Poetry Picks for Kids: 'Early Bird' by Shel Silverstein

Before printed material became mass produced, information, stories and poems were passed through memorization and recitation from person-to-person. While I am lucky enough to have polished my memorization skills through years of theatre and voice, I am also someone who struggles remembering the five things I need to pick up at the grocery store. Memorization of anything is so rarely required in our day-to-day lives anymore beyond a one-time school assignment or large scale presentations.

When thinking of April and it being National Poetry Month, I was taken back to an NPR interview I listened to years ago with bestselling-author and diplomat Caroline Kennedy. Kennedy was on a press tour for her collection of children’s poetry Poems to Learn by Heart in which she encourages children to not only read poetry, but to memorize and recite it. Appreciating poetry is one thing, but taking the time to memorize and recite a poem can seem daunting to even a confident adult. So why even try with kids? How do you even begin?

Let’s start with the why. Memorizing poetry allows the reader to transition into a whole new line of artistic access. Having a poem etched in your mind presents each syllable in a new way. For a child, poems provide a wealth of vocabulary and newfound expressions that are beyond our everyday speech. Reciting takes the whole activity to new heights and can help your child gain confidence, work on rhythm, and allow them a chance to show emotions in a fresh way.

Now, I am not saying to present your child with a classic Wordsworth piece and let them have at it. In preparation for writing this piece, I took the challenge to my own child, 3-year-old Lilah Sue Crabb. Here's the approach I recommend:

  1. In choosing a poem, think about your child’s age and developmental ability. Start younger kids with simple, short poems, but challenge an adept fifth grader with multiple stanzas.

  2. Read the poem aloud and gauge your child’s interest level. With older children, you may have better luck by letting them choose their first poem. Take time to talk about the poem together. What do you think it means? Look up any words your child doesn’t know.

  3. Work on memorizing. Lilah isn’t a reader yet, so I started with half of a line at a time, and worked up over the course of a week. For readers, tape the poem up on a wall so that they can work on it at their own pace.

  4. Don’t stop at just basic memorization. Once Lilah had the poem down, we took a whole week to say it aloud a few times a day. Say it in different silly voices, add in a jump for certain words, or add in additional skills by having your child write the poem from memory.

  5. Make the recital important. Just like a dance or band recital, this performance should garner a little pizazz. Wear you fanciest outfits, or perhaps pajamas, and turn the lights down low. Perform the poem during a video chat with distant relatives or for a crowd of your closest stuffed friends.

  6. Don’t forget what your kid has accomplished. The memorization of a poem is something that should be recalled. Don’t make your kid recite the poem every day, but start with once a week.

For Lilah, I headed straight to a favorite Shel Silverstein poem, “Early Bird,” which can be found in the incomparable Where the Sidewalk Ends. Her big recital involved jellybeans and making a recording of the poem whilst holding a magic wand. Take a listen below.

"Early Bird"

by Shel Silverstein

Oh, if you’re a bird, be an early bird
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you’re a bird, be an early early bird--
But if you’re a worm, sleep late.