Growing up isn’t what it used to be. Today, our kids, from even the youngest of ages, are bombarded with stimuli far exceeding what we, or any of the generations preceding us, ever had to cope with.

How do we keep our kids grounded in the midst of iPads and pop-up ads, TV screens and Twitter memes? How do we help bring meaning and balance in the midst of a hyper-demanding (and often overwhelming) world?

As a preschool teacher, I believe that introducing our children to poetry at a young age holds at least part of the answer.

While technology has brought so much to our lives, I am hard-pressed to believe that a computer will ever teach a child how to live a purposeful life of love and connection. To pass on these lessons, I think we have to turn back to the stories and songs of our past, and continue to inspire a sense of wonder in children through our words.

So why poetry in particular?

As a former English major, I could give an academic response, but I will tell you what I see as a preschool teacher. Poetry is like magic for kids. Before they even fully understand the meaning of the words they hear, I’ve seen how children respond to how words sound and fit (or don’t). When two words rhyme, it’s like two puzzle pieces clicking together. Even without rhymes, underneath the words in a well written piece of children’s literature, there is a flow, a tone and a timbre that kids hear, and these are some of the first things that help them to understand and organize their world.


Today, as America struggles to catch up to the other nations of the world in math and science, the arts and music are always first up on the chopping block. Poetry and its companions are certainly “nice” and all, but really, are they going to help our children get jobs?

While I see the sense in that perspective, and am all for improved math and science, I don’t think those disciplines, by themselves, will help prepare kids for the lives we really hope they’ll lead: lives not just of material prosperity, but of depth, wisdom and sincerity.

I should know — I used to work at Google, and I was miserable. I got to where everyone said I was supposed to be, and when I looked up from my computer and saw the prospects of a 9-5 (more like 7-6) pecking away at a keyboard, I leapt into the unknown and began to lead wilderness trips in Yosemite. That isn’t a reflection on Google — I have many friends who are happy with their jobs in Silicon Valley — but more a personal realization that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.

I was willing to make a change because somewhere along the line, the message of “follow your heart” made its way into my ear. It was embedded in the stories I heard as a kid: both those told by my parents and teachers, as well as those told by the books I read and cherished.

Poetry, in particular, teaches children that there is no right answer, and that the process is as important as the end goal. Even more so than with prose, poetry is all about what isn’t said, and what is left for us each to fill in.

Those are the lessons I hope get passed on to the four-year-olds I teach: that there’s always more than one way to look at things, and some questions are ones we need to keep on asking.


The very sound of poetry teaches children to pause and to listen closely, to live right now. It tells us all to slow down, and look once more with awe at a butterfly opening its wings, or a leaf falling to the ground.

Growing up, my father would give me two-digit numbers to multiply in my head on the way to school. One of my proudest moments as a child was successfully multiplying 99 times 99 on my way back from the bus stop in first grade (9801 for anyone wondering).

Those skills later opened doors: they helped get me into Yale, they helped me land a job at Google, but these days, they mostly make it easier to calculate what to tip at restaurants.

It has been poetry I have turned to in times of need, and the magic of language that has helped me to navigate the trials and travails of life. Hand in hand with our focus on math and science, I think poetry and the arts are needed more than ever to help our children find meaning in a world that is constantly calling for their attention.

David Griswold is a preschool teacher at the Gan Ilan Preschool in Lafayette, Calif., and a children’s book author. He has just published his first children’s bedtime book, “Mother, What is the Moon?”

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