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Using Poetry to Engage and Motivate Children

What are your memories of learning poetry at school? If they’re anything like mine, they could be excruciating hours spent trying to get to grips with iambic pentameter and stanzaic forms.  Thankfully, the teaching of poetry has evolved considerably since then, but for many children, the idea of listening to or – even more frighteningly – writing poetry, still fills them horror. And yet poetry, I strongly believe, has the potential to do quite the opposite and to open up the world of language brimming over with possibility and excitement. In fact, according to Pie Corbett, educational trainer, poet and author, a poem can do so many things: ’Poems can lie, defy, wonder, riddle, contrast, personify, even speak to tigers!’

Where to begin?

First and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge that, when all’s said and done, a poem is simply a grouping of words placed together to sound pleasing. But this is the point: they have to sound that way, and this must be brought alive by poems being read out loud. The importance of this cannot be stressed enough as not only will this help kids to enjoy and appreciate poetry, but it will also help them to build a repertoire to draw upon.

For some children who don’t feel confident with reading out loud, waiting for their turn in class to have to read a verse can be tortuous and help fuel a lifelong aversion to poetry. I’d strongly suggest the teacher or parent performing the poem in the first instance (of course, if the child / children enjoys reading out loud, this is not a problem). As adults, we owe it to kids to make the reading of poetry as fun and engaging as possible: don’t shirk from doing the voices and turn it into a theatrical performance. It will certainly be far more memorable for the children, as well as encouraging them over time to have a shot at it themselves and to experience first-hand that poetry is alive, it is not just a two-dimensional series of black and white words on a page.

You can also start by making a list with children about what a poem is. It can be absolutely anything! For example, A poem is a candle in the dark, A poem is the edge of a swan’s wing and a poem is a crunchy cornflake. Don’t censor this, just have fun.

A few tricks to bring poetry into the home

☆ Try reading a poem after dinner. You’ll be amazed how quickly this becomes habitual and how your children will even start asking for it if you forget! In my home, we are currently working our way through the fun and engaging I Can Read! Oxford Poetry for 7 year olds, my kids taking it in turns to read a poem each (it doesn’t matter if your child is older or younger than 7, these poems will appeal to all ages, grownups too!) Or, if your kids are small, keep a book of poetry near the bath and read them a poem as they soak in the tub.

☆ Watch some of the greats performing online with your children. One of the funniest I have ever seen is Michael Rosen performing his poem Chocolate Cake. It is truly hilarious and brilliant.

To be inspired by a child poet, listen to 12 year old Asha Christensen at TedXKids performing her poem about Writer’s Block.

☆ Celebrate national and international poetry days with your families, even in small ways. For example, October 4th 2019 is the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Day with events, resources and tips on poetry enjoyment for young and old alike. Also (and this one’s my personal favourite), April 18th 2019 is Poem in your Pocket Day. Slip a poem into your pocket and share it with others during the day, and don’t forget to choose one for your children. Find a poem that you think will make them giggle or inspire them and encourage them to share it with their friends.

Children writing poetry

Whether prose or poetry, children are going to be most enthused to get writing if it’s something that matters to them. Experience is key in creative writing, whether this is real or imagined (and never underestimate those imaginations!). It is so important to enter a place with children that draws on their own sense of wonder and excitement.

Writers, above all else, are observers of the world. It’s the small details that bring poems and stories alive and children need to be encouraged to not only look closely, but to also become ‘word-searchers.’ How about buying a little notebook to help children develop the habit of collecting ideas, words and snippets of interesting phrases?

There are some fantastic resources out there for inspiring children to write their own poetry, for example through The Poetry Society or The Book Trust. Poetry is not abstract, it is an engaging art form and must be a hands-on, lived and breathed experience. With a little thought and forward planning, your home can become a home in which poetry is read, relished and even written. This simple and free gift you can give your children will motivate them with the written and spoken word in all kinds of surprising ways and best of all, it is a gift that has the potential to last a lifetime.

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