesaurus to understand. But you know what else is poetry? Nursery rhymes. Ad jingles. The Broadway hit musical Cats. Seriously, the lyrics to those songs are taken from poems by…guess who? T.S. Elliot!
Poetry is everywhere. In fact, the human mind is naturally poetic. We use poetry to remember things. Have you ever made up a rhyme to remember where the poles face? That’s poetry. We are naturally inclined toward rhyme and rhythm, and to understand the world through metaphor and simile. Since the dawn of consciousness, humans have created metaphors and similes in order to understand our world. Read any of the ancient myths and you will see this is true. Children do it too. When a child points to the moon and says ball, that’s a simile. He is using what he knows to understand what he doesn’t know. And that is why you need to teach your kids not only to read, but to write poetry.

I’m not saying that you kid needs to be the next Shakespeare. Really, her poetry doesn’t even have to be “good” to be working. When your child engages in the act of writing poetry, she is engaging in complex, metaphoric thinking, which helps develop her reasoning skills. She is also playing with language, helping to develop language plasticity. This will ultimately lead to a better understand of her native tongue, and also make it easier for her to learn other languages. Finally, writing poetry helps her access and understand her emotions, which will help her to develop emotional maturity.

But where do you begin? It is never too early to teach poetry to you children. Following are a few simple exercises for each developmental stage from birth to adolescence:

Birth-3 years

Yes, it’s true, unless you have a miraculous baby genius, you’re not going to actually teach your child to write poetry during these years, but you can lay the foundation by reading it to them. Begin teaching your baby to write poetry by simply reading poetry. Yes, nursery rhymes count! For infants and younger toddlers, choose poems that employ rhyme, rhythm, and a lot of sound play. Poems that use onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds, such as ‘sizzle,’ ‘splash,’ or ‘buzz’) are great at this age because you can begin to have your baby imitate them and engage in the poem with you.

When she begins to talk, you can have her repeat words from poems back to you. Once she is old enough to be able to anticipate words, she will probably be able to start saying entire repeating lines with you. Rhyme-based memorization will help her build her budding vocabulary.

3-5 years

Your child is still unlikely to be writing poetry on his own, but he can now engage with it more. He will begin to be able to anticipate rhymes. You can start by reading him new poems with simple rhyme structures. Read him the first set or two of rhymes so he gets the idea, and then when you get to the next set, have him guess what the next rhyme will be.
For example, you could use Bed in Summer by Robert Louis Stevenson for this exercise, and it would sound like this:

You read: In Winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle light
In Summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the [now let your child guess!]
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the [now let your child guess]
And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and [now let your child guess]
And I should like so much to play
To have to go to bed by [now let your child guess]
(Don’t worry: if you don’t like that one, you can choose anything with a rhyme structure. It can be Itsy Bitsy Spider )

Don’t focus too much on whether or not he gets the actual words right. The point of this exercise is not to have your child memorize Robert Louis Stevenson, but to have him engaging in word play through rhyming. In fact, if he is anything like my middle child, he will intentionally choose the “wrong” words. That’s okay! If you find that he is not choosing words that rhyme, however, read him a few more complete couplets by way of example and try again.

Once he has mastered this exercise, you can help him craft his own poems. This is where the fun really begins. Have him choose several sets of words that rhyme and write them down. Now have him order that list. Depending on the kind of words in there, you can choose how to do this. If you’re working on your alphabet, you can choose to put them in alphabetical order based on the first letter in the rhyming pair. Of you could do it by category if that fits. Or just randomly, however he likes! When you’re done, read it to him, and then have him repeat it back to you. That’s it! You have just helped him craft his first mini poem. He will feel proud, and it will be simple enough that he can memorize it easily and repeat it, which he will probably do over and over again.

Once he is ready, have him craft sentences that end with each rhyming word. After he has done this with the first set, he will have his first complete couplet, and from there you just put the couplets together to make a poem. Remember: The poem doesn’t have to make sense. Poetry at this age is about learning sound, rhythm, and how to play with language.

5-7 years

For these next exercises, depending on your child’s written proficiency, you can have her write them herself, or you can continue to transcribe them for her until she is ready. Don’t push her; when she is ready, she want to write her poems on her own.

The first exercise is a classic. You may even have done this in school yourself. Have you daughter write the each letter of her name in order vertically on a piece of a paper, one letter on each line. Then have her come up with a descriptive word that starts with each letter, something which she thinks describes herself. Once she is done, she will have written her first name poem, and will hopefully also now have a message of self-affirmation which she can hang on her wall! It will look something like this:


The next exercise for this age group is to write a list poem. A list poem can be as simple or as complicated as you make it, so this is a great exercise to adapt and re-use as your child’s language skills develop. If you did the written rhyme exercise for toddlers, the two of you have already written a list poem! Now, she is old enough to write an intentional list poem.

A list poem is just what it sounds like: a poem that takes the form of a list organized around central theme. For an easy example of a list poem, have her choose something concrete and observable, like a favorite toy, and have her write a list of one-word descriptions about it. Give it a title and she’s got her first list poem.
To add complexity to the exercise, have her do the same but to describe a feeling instead. Just simple one word descriptions, but help her get creative with it. If her feeling is joy, ask her what color joy is? What does joy taste like? How does it feel? You will be impressed with the results of this simple exercise.
Finally, you can have her write a phrase list poem. Have her list a set of wishes, and then a set of questions she has about the world; after she gives each one a title she’ll have two separate, longer form list poems. Help her come up with other themes for her list poems too. You can tackle virtually any subject with a list poem!

