Encourage early literacy, confidence and self-expression



Poetry benefits at every age


It is important to foster a child's creativity. One way to do so is to help them discover an enjoyable outlet for their own unique self-expression. Just ask Red Hook father of four Todd Poteet. "If a child shows interest in a particular subject or skill," says Poteet, "it should be taken to the highest possible level." His 15-year-old daughter Audrey has already authored and published two novels, which certainly gives credence to his argument.

Avenues for a child's creative self-expression can encompass a wide swath of possibilities. A few popular examples include painting, theater, dance and music. But for a child with an aptitude for the written word, perhaps the perfect creative outlet could be poetry.

Is poetry a dying art?
Robert Milby, Poet Laureate of Orange County, feels strongly that poetry benefits children. "Encouraging children and teens to pursue and explore literature and creative writing is more important than ever," says Milby. "How often do we encounter children who can recite Frost, Longfellow, Poe, Dickinson? Not often enough, these days."

Milby makes an excellent point. Studying poetry, analyzing poems, and engaging in creative writing both in schools and in homes has been declining in recent years, and according to Milby, "needs more attention in our modern age of electronics and media distraction."

Bettina "Poet Gold" Wilkerson, Poet Laureate of Dutchess County, echoes a similar sentiment. She says, "Kids are stimulated by so many different things nowadays, we often don't know what is on a child's mind. Poetry can help give a voice to what is on their mind in a way that helps adults hear them."
Todd Poteet agrees. "Writing has helped my daughter's confidence soar by giving her a voice. At such a young age, she knows that what she says is important," he says.

If only every child could experience similar feelings of empowerment!

READ MORE: How to fire up a reluctant reader


Start from birth
Although not yet readers or writers, babies, toddlers, and preschoolers can still benefit greatly from regular exposure to poetry. Reading books of poetry to very young children stimulates language development in a fun and engaging manner.

Poet Gold remarks, "When very young children hear rhyming words and the rhythm of poetry, their eyes light up." Positive experiences with literacy early on put children at an advantage in school. Additionally, listening to the rhythm and rhyme within poems can aid in vocabulary acquisition, and improve memorization skills as well.

Gold insists, "Poetry teaches little ones about body language, interpretation of sound, inflection and how something is read, not just what is read." No other literary genre offers comparable takeaways just from reading it aloud.

The benefits of exposing babies, toddlers and preschoolers to poetry are extensive. According to Gold, sharing poems and stories written in verse with the youngest children can have profoundly positive effects on a child's overall development. This also fosters engaging parent-child interactions that everyone can enjoy.

READ MORE: Send your kid to a camp that will foster their creativity

Keep the creativity going
School age children in kindergarten and first grade are in the throes of learning to read and write. Older children develop competency in their literacy skills, and can likely read with increasing independence, make connections to what they read and start to read for meaning. As kids grow, they can also write simple stories and possess vivid imaginations as well.    

According to Milby, "Young people have a natural, organic curiosity toward writing and self-expression. Children are drawn to rhyme and can learn much through song and chant."

First grade teacher from Hopewell Junction Kathi Spinella agrees. She often reads books written in verse aloud to her students during her daily literacy lessons. She makes sure to choose engaging books with age-appropriate humor, such as her students' current favorite, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson. Spinella says, "Students anticipate rhymes and chime in with the words, which aid in their learning about language. They are unaware they are actually learning." That is a testament to the power of poetry.

Frame poetry as a challenge for middle schoolers
According to Poet Gold, middle school aged children are most resistant to learning through poetry. Often, by framing poetry lessons or the creation of original poems as either a "challenge" or with some other sort of purpose, kids this age will likely give more focus and effort to the task and objective at hand. For example, Gold approaches teaching quatrain poems to a group of middle school aged girls by saying "Write anything in four lines. But I challenge you to rhyme lines 1 and 3 and 2 and 4." It wasn't until after the challenge was complete that Gold even uttered the word quatrain.

For Jessica Casamento, a New Paltz mom who homeschools her 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, poetry is a constant within her self-created curriculum. By exposing her children to poetry on a frequent basis, she believes they are less inclined to shy away from reading or writing within the genre. "I don't want my children to be intimidated by poetry," says Casamento.

She teaches her children poetry from more of a holistic type of viewpoint and assures her son and daughter that they don't have to understand every line. Casamento's children also take part in "Poetry Tea Time Tuesdays," where each child recites an original poem they wrote for an audience consisting of their grandparents, which, similar to the challenge described above, gives purpose to the tweens' time and efforts spent writing their poems.

Encourage teens to find their voice
"High school students often shy away from poetry," says Milby, "due to distraction and the initial presentation of literature. However, when adults are excited and happy about self-expression young people will desire to be a part of it."

If subject matter is presented as boring and dull, why would teenagers want to become more deeply involved with it? According to Wallkill mom and high school teacher Katie Bowman, "A lot of kids automatically hate poetry because they assume all there is to it is dissecting it line by line." Bowman refers to this sort of poetry analysis as "beating and torturing a poem to get it to confess its meaning. It isn't on trial, and it sucks the beauty from it." Talk about poetic!

Poet Gold works to empower teens to find their voice through poetry by using it as an anti-violence tool. She facilitates a program where middle and high school students use poetry to speak out against violence. In this way, similar to Audrey Poteet, these teens learn that they have a voice, as well as something worthwhile to say. Truly, it does not get much more beneficial than that.
Bowman says, "English without poetry is like continuous cloudy days with no sun; you can certainly get through it, but you're missing the light."

READ MORE: Is texting killing creativity?


Poetry Recommendation List:

Ages 0-4:

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault
Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andrae
Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney
•  On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

Ages 5-8:
Falling for Rapunzel by Leah Wilcox
Rainy Day Poems by James McDonald
The Complete Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Ages 9-12:

Addie on the Inside (The Misfits) by James Howe
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Gone Fishing: A Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger
Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Ages 13-17:

Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott
Skyscraping by Cordelia Jensen
Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank

Jill Valentino is a wife, mom, elementary educator and lifelong resident of the Hudson Valley.