How the power of poetry can change young lives

Emerging from a deep dive into the world of poetry, Diane Bourke celebrates poetry and provides resources to unlock its power for our children.

For various reasons, particularly our Student Poetry Competition, much of my time over the last three years has been taken up by poetry – reading it, researching it, and learning of its many benefits, some of which I found quite amazing. With those thoughts in mind, I decided to put together a package of material for the benefit of others – parents, teachers, grandparents, and anyone else interested.

What follows illustrates the brain enhancing, life-enriching ways in which poetry can change lives. Besides, these benefits deepen when a poem is heard or learnt by heart, something everyone, young or old, can do.

What the experts say

Gyles Brandreth, in ‘Dancing by the Light of the Moon’, makes bold claims about the benefits of learning poetry by heart, and then backs them up with research from the Memory Laboratory at Cambridge University and from neuroscientists at Columbia University.

Professor Usha Goswami¹ and her team at Cambridge University have reported that speaking poetry to babies, (even unborn ones) and very young children, improves the speed at which they learn to speak, read, and even write. Consequently, as children start out in life, hearing poetry recited, and songs sung is likely to help their linguistic skills and so improve their ability to succeed at school and in in life.

Also, by ‘drilling down’ into the relationship between brain rhythms, speech rhythms and language acquisition, the team is discovering how babies process sounds and build their vocabularies, and it appears that rhythm is at the heart of it.

Speaking nursery rhymes and rhythmical poetry to a baby from three months before it is born and forever after, the team maintains, will help them, not only to learn language but also to learn it sooner and better, and then be able to enjoy it more and use it more effectively.

And the magic does not stop there! We should all be pleased to know that learning poetry by heart as an adult can give you a happier life, and increase the neurological flexibility of your brain, allowing it to grow and change, potentially keeping dementia at bay.

 We live in an age where self-expression and creativity are valued. When toddlers can grasp a pencil, we ask them to draw and as time goes on, we ask children to write. Furnishing their minds early, with exquisite words, thought provoking ideas, and well-written lines, seems an appropriate way to begin.

It is certainly possible for young children to learn poems by heart. Note how they chant lines from their favourite picture books, rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta as the Elephant and the Bad Baby take flight or Eric Carle’s ‘One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and – pop! – out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar’. I once heard these lines over and over.

Selecting the right poems

Reluctance on the part of a child may require the adult to be a tad devious, reading or reciting poems aloud while wandering through the house or neighbourhood, without attracting obvious attention.

Ten years on my grandson can still recite (only if I beg) Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘The Swing’, a poem I chanted over and over when we went to the park, and I pushed him high into the air.

As we baked Rock Buns, we would recite the tongue twister ‘Betty Bought Some Butter’ and butter has never been the same for us again. At the beach, there was always ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat went to Sea’ and it too quickly became a favourite.

Quotes are also suitable for remembering. On the first day of each month, you could always use ‘A pinch and a punch on the first of the month’ but you do need to get in first. Being woken by phone, soon after midnight however, is not fun!

Supporting children in these ways is quite an achievement and one for which you can justifiably feel proud.

When selecting material for these purposes, start with something short and work up from there. Humour never fails! If it generates a laugh, it is worth remembering. Catchy rhythms and rhymes are easy to remember as they engage the ear. Nursery rhymes are wonderful as are movement rhymes – ‘Hokey Pokey’ perhaps.

Do not disregard classic poems with their memorable language, stunning imagery, and potent messages. Gradually introduce these too. Moira Robinson once declared, ‘Don’t immerse them in bad poems – trite, hackneyed, vapid, dealing with generalities – that dribble on about nothing at all.’

Rich language, layered meaning and abstract ideas in poems engage the mind differently than in narrative tales. The mind must actively interpret what a poet is saying. Hearing and understanding an idea from a different perspective stretches the mind and offers new perspectives.

A poem once memorised becomes a part of our emotional vocabulary and may cause us to suspend our feelings and step into someone else’s for a time, a powerful instrument for learning empathy.

Listening to poetry, without having to read it, is liberating as it truly allows the mind’s eye to wander and wander it will.

Ways to memorise a poem

There are several strategies to use when endeavouring to memorise a poem. Select a poem you will be happy to repeat day and night and the method that suits you best. Soon those words will roll off your tongue.

Repetition, repetition, repetition is the key for memorising a poem. Read each line aloud four to six times, then try to repeat them without glancing at the page. Acting out the lines could also help.

As children learn to read, poems and quotes can be written across various mirrors in the house or placed across the fridge door. The more they are seen and read, the more easily they will be remembered.

With a familiar poem, try ‘Ball Toss’. One person recites the first line then tosses the ball to another to recite the second line and so on. Sticky notes with lines or stanzas of a poem can be hidden around the house. Enjoy a treasure hunt designed to complete the entire poem.

Once, on the first day of Spring, I flooded the school passageways with vases of daffodils.

In assembly, I presented the students with the first two verses of Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, written across a whiteboard. Teachers and students read the verses in their entirety, then I deleted a word from a line after each reading until none remained. To my delight, we then recited the poem without hesitation. This method can easily be replicated at home with a poem printed or written then with words gradually deleted.

Over time, our understanding of the words of the poems will deepen, and we will come to recognise new layers of meaning.

We should celebrate the fact that memorising a poem increases the neurological flexibility of the brain. There is really no limit to what can be learned. The challenge can sometimes be in retrieving what is there, but the key is to ‘keep at it.’  Seemingly, whatever our age, the brain grows new cells as it learns new things, so memorising a poem seems a wise way to go.

I conclude with the words of Simon Armitage (current UK Poet Laureate): ‘The poems we learn when we’re very young stay with us for the rest of our lives. They become embedded in our thinking, and when we bring them to mind, or to our lips, they remind us of who we are as people, and the things we believe in. They become personal and invaluable, and what’s more they are free gifts – there for the taking. We call it learning by heart, and I think such learning can only makes our hearts bigger and stronger.’

Footnote 1. A Neural Basis for Phonological Awareness? An Oscillatory Temporal-Sampling Perspective,’ published by the Association of Psychological Science.

About Diane Bourke

Diane Bourke is a Project Manager for Independent Schools Victoria. She was Head of Junior School, Campbell House, at The Geelong College for 16 years, and Head of Junior School, Morris Hall, Melbourne Girls Grammar for 15 years.

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