Enjoying Poetry with Young Children

I was never interested in poetry until the last year or two, as I have been learning more about Charlotte Mason's education philosophy. I viewed poetry as hard to understand with hidden meanings and ultimately, boring. But poetry is one of the "beauty subjects" of many Charlotte Mason curriculums, including The Gentle & Classical Primer and Peaceful Preschool, both of which I have used with my son, so I figured I better get my feet wet with some poetry. Both curriculums included poetry we enjoyed. With the Gentle and Classical Primer (which is geared for kinder to 3rd, but we only used parts of it, the poetry selections ranged from poetry focused on manners from Everyday Graces by Karen Santorum (our favorites were the Goop poems by Gelett Burgess and Never Poke Your Uncle with a Fork by Jack Prelutsky) to selected poems from A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, which we ended up adoring (and I'll dive into below). 

Jeniffer Pepito, the founder of Peaceful Press, has great taste in poetry, as evidenced in our poem Animal Crackers for our last week (Z) and theme (zoo) in the Peaceful Preschool curriculum. I made cocoa and bought animal crackers as we read the delightful poem about a boy whose favorite afternoon tea snack is cocoa and animal cookies. Just adorable and so fun! 

While I still admit I do not understand a lot of poetry, I wanted to highlight two resources that have enriched my life the last year and have cultivated an enjoyment in poetry in my four-year old and myself. These two collections of poetry are kid-friendly and easy to understand for even the most tentative of poetry newbies, like myself. They prove that poetry does not need to be pretentious or high-level. Many of these poems I will highlight have become a sweet part of our family culture. We've memorized a few and they come to mind when we are playing or enjoying time in nature. 

Memorizing Poetry... to do or not to do?
A big part of Charlotte Mason education as well as classical education is poetry recitation. My son is not in formal lessons yet at 4.5 years old, so I don't focus on memorization and I definitely don't expect it. We are not reading poetry to memorize it right now. However,  there have been quite a few poems we have naturally memorized together because we have returned to them so often. Once I saw how easily my son could memorize his first poem, I encouraged him to memorize a few more with me. He always memorizes them before me, which is humbling but also a good barometer for how much I need to work on my own habit of memorization!  It was never quizzing or endless repetition. It was simply delighting in the poem by me reading it, and if there was  a song associated with it, we'd listen and learn it that way (like the Ted Jacobs albums I mention below that turned Robert Louis Stevenson's poetry into delightful songs). If we want to memorize a poem (which usually happens every few months), I will read it over the course of a few weeks and gradually leave a few words out and see if we can guess them. I will have the poem saved on my phone or easily Google it when we were on a nature walk and something would remind us of that poem (like ducks at a pond would remind us of the goofy poem The Duck by Ogden Nash). But at such a young age, I would encourage parents to focus more on cultivating a love for poetry by making this time relaxing and about connecting with the parent rather than trying to force repetition or memory.

How to Read Poetry to a Young Child
Make it cozy and fun. Don't make it stuffy or academic. This is not about analyzing, but enjoying poetry. Just cuddle up on a couch or at the table with a snack, as we do. We read poetry during tea time twice a week. The other days are filled with other subjects for tea time (manners, art study, music study, folk tales and fairy tales). I have the same candle lit for tea time everyday so when we smell that candle after nap time/quiet time, we are in tea time mode. Have a fun drink (herbal tea or apple juice) in a special cup for the occasion and a special snack never hurt anyone either. We don't eat desserts after most meals, so this is the time of the day to enjoy a cookie, slice of pie, or a store-bought brownie or other fun snack. Fruit salad, yogurt, or pretzels have also been winners when we want to avoid too much sugar. 

If there are unfamiliar words, you can either just read them and see if your child asks what they mean, or you can quickly explain the words before starting the poem, so you don't have to stop your flow too much once you start. 

Find illustrated versions of poems. Below are my two favorite poetry collections for children. The illustrations in both books are delightful and definitely help kids focus on the poem and imagine the words as they are read. There are many other illustrated poetry books out there, but these are the ones I have checked out so far and we have loved them, so I can't really say much about other ones yet. 

