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Poetry for Younger Children: A Guest Piece by Kate Wakeling

Introducing young children to poetry is such a swift and joyful way to light up imaginations and nurture a love of words. The amazing capacity of nursery rhymes to introduce language to the tiniest of children is no secret: it is through these singsong verses that we ready our ears for words, drawn along by the tick and ring of rhythm and rhyme. The challenge, perhaps, is to keep this connection between language, music and play alive as children reach school-age – but I’d suggest that the pleasures and possibilities offered by poems only grow more powerful as children enter this next stage of life.

I’ve hugely enjoyed writing for younger children in my new poetry collection A Dinosaur at the Bus Stop. I’ve done my best to wriggle into the brains of children of the 5-to-7-year-old mark and then write from that perspective. The poems in the book thus aim to explore some of the ideas, questions and delights that seem to swim around minds of this sort of age. The poems variously ponder what the world at large must look like to an ant, explore the mysterious (and undeniable) space in the human stomach reserved solely for pudding, reflect on why the objects in a room assume such fearsome forms when the light goes out at bedtime, and uphold the value of building and maintaining a really good stick collection.

Poems can be a wonderful way to affirm younger children’s own experiences of the world. Matt Goodfellow’s playful Caterpillar Cake is a brilliant example of a collection that speaks directly to young children’s lives, with reference to everything from bath-time to playground swings, school pencils and the singularly popular cake of the book’s title. Shirley Hughes’ Out and About is also a favourite. Her gentle, funny and reflective poems capture so many of the crucial details of children’s lives, from the sensation of sand between the toes to miseries of being poorly in bed.

Sharing poems that connect to movement is a brilliant way to energise younger children about words. I enjoyed concocting poems that invite different sorts of motion – from ‘Ready Steady Steam Train’ which comes with the injunction to accelerate as the poem is read aloud, to ‘Bob Like a Robin’ which offers a series of playful instructions for mirroring a robin’s movements. Joseph Coelho’s Blow a Kiss, Catch a Kiss and Jane Newberry’s Big Green Crocodile are two collections packed with joyful opportunities to move along to poems, grounding the rhythm of text in the rhythm of the body.

Celebrating the connection between music and poetry is also crucial for children of this age. Poems attune the ears to the sonic building blocks of words like nothing else. They let us bypass the drearier end of phonics-learning in favour of something playful and instinctive. Valerie Bloom’s Counting Fruits is a richly lyrical poetry picture book that draws on Jamaican Creole in its vibrant, musical use of language, while James Carter’s marvellous Zim Zam Zoom is packed with poems that savour the sounds of words and encourage children to explore rhyme and word-play for themselves.

Poems offer us terrific opportunities to expand a child’s view of the world around them. I wanted to use some of the poems in A Dinosaur at the Bus Stop to widen children’s sense of possibility. Poems like ‘In the Quiet of the Trees’ encourage children to take stock of nature’s power for themselves, ‘Hamsters, Sharks and Life on Mars’ celebrates how we are each of us into different stuff, while ‘Eleven People on the Bus’ supports readers to take first steps towards grasping a ‘theory of mind’, inviting children to consider all the different preoccupations that different people might carry with them on a journey.

The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How-To Poems (ed. Paul B. Janeczko) is an excellent anthology that invites younger children to delve deeper into the world at large, with poems about everything from camels to marshmallows to snowflakes, while Rachel Piercey’s latest poetry picture book Grand Old Oak and the Birthday Ball is a brilliant way to nurture children’s love and understanding of nature. Rachel’s beautifully-crafted rhyming verses explore all sorts of aspects of woodland life, while the witty lists of ‘things to find’ on each page of illustrations makes the book additionally engaging for children.

Poems can do so much for us at any stage of our lives, but for younger brains they are an especially powerful way to feed the imagination and spark a sense of play. Poems invite us to relish the sensory power of words and expand our sense of what’s possible in the world. They move the emotions (and the feet). They guide us and make space for us. Encourage a child to learn a poem off by heart and you grant them a special sort of friend for life.

A Dinosaur at the Bus Stop: Poems to have fun with! by Kate Wakeling and illustrated by Eilidh Muldoon is published on 18th May 2023 by Otter Barry Books.


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