Why Children Need Poetry

08/07/2017 09:18 am ET
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Poetry is a form of expression that we all seem to love as young children. The rhythms in poetry are exciting to small children who love to dance and move to rhythms and sing rhymes. But, by the time we’re adults, something has happened to our love of poetry.

A national poetry survey in the mid 2000s indicated that 9 of 10 American adults do not enjoy poetry, and, in 2012, a national poll showed that only 7 percent of American adults reported reading a work of poetry in the last year.

So we start out loving poetry but end up disliking it. What’s happening along the way that’s changing the way we feel about poetry?

Most likely, children are having some negative experiences with poetry in school and are not getting enough positive experiences with poetry anywhere else. My own story is in line with national surveys. I’m an English professor who hated poetry for years!

I remember loving poetry when I was young, just like I loved music, but I began to feel stressed about poetry when, in junior high, we had to memorize and recite poetry in front of the class. I don’t know where you stand on public speaking, but most people fear it. In fact, a recent survey indicated that Americans’ number one fear is public speaking. Just to add a little perspective, fear of clowns is number eleven on the list. So, we’re combining poetry with something we fear more than clowns.

As has happened for others, poetry became associated with the stress of public speaking for me. And since pretty much every time we studied poetry in junior high school, a teacher would make me memorize and recite in front of the class, poetry began to equal stress for me.

Since this was a common poetry experience for me and I didn’t have enough positive experiences with poetry, I just began to dislike poetry.

This dislike turned into downright fear when I had a professor in college insist on his interpretations of poetry and anything else would be “an F answer,” which he would yell at students in front of the rest of the class.

I ended up being terrified of poetry by the time I was a young adult, and it would take me years and a children’s literature course to help me learn that poetry shouldn’t be stressful, that it should be fun, and that it’s important.

But why should we be worried about children’s experiences with poetry? Why does it matter that children enjoy poetry? Is it really that important?

It turns out that there are some important developmental benefits of poetry for children. Poetry helps in language development, creative language skills, creativity, writing skills, self-expression, and in the development of natural rhythms.

Working creatively with sentence structures helps improve writing skills and creative thinking, and poetry is the perfect genre for introducing creative and interesting vocabulary to children. If you’re thinking ahead to those SAT verbal scores, as a college educator, I recommend poetry over SAT prep classes any day of the week.

Poetry is important for children, and poetry is good for adults as well. As noted in this piece from NY Magazine, poetry reading and interpretation demand analysis and critical thinking, important skills for all of us.

As a parent, I didn’t want my children to have the same kinds of negative experiences with poetry that I did. It took me years to learn to love poetry again, and now that I read poetry and can enjoy it, my life is enriched. So, in our house, poetry is important.

My husband writes poetry, and we read poetry regularly. Before our son could walk, I was reading him poems about bugs, and my husband shares his favorite children’s poems, such as Edward Lear’s “The Jumblies” and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” with our son. Over time, we’ve moved from Dr. Seuss to Edgar Allan Poe as our son has grown older. But, most importantly, we try to make poetry fun and stress free.

All of us, as both parents and teachers, can work to bring poetry to life for children and make sure children don’t end up with strong negative experiences with poetry. It starts by helping children find poetry they enjoy. Research shows that young children prefer funny, silly, or whimsical poems, but poetry preferences will change as children grow older.

My husband and I recently launched an independent publishing company, and one of our goals is to help bring poetry to life for children and make it more fun for adults. We’ve started with a free support page for our first book of children’s poetry offering discussion starters, activities, and art support to help enrich poetry experiences for children. If you’re looking for ways to get your kids excited about a poem or a work of poetry, you can find helpful ideas here. Although the support is specific to our collection, the general approach and strategies can be applied to any work of poetry you hope to help your kids enjoy.

Making poetry available and fun for children is an important part of a child’s education. As parents, we may know that reading is important but not stop to think about the value of poetry. Children really do benefit from positive experiences with poetry.

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