Introducing Poetry to Primary School Children
By the time we leave school, some of us have been rather put off poetry. Actually – confession time, now – I was. Picking it apart and poring over the meanings throughout my education had sucked some of the simple joy out of poetry. I became paralysed by the thought that I must understand every element, rather than just enjoying it – I had to learn to love poetry again.
Primary school children, however, don’t have any of those associations. The earliest things we hear and learn are usually songs and nursery rhymes: from the sun putting his hat on to the little piggies of our toes. We often read rhyming books with our children: my five year old is word perfect on everything from There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly to Room on the Broom, and woe betide me if I try to skip a verse to get to bedtime quicker! Children are at home in rhyme and verse before they learn to talk, so they don’t have any of the associations some adults have of poetry being intimidating, or difficult.
So, my advice on sharing poetry with young children is just to get started! I love Lewis Carroll’s inventive and whimsical poems. Even though today’s children won’t be familiar with the Victorian rhymes many of them parody (though they might enjoy Mary Howitt’s ‘The Spider and the Fly’, which is one of them) the nonsense and fun of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’ or ‘You Are Old, Father William’ will tickle them. Edward Lear’s poems are wonderful too. Ask them to draw a Jaberwocky, the Jumblies in their sea-faring sieve or the Pobble who has no toes, and watch their imaginations soar. There are lots of great modern collections of poetry aimed at children that continue this imaginative tradition.
Reading poems aloud, in as dramatic and over the top a way as possible, is a brilliant way to bring them to life to children. My daughter loves A A Milne’s ‘Disobedience’ with its rapid, building rhythm and repetition of ‘James James Morrison Morrison William George Dupree’. If you feel they’ll respond well to a touch of goriness, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children will appeal – try Jim, who was eaten by a lion.
Researching She Is Fierce I came across some wonderful, lesser known poems by women that even young children will – I hope – enjoy as much as I did. Liz Lochhead’s ‘A Glasgow Nonsense Rhyme for Molly’, and Katherine Mansfield’s playful ‘When I Was A Bird’ are bound to delight younger readers. For slightly older children, the chatty, encouraging tone of ‘God Says Yes to Me’ by Kaylin Haught will appeal. Jan Dean’s ‘Three Good Things’ could inspire a discussion about the three best things to choose from their day. Jean Little’s ‘Today’ – like the poems in Allan Ahlberg’s much-loved Please Mrs Butler – speaks directly to the experience of school-children, and they will be delighted to find themselves reflected there – and with the poem’s rebelliousness!
You’re never too young for poetry and I’d love to hear what poems young readers (and listeners) enjoy! You can tweet me and let me know their favourites at @Anabooks.
Ana Sampson is the author of many bestselling anthologies including I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and Other Poems You Half-Remember from School, Tyger Tyger Burning Bright: Much Loved Poems you Half-Remember, Poems to Learn by Heart, Green and Pleasant Land: Best-Loved Poems of the British Countryside and Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse. Ana grew up in Kent and studied English Literature at the University of Sheffield. After achieving both a BA and an MA, she began a career in publishing PR and has appeared multiple times on radio and television discussing books and poetry. Ana lives in Surrey with her husband, two daughters and two demanding cats. She is Fierce was her first poetry collection for Macmillan.