“Did you like the poem?” I asked EJ after I finished.
“I loved it,” she said.
I did it too. And I was delighted to see that other people around the world were celebrating Amanda Gorman with us. While poetry matters a lot in our home (I have been teaching EJ poetry classes since before he was 3), I know that not everyone is as easily touched by words as I am. Having said that, I think children benefit when parents and caregivers help them discover the world through poetry.
“The role of the poet is to tell the truth. That was the beauty of what Amanda did. She spoke the truth, ”says Bridgette Bianca, poet from South Central Los Angeles and assistant professor at Santa Monica College, who cites the way in which poetry expresses complex ideas, often in a short and simple format, as a benefit to students. children.
Expressive arts, including poetry, are important for a child’s socio-emotional development, according to clinical psychologist Dianne Jandrasits. Adults can create a secure attachment with children by actively reading with them, especially between ages 0 and 5, and the sound of poetry can make the process fun. Poetry, Jandrasits says, can help a child learn to take perspective and understand someone else’s feelings. For a young child, she says, “it all starts with someone who understands your feelings. And that’s where parents and caregivers come in. ”
Okay, but what is poetry? Ask five poets and you will probably get five definitions. Dave Lucas, professor at Case Western Reserve University and former Ohio Poet Laureate, says, “Poetry is that place where language is pleasure and not just communication. It’s not just a hammer; it’s a hammer that we also love to look at and love to use. “
It’s pretty straightforward. Poetry is music. It’s about playing with language and sound. And kids love to play.
“The kids are already here,” says Lucas, who wrote a newspaper column in 2018-19 titled “Poetry for the People who Hate Poetry”. He talked about sharing poems with kindergarten kids and how kids love it when you tell them to just have fun, rhyme, and do silly things. When you take the tongue out, he says, “and all of a sudden, break the rules, mess around and see what happens, you give them that sandbox experience, from which so much creativity happens in. first place.”
The problem, however, is that as children get older they lose interest in playing with words. “I think we teach them most of the time,” Lucas says.
Author and poet Kate Baer agrees. “What I think is that children come to school and have a negative experience of poetry. Either because it’s inaccessible or boring, or it’s labeled in a way that has negative connotations. As if it was weird or too artistic.
“Children want to laugh,” adds Baer, who is also a mother of four. “That’s what they want from literature a lot, especially at a young age.” In addition to classics such as “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein, she cited “Sing in the sun” by Ashley Bryan and “A Maze Me: Poems for Girls” by Naomi Shihab Nye as examples of other excellent poetry books that keep things accessible to young readers.
“You don’t need to be intimidated by the form of poetry,” says writer Pamela K. Santos, who identifies as a Pinayorker, a Filipina raised in New York City. “What I love about young minds is that their imaginations are so elastic. The form is just a way to give it a container. Santos, who is also a mother, recommends showing children many types of poetry, especially non-rhyming ones, and asking them what they notice. How many lines does the poem have? Is he repeating a word? Is the ending surprising?
When I write poetry with my 5 year old at our makeshift school, I often encourage her to come up with a phrase and then ask her if she wants the next phrase to rhyme with or not. We’ve built some fantastic little poems this way, many of them no longer than four or eight lines.
Another possible benefit of reading poetry, Jandrasits says, is that it can help develop children’s problem-solving skills. “Because if there is no right or wrong answer, but we could see another’s perspective through the process, wouldn’t we come up with better solutions?”
Representation in poetry also matters. “Poetry helps shape any individual’s identity kit,” says Daniel Gray-Kontar, executive art director of Twelve Literary Arts, a Cleveland nonprofit. He works primarily with children of color, and in particular with black children, and cited “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks and “Black Girl Magic” by Mahogany L. Browne as examples of essential poems every black child should know. . “And if every black child was to know them, then every child should know them.”
Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” was Bianca’s first exposure to a poem by a black author in school. “In that dream poem, now all of a sudden I was a little black child thinking about what it meant to have a dream, what it meant to think about my life, and what I would do if I didn’t shoot. not take advantage of that potential and do something with it, ”she said. “What would happen to this dream?” It’s a really deep thing to think about at 7 years old. “
Gray-Kontar, like all the poets I have spoken to, mentioned how important it is for caregivers to pay attention to what their youngster seems to like, whether it is a sport or an experience that they are a part of, and then to select poems for them based on those interests.
“Start with what’s available at your fingertips,” says Bianca. She suggests contacting a local librarian or looking for poetry readings online. The pandemic has isolated for many of us, she says, but through poetry we can connect with people we wouldn’t necessarily meet because they are outside of our immediate community.
I am not the first person to say it, and I will not be the last: it has been a difficult year. Especially in the United States, where covid-19 has exposed the extreme racial and class inequalities that have existed in this country in various forms for centuries.
Amanda Gorman wrote: “We didn’t feel ready to be the heirs / of such a terrifying hour / but in it we found the power / to write a new chapter / to offer hope and laughter / to ourselves.
With these lines in mind, if you are looking for a way to offer a little hope and a little laughter to a child in your life, seek out and listen to poetry. It’s in the air all around you. And it’s in you too. I promise.
Jason Basa Nemec (Instagram @jasonbasanemec) is a stay-at-home dad with a PhD in English. He lives in Chicago and publishes the email newsletter Ideas around drinks.