16 Classic Poems for Kids
Fun, thoughtful poems can engage and interest an otherwise reluctant reader in the written word.
If you want to introduce your child to poetry but aren't sure where to start, classic poems for kids are a fun, thoughtful way to engage your child in literature.
A poem is "classic" because of its timelessness, connecting with readers across decades and, in some cases, centuries. A classic poet excels at the craft, according to Katherine Litwin, the library director for the Poetry Foundation. "Kids are very responsive to the playfulness of language, and these authors are masters of play, so they make a great first introduction to poetry."
Poet Karen Craigo, a teaching artist at the Springfield Art Museum and English instructor at Drury University, likes poems "that can become part of a child's permanent inner library. What a gift: to contribute to that storehouse of images that a child can come back to again and again for the rest of her life."
If you're worried about the complexity of classic poems for kids, don't be. Litwin says children "invariably gravitate towards the selection I imagine to be the most difficult ... children almost always know more than we think they know. They are very instinctual in their appreciation of poetry." Introduce some of the following poems to your children and see what they like.
"I think a gentle introduction to poetry starts with rhyme and then looks at other forms of wordplay," notes Craigo. Read one of these poems with your child.
- "At the Zoo" by William Makepeace Thackeray
The unique joy of observing animals is embodied in this short piece.
- "Hop on Pop" by Dr. Seuss
Kids may not think of Dr. Seuss as a poet, but, emphasizes Craigo, "starting with Dr. Seuss shows them that they can handle this stuff -- they've had a thorough understanding of poetry since before they could speak!"
- "I'd Love to Be a Fairy's Child" by Robert Graves
This whimsical poem gives children a peek into the enchanting, carefree lives of fairies.
- "Caterpillar" by Christina Rossetti
Rossetti captures the essence of a caterpillar's life and rebirth as a butterfly.
First and Second Grade
Kids love playful language and identifying with a poem's theme, so give them something to relate to.
- "Sick" by Shel Silverstein
Follow the dramatic thought progression of a child who just wants to stay home from school.
- "Now We Are Six" by A.A. Milne
This thought-provoking poem discusses big ideas about growing up and wanting to stay young.
- "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll
According to Craigo, this poem "restores the power of language to a child" by showing them that it's OK to play around with grammar rules.
- "Rain" by Robert Louis Stevenson
Author Stevenson captures that perfect moment of falling rain.
Third and Fourth Grade
When choosing poems for kids in this age group, Litwin looks for "clarity of image, musicality of language and themes that we think will appeal to kids." Try these on for size.
- "Fog" by Carl Sandbur
Sandburg's poem resonates with Craigo because "the opening image is so evocative, and it does exactly what a metaphor should do by yoking two completely unlike things so that one interprets the other."
- "The Tyger" by William Blake
A joy to read aloud, "Kids also enjoy imagining the movements of the tiger and drawing the way it appears in their minds," says Litwin. Look for an edition that includes Blake's etchings.
- "A Child Said, What Is Grass?" by Walt Whitman
Try Craigo's fun exercise: On index cards, have kids write their response to the question, "What is the grass?" Read aloud their responses with Whitman's answers, allowing kids to experience the poetic process.
- "Afternoon on a Hill" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Children are drawn into the delightful, freeing adventure in nature.
Older kids may enjoy digging deeper into the history and customs that surround these poems. "These works are referenced everywhere in our culture," shares Litwin, "so an understanding of them enhances our understanding of the world around us."
- "The Eagle" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Tennyson depicts a beautiful, melancholic moment in time.
- "Dream Variations" by Langston Hughes
"A wonderful poem about loving and fully inhabiting the self," says Craigo.
- "A Bird came down the Walk" by Emily Dickinson
The final stanzas contain a breath-taking description of flying.
- "La Belle Dame sans Merci" by John Keats
Says Litwin, "The imagery in 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' is very clear ... Children, just like teenagers, love poems that are romantic and sad!"
Christine O'Brien is a mother, writer, and former English professor who is happy to share her love of literature with others. Follow her on Twitter.