Poetry for Preschoolers?

Although a large part of my motivation in posting videos of Hannah and Jack reciting their poetry is to show the grandparents how cute they are, it is also a part of our “prepre-school”* day and something I think any family could do, if you are so inclined.

My reasoning for including poetry memorization for my 2 and 4 year olds is two-fold. First, kids this age already memorize lots of stuff. Hannah and Jack pick up songs after hearing them once, can recite tons of books by heart, and have even been known to tell me which way to turn to get to our destination in the car. Memorization is easy and painless for them, and I think it’s wise to keep the skill exercised so it can stay that way. Second, since they are already memorizing things, I think there is value in making sure that lots of what they memorize is useful to them, both now and in the future. To that end, every week we learn a Bible verse, a hymn or Psalm, some questions and answers from the children’s catechism, and a piece of poetry. Sometimes it takes us two weeks to really get it down, and that’s fine, but often it just takes one week.

As I mentioned, my criteria for selecting the material for memorization is that it be useful to them now and in the future. Some people misconstrue the classical education model as recommending filling little children with facts and data and then getting around to teaching them what to do with it sometime around 5th grade. I don’t think most classical educators would agree with that approach entirely, and certainly I do not. I tend to side with Charlotte Mason’s thought on memorization: “…we must be careful not to tip the scales in favor of fact-filling over lighting a flame in the hearts and minds of our children…” (more on Charlotte Mason later, I’m reading through her six volume set of books on education this year) I want to make sure that what the kids memorize will give them a new idea, help them to think or understand the world better, or give them a tool for better use and understanding of language now and later.

For example, the Bible verses we learn are linked to the habits of character we are working on. The kids can (and often do) then draw on these verses to help them think about how to act in a situation, or to help them with a behavior they find difficult. They are also putting Scripture in their hearts that they understand now and hopefully will become even more meaningful and helpful to them later as they grow and mature in faith. Likewise the hymns and Psalms we sing are useful to them now in worship, and also help us teach them truths about God, how He wants us to live, and how to orient our hearts and attitudes. The songs are especially good for Jack, who loves to sing.

When it comes to poetry, I think of how educated people in the past always seemed to be able to draw on a wealth of literature they had memorized. Having this sort of language at your beck and call can only improve your own use of language and sharpen your observations and thinking skills, in my opinion. I found my own education sorely lacking on this point, except for pieces of memorization I set for myself and one or two times when an English teacher picked something out (and no one seemed to know how to memorize, so no one really did). I think it’s great when Hannah or Jack will draw on some turn of phrase they memorized in a poem or book to describe a scene. I think it improves their vocabulary and ability to communicate. For example, last summer when Hannah was 3 and a half, we were walking in an area of my parents’ neighborhood with lots of trees and Hannah said, “the woods are lovely, dark and deep…” While I’m not sure my parents’ subdivision quite qualifies as “woods” Hannah was right that the trees were very cool and inviting in the warm summer sun, and using Robert Frost’s words was appropriately applied in that instance, even though his poem is actually about winter.

I think good poetry is helpful for encouraging us to look closely at the world around us and for building vocabulary and communication, and also for teaching rhyming, which is an important pre-reading skill. We also read large sections of nursery rhymes every day for that purpose, and also for general cultural literacy because literary references to nursery rhymes are more prevalent than you might think.

For all this talk, you might be thinking that I’ve laid an onerous burden on my toddlers, but actually we get the memorization done in only a few minutes a day. We read whatever poem we’re working on through twice most days, but never more than twice. After a few times the kids are trying to say it with me and by the end of the week Hannah can usually do the whole thing on her own, and Jack throws in more than half of it, although not for the video camera! We also say the Bible verse through twice (sometimes I mention it again in the course of the day if it would be instructive to a behavior or attitude going on), but we only do the catechism questions and sing the song once. Even with a longer poem like Winter-time and a longer hymn we breeze through that part of our preschool in about 5-10 minutes tops. We keep it light and fun and like an exciting challenge.

Every family has different priorities and philosophies of education, and I think that’s as it should be. I don’t think you HAVE to be doing memory work with your toddler, I just wanted to lay out the reasons why we do it and toss out the idea that it’s possible and you CAN do it , if you want to try it with your kids. I know it’s often surprising to me to realize how much small children are capable of if it’s just a normal part of their day that they are used to, although I also am painfully aware that with my personality type it’s important for me to keep in mind that anything I teach my children needs to be for THEIR benefit and edification, not for purposes of performance or getting an early start on that Princeton application.

If you’re interested in adding poetry to your kids’ day, whether just for reading or for memorization, some resources I have used and liked include:

A Child’s Garden of Verses (worth getting a copy that also has beautiful illustrations – the one in this link is illustrated by Brian Wildsmith, but we also like a version that has great paintings with children as subjects – it’s out of print but available at our library)
Eric Carle’s Animals Animals (this is a collection of great poetry from a variety of cultures, all about animals and nature and illustrated with Eric Carle’s colorful pictures)
There’s Always Pooh and Me (a small child friendly collection of some of the great poems from When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six – quite readable and including Milne’s original illustrations)
Goops and How to Be Them: A Manual of Manners for Polite Infants Inculcating Many Juvenile Virtues, etc.(a fun and funny book mixing poetry, manners, and good sense)
My Very First Mother Goose(a wonderful first Mother Goose – big print, colorful illustrations, no senseless editing of well-known rhymes)
The Orchard Book of Nursery Rhymes(more comprehensive, pretty illustrations)
If you look for them, you can find lots of great Mother Goose anthologies and children’s poetry anthologies out there – we do rotate others through, but the above are our Always Favorites.

*I say this is our “prepre-school” year because technically the preschool year is the one when the child is four years old in August, which for Hannah will be this upcoming fall. I find it helpful to keep that in mind so I remember we have tons of time to cover things, and there is no need to feel like she might be missing something for not being in a nursery school/daycare/Mom’s Day Out situation. Not that there is anything wrong with those programs, I just think she gets that and more from what we do at home.

Another note: I meant to add that I found the Charlotte Mason quote from this post via a great article in “Home Educating Family” by Linda Johnson on memorization. Her article focuses more on older children, but I agreed with a lot of her well-put points!

3 thoughts on “Poetry for Preschoolers?

  1. Hi Catherine, I’ve been meaning to read this post for a while and am just now getting around to it… 🙂 I really agree with what you say here. The few scriptures and poetry I have had my kids memorize really have stuck, and they love it. We also love the Random House Book of Poetry for Children. And M loves nothing more than if I whip out some flashcards and quiz her. In fact, she thinks that she has NOT “done school” unless we work on memory. I know I need to do more! We’ve enrolled M in a classical homeschool group for the fall and I know that will help with the memory accountability!! Good thoughts. I appreciate when you drawn on your wealth of learning, from what you read, and help to encourage the rest of us. I also appreciate your book lists for children. Keep it up!

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