Why Kids Need Poetry
A lot of people kind of shy away from poetry: I even felt that way myself, and I’m an English teacher. But that is learned behavior from those of who were forced to struggle through with it in an abstract, scholarly way…and probably before we were ready too. We come to see poetry as contrived and artificial.
The fact is that poetry is as natural thing for people as breathing. The most common rhythm in poetry, which is a pattern of unstress, stress, unstress, is the beat of the human heart (da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM).
Poetry is the oldest form of literature too. When written materials were difficult to produce and very expensive…and most people couldn’t read anyway…minstrels put stories into a poetic form to help them remember…and these were among the first literary texts that were written down.
Prose…sentences written out in paragraph form…and especially prose fiction…came later.
As a teacher, I was surprised to find out that my mostly unmotivated students looked forward to the poetry unit. While I liked reading prose and found it easy to follow, my students told me they liked poetry because there “aren’t so many words on the page.”
Decoding, the act of “sounding out” the words came quickly and easily to me, so it took hearing from my students to understand that having fewer words to deal with all together kind of freed them up to think more about the few that were on the page.
Makes sense when you think about it.
With poetry, we could go over the words again and again, reading them in different ways and enjoying the sounds of the words. No need to rush through the material because there simply isn’t that much to rush through.
With the older kids that I taught, I did need to eventually teach them the formal names for the different parts of the poems and the techniques the poets used, but what I learned from that experience is always to take time to just enjoy the poetry.
With children, poetry is even more natural. Children need the familiarity of hearing the same things over and over, and learning nursery rhymes and other poems helps them with their sounds, which eventually helps them when they start to read.
And remember, they are even more attracted to that da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM meter because it hasn’t been that long since they were living right under their mommies’ heartbeats.
Finally, for little children, literacy is all about speaking and listening; poetry is excellent for that too.
There are many wonderful collections of children’s poems. I especially like poems that aren’t really meant for children but work on both a child’s and and adult’s level; there are many collections of this type of poem too.
Sadly, poetry collections tend to go out of print more quickly than other books because they just don’t have the sales. But on the other hand, a lot of the really great children’s poets are available in the public domain, so it’s easy and free or very inexpensive to get access to them. And because they are less specific than prose literature, they can actually be much more timeless.
So for today, we are happy to bring you a fantastic collection of poetry available digitally for free or almost free, with ideas for every age group from toddlers on up.
For more about reading poetry, read The Lois Level’s Reading Poetry: Why and How
Note: Children’s literature received more attention in the U.K. earlier than in the U.S. and other English speaking countries because there was more of a market. The U.S. and the British colonies were still in beta, so to speak. To share legally free quality literature, the best place to look is in the public domain, which means everything shared today comes from the U.K.
Funny Poems: Great Stuff for ages 8-10
The Complete Nonsense Books of Edward Lear
If you have an 8 or 9 year old who is at the stage of loving jokes, Edward Lear’s poetry is perfect. You might remember his narrative poem “The Owl and the Pussycat”, but he also wrote a lot of limericks, which are five line poems with a punchline.
Cautionary Tales for Children by H. Belloc
If your kids like the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, they will love Cautionary Tales for Children. We all love it when people get their “just desserts”, don’t we?
Both books remind me of what happened to the disobedient kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Fun for Older Children (10+) and Animal Lovers
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
I had such an attitude about T.S. Eliot for the longest time…not because he isn’t a great poet, but because they make us read “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school (or they did me anyway, and I didn’t go to a terribly academic high school), and he is HARD!
Much better to start off with his highly entertaining feline characterizations in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Read a sample poem from The Lois Level here: T.S. Eliot and the Proper Addressing of Cats
Nursery Rhymes: The Most Important Thing for the Littles: Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Learning to Read
Mother Good or The Old Nursery Rhymes by Kate Greenaway
All children who speak English as a mother tongue (or are bilingual) should learn the Mother Goose rhymes.
You know how they drive you crazy wanting the same stories and video over and over? They need the repetition, and learning the repeated sounds and rhyme schemes in nursery rhymes helps prepare them for reading, and can even become reading lessons for them.
The sounds are important too: ELA (English Language Arts in the US, Literacy in the UK) for preschoolers is speaking and listening…it’s important to get those tongues and ears active!
Finally, nursery rhymes are the first aspect of Western Culture that children are ready for. If they miss these, they will miss references and allusions their whole lives.
There are things that people need to know in order to be considered “educated”. Cultural Literacy is a real thing.
Any good Mother Goose book will do, but the U.K.’s Kate Greenaway’s illustrations are beautiful. They were one of the first editions to be widely known, and they are in the public domain now, so they are free or nearly free.
It is also important to expose children to a wide range of art, illustrations, and design. What’s easier than to go with the classics, such as Greenaway and Caldecott (see below), who are also freely available?
If you’ve ever wondered what those crazy rhymes mean, here are stories, rhyme by rhyme. A lot of them have meanings that are surprisingly subversive. You can get away with a lot when it’s “just a kid’s thing.”
The Best Poetry Picture book ever
The House That Jack Built illustrated by Randolph Caldecott
The author of The House That Jack Built is unknown, so when you buy any version of this narrative poem/poem story, you are really paying for the illustrator and perhaps some editing that has been done by the person listed as the author.
The original children’s book version of this story was written by Randolph Caldecott. If his name seems familiar, it’s because The Caldecott Medal, that is given each year for the best children’s book illustration is named for him (even though he’s British!).
His original version is in the public domain and available free or almost free. Repetitive rhymes and stories are perfect for very little kids.
The House that Jack Built was such a success that Caldecott was commissioned to illustrate two more children’s a year. Here is a collection that is also low-cost or free.
Best Poetry for ages 4-6
When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne
Many people, kids included, know A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Two of the books that are included in the Winnie-the-Pooh collections are poetry collections: When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six. They are probably the best poetry collections ever written for children. They manage to hit just the right tone (and I actually don’t like most poetry written for children…I find it simplistic and patronizing…so my saying this means a lot!).
As of publication, Now We Are Six is only available in full priced editions, but a classic version of When We Were Very Young with the original illustrations is available in a low-cost version. Both of these books should also be easy to obtain from a library in either paper or digital form.
Best Poetry for ages 6-8
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
If Milne is most important for the young child, Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry is most important for the next aged group, about ages 6-8, but older kids and adults will enjoy it too. You might run across some allusions, such as “Winken, Blinken, and Nod” that you didn’t realize came from Stevenson.
All of his work is available in low-cost editions, and don’t forget that he wrote some wonderful and famous adventure stories that older children will like, so buying a complete set of his work is a good idea.
A Child’s Garden of Verses is his most well known, but all of his poems are good.
For more children’s poetry, check out the Poetry Foundation’s Children’s Page
What other poetry do you love to read with kids? Add your thoughts below.
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