“Wild, right?” says Liz O’Connell-Thompson, senior media associate at the Poetry Foundation, the Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to sharing and advancing poetry. “People have this notion of what poetry is, and Amanda Gorman probably doesn’t align with that. She’s a charismatic, cool young person with a deep well of compassion and connection to the power of language,” O’Connell-Thompson says.
Parents who remember picking apart collections of words in middle school or high school might have walked away from the experience believing there is a right way — and a wrong way — to experience poetry, says O’Connell-Thompson. With young kids, parents have a second chance to enjoy poetry in a new way.
Here, in honor of Poetry Month in April, we share ideas for sparking your child’s interest in verse, with some help from the Poetry Foundation.
Little kids and poetry are a good match
Rhyme and repetition form the language of childhood and there’s a reason so many children’s books use snappy, poetic language.
“Poetry is tapped into the way children think,” says O’Connell-Thompson. “Poetry provides a way for children to learn language skills and expand their vocabulary. And, when they learn that poetry is a completely viable way to communicate, that’s empowering for kids.”
Enjoying poetry with your child is a great way to turn downtime, even screen time, into something unique, says O’Connell-Thompson. When you’re not sure you can listen to yet another round of Wheels On The Bus, try reading poems by Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks or any one of the selections suggested by Naomi Shihab Nye, the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate.
To engage visually, watch a poem video on the Poetry Foundation’s website. “There is a lovely short film to celebrate the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth with a reading of one of his poems with a very creative puppet show,” O’Connell-Thompson says. The youngest kids will be delighted by the film interpretation of Wayne the Stegosaurus by Kenn Nesbitt or To Catch a Fish by Eloise Greenfield.
Off the page and into the imagination
For older kids and teens, poetry comes alive through several Poetry Foundation initiatives that speak to kids through their preferred and trusted media.
If you’re looking to help expand your older kid’s concept of who writes poetry, encourage them to spend some time with Poetry Foundation’s online Open Door Reading Series. It’s a virtual live poetry reading event that highlights new and emerging poets and focuses on writing instruction and guidance. Your teen will hear poems by two local poets and two of their recent students or creative partners.
In the afternoons after school, teens can hop online to join in on weekly Teen Poetry Labs to more deeply explore poetry and its place in the world. Kids can get some valuable guidance on their own poetry and discuss themes, concepts and their own visions. New programming is being added continuously, so grab your verse-loving teen and visit Poetry Foundation’s website regularly.
Both events are free, and just require registration at Poetry Foundation’s website.
Kids of all ages can engage with poetry through Instagram, of all places. “The thing that surprises and delights me is that on our Instagram, it’s the text posts that do the best,” says O’Connell-Thompson. “In a sea of images, it just looks different. But what’s even more important is that it interests kids because they realize poetry is something they can do. They can get some likes and start a conversation by sharing a poem on social media.”
For poetry that fits right in the hand, the Poetry Foundation has two smartphone apps. The first provides digital access to subscribers of Poetry, the Foundation’s magazine. Parents can always find fresh poems to read at bedtime, no matter their child’s age. Younger children may ask about what some words mean — which is great for boosting vocabulary — while older children might want to share their own thoughts about the many themes that weave through the magazine’s poems. All ages will take interest in the many varied illustrations that appear on the pages.
Check out the March 2021 issue because it features poetry and artwork written for young people, and is available for free on the Poetry Foundation website.
The second app belongs to the Poetry Foundation and has a unique Spin function to generate poems randomly, or users can search for poems based on just two categories. “You can look for a poem about ‘family’ and ‘frustration’ or ‘winter’ and ‘sports,’” explains O’Connell-Thompson.
Poetry is for everyone
Although poetry may not traditionally be taught in a way that connects people, it can be a powerful force to bring people together. And, because poetry has a way of unfolding slowly, it can teach kids how to take their time. “It’s an important skill that doesn’t always get taught but is good to learn, and poetry, because it’s longer than a 15-second video, requires time to sit with it and with yourself,” O’Connell-Thompson says.
Fortunately, poetry is an art form of plenty — and there’s always something new to discover through the Poetry Foundation.
“There’s always more coming. We’re constantly updating and adding new poems to the website, and one thing we are adding is more visual poetry,” O’Connell-Thompson says. “Maybe some kids don’t engage with words or they are just learning to read and write; the magazine is broadening what is published to include poetry through comics, collages, paintings — there are so many ways to engage.”
Learn more about poetry and the Poetry Foundation at poetryfoundation.org.