Teaching Children to Write Poetry

Writing poetry is like painting with words.  You can have all the tools for painting- brush, paints, canvas- and never really create anything from the heart.  You can write poetry as an assignment, but unless it comes from the inner self it is just words on paper.

That isn't to say that poems written within a structure or style are not original and creative.  Art can take on a very structured form and still express deep feelings and thoughts.

A child should never be forced to write poetry when they don't want to.  There is a huge difference between challenging a child to take the plunge into writing or hone their craft and requiring it from those who are not interested in the first place.  I have been challenged by many assignments and teachers in my lifetime, and they helped me get better at writing.   However, I was a lover of words from birth.

So how do you go about challenging your children to create their very own awesome poetry?  Here are some tips to get you started.

Play with language

Poetry is like a game.  It uses all the mechanics of language in different arrangements to express ideas, emotion, stories, observations, postulations, and much more in creative ways.

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Not only to poets play with words, but they also play with punctuation, terminology, definition, imagery, capitalization, grammar, and spelling.

The Jellyfish 

Who wants my jellyfish?

I'm not sellyfish!

-Ogden Nash

To write poetry, you must learn to observe and love the elements of language.  

  • Encourage children to keep a journal of words, phrases, and other language elements that they notice, enjoy, and want to play around with.
  • Have them cut words out of magazines and paste them in their journal.
  • Find or make a set of word magnets.
  • Buy a cheap dictionary and let your children highlight and mark words that they find interesting.

Observe the world

You can't write poetry if you are locked away from the world, although you can write a poem about how dismal that experience is.  Poets are masters of observation.  They can look at a single flower or a crowded party and describe it in detail.

To practice being a poet, choose a day where you and your children simply observe.  You can bring along a notebook to write down thoughts.  Visit a favorite nature spot, museum, busy shopping center, or a playground.  When you have observed for some time, encourage your child to describe what they saw.  Try to help them get beyond merely telling about the people bustling through the mall, help them to express something deeper:

  • How did the people feel?
  • What were they wearing?
  • What sounds and sites surrounded them?

The key is description.  One of my favorite exercises that I subject myself to is to take an ordinary object, like a pen for example, and try to write as much about it as I can.

grooves etching down and

smooth, then a ridge

narrowing to a tip

wet, fuzzy

clip juts out in metal madness

slender, comfortable

my felt pen

Most of the time these poems just serve to help me become more aware of what is around me to describe. They are not masterpieces.  Sometimes they reveal something profound.  Other times they become extremely silly.   Which brings me to my last point-

Help them learn to love mistakes

There are very few people in the world who can sit down and write a genius poem in one sitting.  Even fewer are those who can write master poetry every time they put pen to paper.

The process of creativity involves bad, good, and excellent outcomes.  One of the hurdles all writers of every genre have to overcome is a false view of their own work and the work of others.  Most of us have a bias of negativity towards ourselves, we tend to judge our own work more critically than the work of others.

Help your children to understand that the writing process is sometimes messy and uninspired.  Poets write junk as often as they write beauty.  The difference is that they learn from the junk and continue writing!

  • If they truly desire to write good poetry, help them to set up a time each day to focus on the process of writing.  Have them just write- whatever.  Most of it will be tepid but it will sharpen their skills.  They may even go back and turn that tepid writing into something magnificent.
  • Share with them the art of revision!  Getting an idea down on paper is just the start.  You can always go back and expound and change what you wrote to further define and express your idea.
  • Help them get feedback from peers and other writers.  Writers tend to see their own work as unoriginal.  However, others may see it as something unique and inventive.  Feedback can help encourage or refine the poet.  Just remind them that not everyone has to love their stuff.  If they love their work then they should not change it to please others.

One of the best resources for helping kids get into writing poetry is the book Immersed in Verse by Allan Wolf.

The book covers much more that I can explain here about inspiring kids to find their voice, develop the tools of the trade, analyze poetry, play with structure and form, and revise and refinish.  The author also includes a chapter about presenting and performing poetry through readings, groups, publishing, and more.

Teaching children to write poetry doesn't have to be formal or difficult.  Leave the more formal structure and exercises for when they express a desire to work on their technique.  The focus of writing poetry is on finding your voice, expressing your heart, and sharing it with the world.

Aadel Bussinger