Poetry is teaching tenfold.

(Even for babies and tots.)


For this week’s blog, we’re talking about bundles-o’-joy and those terrible-tots.

First and foremost, I’d like to take a moment to respect the folks who embark on the life-long journey of rearing a human being. Bless you.

Surely you brilliant parents already know that the subconscious brain is developed between ages 0-3, so you know that infancy and toddlerhood are the root from which the tree-branches in our brain expand.

This is why I personally am, and the MUSED. organization, professionally is, huge supporters of the “talking is teaching” movement (talkingisteaching.org), which advocates that learning begins at birth, and talking is pivotal.

To take this idea a step forward – if talking is teaching, then I’d like to make a case that poetry is teaching tenfold.

Hidden in the lines of a poem are natural powers to improve memory, learn vocabulary, and acquire skills that strengthen literacy. Poetry can help children develop “phonemic awareness” — the knowledge that words are made up of individual pieces of sound. Poems tell an entire story that help children understand sentence structure, and how words fit together.

Not to mention, poetry is fun.

The fun factor in poetry stems from its closeness to song. Poetry is a natural extension of the lullabies they hear in the crib. In a similar way to how you and I may memorize a radio jingle, kids will learn a favorite poem by heart when their parents read it aloud to them again and again, as the wheels go round and round.

The benefits of breadth over depth:

Organizational psychologist, Wharton professor, and New York Times bestselling author Adam Grant reminds us that child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world. As these boy-and-girl-wonders perform in Carnegie Hall, become chess champions, or could qualify for the Olympics at age 6, the unexpected happens:

Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.

Grant’s evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. Here are a few examples:

  • In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad.
  • In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being curious in many fields of study.
  • Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.

Through poetry, we can explore different personalities, locations, and themes – which helps us discover our inner interests. Poetry can be a way of exploring multiple curiosities because many universes can be contained in the small frames of a page. Developing a diet for the disassociation of poetry – or what poet Stephen Burt calls “elliptical thinking” – is  a powerful tool for cognitive development. (The subject matter in one stanza can sometimes be worlds away from the next stanza. How did the author go from A to B? What is the underlining connection? Can we forge one?)

Poetry can go broad. (Ironically, it also goes deep.) If we show infants and toddlers how to play with poetry from the beginning, we can instill an awe for language that will benefit them for the rest of their lives – regardless of their trajectory. And, in my opinion, we could use a new generation of powerful ideas articulated beautifully.

The MUSED. Organization is partnering with Rosa Parks Elementary school to teach parents how to read and write poetry with their newborns and toddlers. Wave to us in the comment section if you’d like to hear how more from our Early Childhood Education Ambassador, Melanie Dewey.

Tools for engagement.

1. A basket of poems. When you come across a poem you like, print it off or jot it down on a small piece of colorful paper, and toss it into your favorite basket or box. The next time the kids are anxiously awaiting dinner, throwing a temper-tantrum, or celebrating a small success, let them pick one poem for you to read to them. (Try Karla Kuskin’s The Sky Is Always in the Sky.)

2. Poems as party favors. Help your kiddo choose special poems for the birthday girl or boy. Write the poem on colorful, card-stock paper, and have your toddler decorate it, roll it into a scroll, and tie it with a ribbon. (Try Paul Janeczko’s collection, Very Best (Almost) Friends: Poems of Friendship)

3. Make lunchtime poetic. Use food-oriented rhymes to inspire picky eaters during lunch and snack time. (Try Lee Bennett Hopkins’s anthology, Yummy! Eating Through a Day.)

4. Get vocal. Record favorite poems in your family’s own voices on your phone — after all, poetry is meant to be read aloud. Babies can ohh and gaa into the recording device, so they recognize themselves in the playback; the younger children can chime in on the refrains or recite simple nursery rhymes; and older kids can make up their own. Replay in the car for read-alongs on long trips, or let the playlist play as you’re cooking dinner, etc. Also, ask grandma, grandpa, and friends to send recordings of their own poems.

Last but not least, a poem.

My grandmother used to read this one by William Butler Yeats while standing over my cradle as I fell asleep (and one I recite to every bundled-up newborn that I meet):

A Cradle Song

The angels are stooping
Above your bed;
They weary of trooping
With the whimpering dead.
God’s laughing in Heaven
To see you so good;
The Sailing Seven
Are gay with His mood.
I sigh that kiss you,
For I must own
That I shall miss you
When you have grown.

One more last – here’s a great gift idea to new parents: Morning Song, Poems For New Parents by Susan Todd and Carol Purington. (www.npr.org/books/titles/157122342/morning-song-poems-for-new-parents) It’s poignant, inspiring, and full of wisdom.

And again, congratulations on this experience, parents. While it may seem impossible to take pause, to take a moment for presence – try to praise the everyday moments (and even the emotional intensity) of this magical time. Use poetry.

***The images included here are used with permission by one of my childhood best friends, a remarkable mother, and a poetic photographer, Lindsey Weaver, Bliss Happens Photography.

Victoria McArtor holds an MFA from Oklahoma State University, is a former adjunct professor for the University of Tulsa, and is co-founder of a poetry and collaborative arts nonprofit, MUSED. Her work can be found in over a dozen literary journals and magazines including World Literature Today, The Cincinnati Review, and the Denver Quarterly. Her book, Reverse Selfie, has inspired a critical-and-creative writing workshops held in high-risk and alternative high schools. 

Categories: Guest Blog