Select silly poems and/or poems about things they love or are familiar with. That's a big reason I love the books below. A Child's Garden of Verses is full of poems about everyday happenings of childhood, from waking up to bedtime, and all the imagination and playtime in between. Sing A Song of Seasons has a ton of nature songs, so finding poems about ducks, butterflies, birds, or other things your child loves, is a great place to start. 

Keep them short. Both of the below books have mostly shorter poems, which are great for sustaining the attention of little wigglers. I will sometimes just read one poem during tea time, then talk about what we liked and read it again, if my son wants to. Or if we are in the mood, I may read two or three in a row that are similar in topic (like one day we read three silly frog poems). 

Engage in the poem with some movement, when the mood strikes you. I will sometimes use my hands to act out the poem (like making walking motion with my fingers as we read about crawling insects), learning a song about the poem (the Ted Jacobs albums are a favorite), or drawing a picture while or after the poem is read. I haven't tried this yet, but you can even quickly search for and print out a coloring page or two about a certain animal that you read a poem about from Sing A Song of Seasons, and have them color while they listen to you read poetry about a duck or butterfly, for instance. 

Don't feel like you have to read the poetry books cover to cover. I will flip through the books to ones we love or I will choose ones that are related to that week's focus if we are learning about a certain animal that week. You can just flip through, find an illustration that captures your attention right away, and try that specific poem out. Or if you're more of a planner like myself, flip through the book ahead of your time with your child and bookmark a few that you read on your own. This can give you more familiarity with the poem. 

A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
A Child's Garden of Verses is a collection of children's poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, who also wrote classics like Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. They highlight the joys of childhood and are endearing, often humorous, and just wrap around like a comforting hug. Many of them are about imaginative play, so they are easy for kids to understand because they're all about what kids know and love. They flow well, without any hidden meanings or symbolism. A songwriter named Ted Jacobs released albums with song versions of many of these poems (A Child's Garden of Songs and Back to the Garden), which is a fun way to listen and learn the poems. My son has memorized several of these poems through singing them. There are many illustrated versions of A Child's Garden of Verses. I personally love Barbara McClintock's illustrations, so I enjoy her version the most.

A favorite of my son and mine is My Shadow, which is about a child's amusement over his own shadow. As you read it, you can just imagine the silly thoughts a child thinks about shadows without knowing or caring about the the scientific reason for them. HERE is the Ted Jacobs song of this poem.

My Shadow
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, 
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see. 
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head; 
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed. 

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow— 
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow; 
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball, 
And he sometimes gets so little that there's none of him at all. 

He hasn't got a notion of how children ought to play, 
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way. 
He stays so close beside me, he's a coward you can see; 
I'd think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me! 

One morning, very early, before the sun was up, 
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup; 
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head, 
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Another favorite of ours is A Good Play, which is about kids pretending to build a ship on the staircase. My son and I recently were inspired after reading this poem again and made our own ship out of pillow cushions (though on level ground rather than a staircase). My son especially loves the part about eating "an apple and a slice of cake". HERE is the Ted Jacobs recording of this poem

A Good Play
We built a ship upon the stairs 
All made of the back-bedroom chairs, 
And filled it full of soft pillows 
To go a-sailing on the billows. 

We took a saw and several nails, 
And water in the nursery pails; 
And Tom said, "Let us also take 
An apple and a slice of cake;"— 
Which was enough for Tom and me 
To go a-sailing on, till tea. 

We sailed along for days and days, 
And had the very best of plays; 
But Tom fell out and hurt his knee, 
So there was no one left but me.

