When you hear the word “poetry” what comes to mind?
Hard to understand. Old language. Confusing. Difficult.
These are some of the answers homeschool moms gave when I asked this question at a convention recently. Many shared how they hated poetry in school and how, even though they want their children to learn poetry, they don’t feel confident teaching it.
Why do most people have such a negative view of poetry?
Some of the most celebrated and treasured works of writing were penned by poets—yet poetry seems out of reach for many people.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Charlotte Mason understood that God wired our brains for poetic language when she wrote,
“Children are born poets, and they dramatise all the life they see about them, after their own hearts, into an endless play.”
A study featured in Frontiers of Psychology confirms Charlotte Mason’s insight. When discussing his findings, Bangor psychology professor Guillaume Thierry states,
“I believe that our results argue for a profoundly intuitive origin of poetry. Poetry appears to be ‘built in.’ It is like a profound intuition; every human being is an unconscious poet.”
This makes sense given that over 30% of God’s Word to us is written in poetic language and that King David, a “man after God’s own heart,” chose to express his praise and worship to God in poetic Psalms.
Poetry is a gift from God, and neuroscience continues to highlight the many benefits of poetry. Let’s look at the three main benefits.
POETRY PRODUCES HIGHLY PLEASURABLE EFFECTS
Like music and art, poetry engages areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. Studies show that the repeated patterns and rhyme in poetry produce positive emotional responses. One study observed that rhyme and meter produce in people a prechill as anticipation is built up through the poem’s rhythm.
Another study using neuroimaging revealed that poetry can illicit peak emotional experiences. Participants reported chills, and goosebumps were objectively measured. 77% experienced chills and goosebumps in response to an unfamiliar poem.
Speaking of a child’s daily reading, Charlotte Mason tells us that it should include,
“a good deal of poetry, to accustom him to the delicate rendering of shades of meaning, and especially to make him aware that words are beautiful in themselves, that they are a source of pleasure, and are worthy of our honour; and that a beautiful word deserves to be beautifully said, with a certain roundness of tone and precision of utterance.”
Charlotte Mason understood that poetry would bring a source of pleasure to the child.
I recently observed this in two of my private students who have challenges with decoding and articulating speech.
I had shied away from oral poetry reading because I felt it may be too stressful for my students and I work hard to make their lessons a positive experience. But after researching and becoming more convinced that poetry was a gift to children, I decided my students would not miss out on something God had created for their enjoyment.
I chose short, simple poems that contained words I knew they could read. The first reading was difficult, but we worked hard and tried again. We stumbled through the second reading but it was better. The third reading was smoother with a bit of rhythm coming through. By the fourth reading, my students were becoming energetic and confident! After finishing the last line, my first student looked up with a big smile as if to say, “Look at me! I did it!” The other student excitedly asked to read another poem.
I could see the pleasure in their faces; I could hear it in their voices. What began as a challenge ended as a source of joy and satisfaction.
I will never again believe that poetry is out of reach for anyone. I will never again deny my students the pleasure of it.
If your children aren’t engaging with poetry, they are missing out on a powerful source of pleasure and joy.
POETRY STIMULATES IMPORTANT NEURAL PATHWAYS IN THE BRAIN
Poetic language often employs figurative language, metaphor, and other rhetorical devices, which require the brain to engage in a more abstract and nuanced mode of thinking than everyday language. Metaphor activates the right hemisphere of the brain where integrating and comprehending unrelated concepts occurs.
Research shows that poetry study requires more complex brain processing, which helps the brain remain elastic and active. Its been observed that when engaging with poetry brain function peaks, which strengthens overall cognitive health.
In a 2019 study, researchers studied the brain activity of 21 newborn babies listening to either normal speech, music, or nursery rhymes. Those listening to nursery rhymes produced a significant brain response when the rhymes were altered, suggesting that the infants’ brains were trying to predict what rhyme should have occurred.
And this is why young children love nursery rhymes and songs. Their brains were made for them. They are a source of delight in early childhood.
One MRI study revealed the brain’s capacity to think with more literary awareness when processing poetry as compared to more automatic and literal-minded processing of meaning with prose.
Researcher and professor Philip Davis states, “The poetic work triggered different parts of the brain related to non-automatic processing of meaning, leading to increased lively activation of mind and a simultaneous sense of psychological reward.”
The cognitive benefits of poetry are immense and are beyond what can be quantified. It’s crucial we offer our children these benefits through poetry study. If we neglect it, a part of our children’s brain will remain undeveloped and their learning potential will go unreached.
Charlotte Mason knew the value of poetry on a child’s mind. She understood the importance of prioritizing it.
“Poetry takes first rank as a means of intellectual culture… but some one poet should have at least a year to himself, that he may have time to do what is in him towards cultivating the seeing eye, the hearing ear, the generous heart.”
If your children aren’t engaging with poetry, they are missing out on a critical source of cognitive and intellectual development.
POETRY PROMOTES HEALING AND GOOD HEALTH
Poetic language is an emotionally powerful vehicle for reflection, self-expression and healing. Think about King David and his reflective, poetic Psalms. Through them David pours out his heart, expressing every emotion imaginable. Through them, David finds healing and restoration.
And isn’t this why Christians are so drawn to the Psalms? They speak to us, and we too find hope and healing as we reflect on David’s poems and pray them to God.
Poetry can help people suffering from PTSD find their voice again. During trauma, normal language centers can shut down. When activating a different part of the brain through metaphor, poetry can help people open up and find new ways to express themselves. The voice of poetry can help those suffering find the healing and restoration they need when traditional language cannot.
Poetry therapy can help cancer patients alleviate their anxiety and improve their emotional resilience and quality of life.
A 2021 study of hospitalized children found that engaging with poetry reduced their fear, sadness, anger, worry, and fatigue. The patients were given poetry-writing kits with writing prompts, poems, colorful construction paper, pens, and markers. Many reported feeling happier after the poetry activity. Reading and writing poetry provided the children an opportunity for self-reflection and expression and relief from stress.
Poetry does so much for the soul. It strengthens mental health and steps in when traditional measures of therapy can’t help.
If your children aren’t engaging with poetry, they are missing out on a lifegiving source that strengthens mental health and well-being.
Poetry is a gift. And it’s within our reach, within our children’s reach.
As homeschoolers, we have the freedom to offer our children this gift, with all its benefits, every single day.
Homeschooling is about opportunity. It’s about providing our children the best. We have the time and the freedom to choose what’s superior—to choose the resources and lessons that ensure our children experience the richest and fullest education possible.
As Charlotte Mason says,
“Education should have for its sole aim the making the very most of that person, intellectually ,morally physically.”
Poetry study certainly does this. It will round out the other subjects, filling in the gaps to help make the very most of our children.