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Why engaging in poetry is a way into writing for kids

Ask a child to write a poem or ask a child to write a story. Which is less daunting?

A story, on the whole, needs a beginning, middle and end. But a poem? It can be pages long. Or it can just be a few words. That’s the beauty of poetry, the complete lack of prescriptiveness, the freedom and space to run amok in any direction you please, simply capturing the essence of something. You can chuck out grammar, punctuation, invent words, write vertically or in the shape of what you are writing about. NO RULES. Liberating, right?

Take a look at fabulous poet Lemn Sissay‘s ‘Rain’ on the wall of a takeaway building in Manchester:

And this is a poem that a child from my creative writing after school club, Magic Pencil, wrote about ice cream:


Poem and picture by Nifa

Pick up an old, moth-eaten book at a car boot sale and do this to it:

Poetry is essentially a group of words assembled in any form or style the writer choses. Having run creative writing sessions for children for the past three years, it has become clear that, passionate as I am about prose and enabling children to experiment in this form, the most effective springboard into writing creatively is through poetry.

Where to start?

Read poetry to your children, even when they’re babies. Especially when they’re babies. In the bath. As they’re falling asleep. Make it up as you walk through the woods, playing with the way these sounds feel in your mouth and letting the rhythm of your steps carry your words.

Stress that there are no rules in writing poetry. Make sure you have a selection of books on hand to share with your children that show poetry in all shapes and forms. It’s particularly important to find bellyache laugh-out-loud poetry (try Michael Rosen for starters) as when all is said and done, children need to experience on a visceral level that poetry can be relevant and fun.

Obviously there are no shortage of books to chose from, but I’d like to share the ones we enjoy in my family:

The Puffin Book of Fantastic First Poems

This is good for young kids. It would make a fantastic birthday present for little ones and is filled with fun illustrations and work from sixty popular poets.

The Oxford Treasury of Children’s Poems

Beautifully illustrated, this has poems to appeal to children of all ages not to mention adults.

A First Book of Nature

This is not actually a poetry book but a gorgeous celebration of nature. However, I wanted to include it here because  of the lyricism and poetic flow of the words that accompany Mark Hearld’s illustrations.

The Walker Book of Poetry for Children

Although now out of print, second hand copies of this book are available. One of the things I love about this book is the brilliant index of themes, so you can find a poem for any occasion. Illustrated by Arnold Lobel, it has poems ranging from classics by Lewis Carroll to the quirky verses of Shel Silverstein.

Roald Dahl Revolting Rhymes

Irreverent and raucous, beloved author Roald Dahl retells six well known stories with wicked, memorable twists.

The more poetry (or stories, of course) we read to children, the greater a feel they will have for words as they get older. Author Philip Pullman went as far as to say  ‘Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play.’

But if you want to get kids writing, I would go with poetry all the way (particularly if they are reluctant writers). The words that have poured from children during my creative writing session in poetry form continue to amaze and inspire me all the time. That quiet child who sits in the corner not talking to anyone? There is a poem locked up inside them, waiting to get out. That noisy child who cannot sit still or be silent for a moment? Poetry is a way to still their mind, to be present to the page and their own energies.

I believe that people in this world talk too much and listen too little. Once we open up the floodgates of poetry for the children in our lives, there will be no stopping them. Sure, go on to writing stories. But start with poems. You won’t regret it.