Other poems we love from A Child's Garden of Verses:
- The Land of Counterpane (about a sick boy in bed who imagines his toys make up a land in his bed)
- Where Go the Boats? (about leaf "boats" floating down a stream)
- The Moon (we memorized this with the Ted Jacobs song and love to sing/recite it when admiring the moon)
- The Swing (about the thrill of swinging)
- Bed in Summer (about how hard it is to go to bed when it is still light outside in the summer)
- Foreign Lands (all the new things a child can see beyond their backyard when they have climbed high up a tree)
- At the Seaside (about the joys of playing with sand at the beach)
- The Wind (about the many things the wind does, but we can never quite see it)

Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year
Fiona Waters selected the poems for this year-long collection with a poem for each day of the year, organized by months of the year. The title comes from Robert Louis Stevenson Poem (Autumn Fires), so we really can't escape him, can we? The illustrations by Frann Preston-Gannon are delightful and compliment the poems well. I love the variety of nature poems and how easy they are for kids and non-poetry aficionados like myself to understand and follow along. The collection includes well-known poets and authors (Stevenson, Christian Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Beatrix Potter, Emile Bronte,  Allan Ahlberg, Jack Prelutsky) alongside, ones that were lesser known to myself (like Ogden Nash), so it was fun meeting new poets we came to enjoy. 

One of my favorite poems in the collection is The Wind by Christina Rossetti. My son and I recite this short little poem on windy days, though I often get some of it mixed up and he always manages to correct me! 

Who Has Seen the Wind? 
Who has seen the wind? 
Neither I nor you: 
But when the leaves hang trembling, 
The wind is passing through. 

Who has seen the wind? 
Neither you nor I: 
But when the trees bow down their heads, 
The wind is passing by.

 I also love The Caterpillar (page 123) by her. That page includes other funny caterpillar poems too. These are great poems  for acting out with your fingers. 

Last fall, we enjoyed several leaf poems during tea time and then would go out looking for different types of leaves that had fallen in our neighborhood. We made sugar cookies and used a leaf cookie cutter to make them look like leaves, a perfect snack alongside our tea and poetry.

One of the first poems my 4-year old memorized was the silly poem by Ogden Nash called The Duck. We recite it often when we see ducks, and especially if they are "bottoms up" ...  my son bends over to imitate the duck at the end of the poem and thinks this is hilarious about ducks.

The Duck
Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It quacks.
It is especially fond 
Of puddles or a pond.
When it dines or sups,
it bottoms ups. 

Another poem we love, especially in the spring, is Emily Dickenson's Bee! I'm Expecting You! (page 141)  about how the poet (a fly) is excited to see the bees return after a cold winter.

Bee! I'm Expecting You!
Bee! I’m expecting you!
Was saying Yesterday
To Somebody you know
That you were due—

The Frogs got Home last Week—
Are settled, and at work—
Birds, mostly back—
The Clover warm and thick—

You’ll get my Letter by
The seventeenth; Reply
Or better, be with me—
Yours, Fly.

Other poems we enjoy in this collection:
- Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost (although admiringly, we prefer the beautifully illustrated picture book by Susan Jeffers of this poem)
- If You Ever (anonymous). Silly poem about never touching a whale (pg. 167)
- Owl (anonymous, p. 46)
- The Pumpkin (anonymous, p. 264)
- We Have A Little Garden by Beatrix Potter (p.209) 
- The Eagle by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (p.210) 

Future Poetry Plans
I will be using Peaceful Press' Nourishing Nature Kindergarten curriculum with my son in the fall when he turns 5, which focuses on different subjects in nature, from farming, mountains, meadows, sky, and gardening. I have selected a ton of poems from Sing A Song of Seasons to read alongside each subject to giver us deeper enjoyment of those nature subjects and to dig deeper in this huge collection since we have only skimmed the surface the past year or so. The curriculum itself includes a poem for each month, so I am sure we will enjoy those. 

I also would love to read more of Emily Dickinson's poems during tea time. I have a delightful illustrated version for kids that I recently used for the poem Unreturning when it popped up in my Peaceful Preschool curriculum for the letter U. I was unfamiliar with it, but loved it. We illustrated our printed copies of the poem after I read it a few times. It is about a boat sailing out to sea, either imagined (by a child with a small toy boat) or real, we couldn't decide. I plan on printing some of our poems for his kinder year so we can illustrate the poem after listening, a fun way to engage with and internalize the poem. 

Do you like poetry? If you have kids or grandkids, do you enjoy reading kid-friendly poetry with them? I would love to hear your favorites in the comments below!