7-10 years

Your child is beginning to develop abstract thinking. A great way to help him develop these emerging skills is through metaphor and simile.

Take your child on a walk. Don’t forget to bring a pen and notebook! It could be a hike, or just a walk around the block or your garden. If the weather is really terrible, take a walk around your home. If you can though, try to go somewhere new because it is always easiest to make observations about an unfamiliar environment.

Have him write down as many detailed observations as she can. These can be things like “there were birds chirping,” “the sky was cloudy,” or “the cars drove fast.” They can also be phrases or just one or two words, like “birds chirping.”

After you get home, have him pick someone he knows well. This could be a best friend, sibling, grandparent, or even you! Help him draw a simple Venn Diagram. On one side of it have him list as many descriptions and identifiers about the person as he can think of. Things like “grandma’s grey hair,” “mom’s favorite red shoes,” “brother’s laughter.” Then, help him transfer his list from the walk to the other side. Identify any words that are repeated on both sides and write them in the center overlap. These words are now “eliminated.” You can also cross them out of both sides to help him remember.

Now, direct him to take a phrase from the walking side and pair it with something from the person side. Have him write a “like” sentence using this pairing. It will look like “the birds chirping was like my brother’s laughter.” Have him continue this method until he has several lines. A title can be as simple as the name of the person described, or it can be a line from the poem. Now he has written a simile poem!

Once he has mastered the simile, you can have him complete this exercise but write a metaphoric poem. Encourage him to choose pairings that are dissimilar but make sense together. A metaphor will be worded like “the cloudy sky was grandma’s grey hair.”

10-13 Years

You child is approaching teenage-hood. He is entering a time of drastic change and hormonal chaos. He is going to experience a lot of different emotions, and it will be confusing. There is no way to avoid that, but poetry is a great way to help you child navigate puberty.

You can combine the list poem and metaphor exercise to help your child understand some of his confusing feelings. First have him choose an emotion. Then, have him recall a vivid memory of a time when he felt that emotion strongly. Have him list as many things as he can remember about that event. Encourage him to engage as many of his senses as possible, and to choose both a lot of concrete descriptions, and action-based descriptions.

Now, have him write pair “[the emotion] is” with a description. Have him write five or six lines like this (or more, if he’s really into it). It will look something like “anger is a baseball flying/anger is a yellow weed/anger is my classmate scraping her knee,” etc. These pairings should not be random. Have him choose metaphors that he thinks truly describe the emotion.

For an interesting variation, have your child list memories from an event during which he felt the opposite of the chosen emotion. If he chose sad, have him write and then pair descriptions from a time when he was happy. This creates an interesting dichotomy, and helps expand his understanding of the complexity of emotions.

The next exercise for this age group is a concrete poem, sometimes also called shape poems. This is a poem which takes on the visual appearance of the poem’s subject. For example, if the poem is about love, she can write her words in the shape of a heart. But it can also be something less classic than a heart. For example, happiness could be words bouncing across the page. Anger could be stanzas in zig-zag. It may help to do a light pencil drawing of the shape first, and then to write the words in pen over the line.

Have her freewrite about a chosen emotion while writing in this related shape. She already knows how to use metaphor and simile now, so trust her to come up with some interesting descriptions on her own.

13-16 Years

For this age group, start with an alliterative poem. For this, your teenager will chose a letter, chose a subject which begins with that letter, and then write a short poem that describes the subject using only words that begin with the chosen letter. It helps for him to first create a list of nouns, verbs, and adjectives which begin with this letter, and then to borrow from that list to compose the actual poem. If he needs to, he can “cheat” with connecting words like ‘and,’ ‘but,’ ‘to,’ etc.

Another great exercise, which can also help your teenager get re-involved with her school subjects if that is becoming an issue, is to have her write in the voice of something she is studying. You can tailor this to her personality. If she is studying the Salem Witch Trials, have her write a witch’s spell. for example. She could also write from the perspective of a character in a book she is reading, or write a poem describing a first hand account of the fall of Rome (or whatever subject she is most struggling with). Writing the existential ponderings of an algebraic equation would have probably helped me get into math at this age! By now she will have a lot of poetic tools at her disposal, so let her complete this exercise using whichever of them she likes best.

Ages 16+

Narrative poetry is a great exercise for this age group. A narrative poem is a poem that tells a story. There are no hard and fast rules for narrative poetry, but the characteristics that differentiate a narrative poem from a story are typically length (narrative poems are shorter), form (narrative poems may employ more or unusual line breaks), and structure (narrative poems often employ heavy use of metaphor, simile, and phrases rather than full sentences). While a narrative poem can be about literally anything, they are often emotional and descriptive, so this can be a great way for her to explore some of the confusing situations and relationships which teenagers often encounter.
My favorite type of poetry is free-form verse, however, I recognize that understanding structured poetry helps develop a lot of cognitive tools, like mathematical reasoning. I am not going to take up more space describing iambic pentameter and telling you about every type of structured poetry in this world. There’s a lot. Luckily they’re pretty easy to find on the vast world of the wide web, so I am just going to list several types of structure poetry which are great for older teens:

Now you should have a nice poetry teaching tool set put together. If you need some poetic inspiration, try reading A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Louis, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, or Poetry Everywhere: Teaching Poetry Writing In School and In The Community by the late great, and most beloved of my grad school teachers, Jack Collom.

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