Packing our "poetry in a suitcase"

True story, this is how I lured my kids into spending 90 minutes listening to me read poetry one afternoon

Our poetry in a suitcase

I've long suspected my kids think I'm a little crazy when I read poetry to them. Whenever I pull out a children's poetry book, my 22-month-old takes off running to find a toy. My three-year-old indulges me by sitting with me and looking at the pictures in the book, typically requesting I repeat a poem if the visuals and story are particularly appealing, say if the poem is about a school bus. Typically, we spend no more than 15 minutes at a time reading poetry.

Why even bother? After all, most kids this age don't spend 15 minutes on any one activity. Well, because I've got this idea that if they learn to love poetry and the way words sound as they meld together rhythmically, they will learn to love words. More importantly, I believe reading poetry stokes the imagination and helps us to look at the world with more creative eyes.

The problem is that many children's poetry books lack the kind of illustrations that would want to make my three-year-old stick around reading poetry. This means I'm usually reluctant to shell out money for even a great book of children's poetry.

Then I heard about "poetry in a suitcase" from children's author Janet S. Wong, who says it's an easy way to introduce kids to poetry. She talks about it in our interview, as well as here and here. Basically, you fill a suitcase with items that each relate to a poem. The item and the poem are then tied or somehow attached to each other. For example, a poem about dinosaurs could be represented by a plastic dinosaur.

I was fascinated by the idea and decided to try it. Here's what happened:

I started out with this cardboard suitcase.

I think anything around the house could work, but I had something special in mind. First, I went to Ross and found a pink suitcase for $10. I was more interested in the shape and size than the color on the outside so I went for a shabby chic-style pink suitcase that's about 14 inches long and 10 inches deep and about as tall.

I decoupaged it with my children's artwork on the outside, and on the inside with leftover newspaper advertisements from the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, which featured art by children's illustrator Eric Carle.

The whole process took me a lot longer than I anticipated, about several hours altogether. I basically worked on it about an hour at a time, sometimes with my kids helping glue the paper on.

This is what we came up with:

Recognizing their artwork, my kids immediately loved the suitcase and asked everyday if they could play with it. But I had more work to do.

First, I collected all our children's poetry books, including some I had checked out from the library. I went through each one, choosing those I thought would appeal to my children based on the subject matter and those that I knew I could tie to a toy or other item around the house. It was liberating to be able to choose poems based on their merit and not on the accompanying artwork.

I photocopied about 25 poems, then went around our house collecting the items that went with them. Finally, I tied each poem with its matching item using twine, then placed everything in our "suitcase."

Voilá! Our poetry in a suitcase is ready

It was time to face reality. Would all this work on our "suitcase" really entice my kids to be more interested in reading poems? I nervously called them out to the backyard, which I'd chosen because it was a beautiful day and I'll use any excuse to be outdoors.

As soon as they got outside, my kids immediately reached inside the suitcase to check out the goodies.

My daughter took her time choosing

My son reached for the snake, as I knew he would

He immediately took to the idea that each item had a poem attached to it that we would then read.

"Read the poem again, mama," he repeated several times, prompting me to read the poem I'd attached to the plastic snake we bought long ago at a Rainforest Cafe.

I walk behind Mother
through the woods
not to touch the poison oak
she points to with her stick.

She sees snakes before
they move.

She finds her way
by the smell of the trees.

She stops to rest
the very moment
my shoes grow
and gives me water,
gives me shade

in her steady

In Mother's Shadow from The Rainbow Hand: Poems about Mothers and Children

We talked about the poem. I asked him whether he liked it.

"I like the mother that passed by my snake before my snake moved," he said.

Ah, he was listening!

"Why did you like her?" I asked.

"Huh? Why did I like her? Look at my snake. I really like it."

He moved on, but I didn't care. I knew we would read the poem again, many times. One day, I know he will be able to articulate why he likes the mother in the poem.

My kids explored the items in the suitcase for about half an hour more as I read the attached poems.

Then, their tricycles lured them away. I began to put things away, but about 15 minutes later, my son returned, helmet still on his head, and said, "OK, I'm ready now. I'm ready for more poems."

"Huh?" It was my turn to be speechless. I had thought 45 minutes of poetry had been more than enough, fed by the novelty of the suitcase. But my son was insistent and he sat down beside me.

"I want to read the trash truck poem," he said, fishing out the tiny plastic toy trash bin we got from our local waste management company.

And he sat down to "read" the poem. In all, we spent about 90 minutes with our poetry suitcase that afternoon. At my son's request, I read poems, sometimes the same one over and over, while he and his sister played with the items in the suitcase.

EDS NOTE: I'll update this post after we've taken out our poetry suitcase a few more times to report whether it continues to hold their interest.


Janet Wong said...

Fabulous! I love the way that you customized your suitcase by decoupaging it with your children's artwork. This was genius. All of a sudden, anything you put in that suitcase was going to be loved.

I winced when I first read "90 minutes" -- too a long time? But the fact that your kids kept coming back asking for more is key. Even if they only want to pick a prop and hear ONE poem next time (with no talking about it), you've still accomplished your goal! Sharing a poem a day takes only 30 seconds.

Yes, please keep us posted and let us know if they ask to come back to the poetry suitcase!

Your fan,
Janet Wong

laurasalas said...

What a terrific original idea by Janet Wong and implementation by you. So smart and fun!

I'm going to have to try a version of this for my school visits!

Thanks so much for sharing.

Sylvia Vardell said...

I love Janet's work and her suitcase idea, too, but your implementation is particularly inspiring. Thank you for sharing each step visually, too, which helps everyone SEE the results! I'm linking to your post on my blog, too. Thanks again--

Courtney at SL's No Ennui said...

WOW! I am speechless as well! I can't wait to hear the next report...

The Children's Clothing Review said...

This is such a fantastic idea! Thanks for sharing your experience. By the way, your blog design is beautiful!

BookChook said...

So great to find other mums who love sharing poetry!

Isariya said...

I follow the link from Dr. Vardell's blog. It's very good idea to introduce poetry to children. I have two young sons and am interested in this idea. Would you mind give me the book's title that has poem about garbage truck? My oldest son loves the garbage truck. I'm pretty sure, he will listen to that poem over and over.

Thanks for sharing.

Minnie said...

Hi everyone,
Thank you all for your kind comments and interest. The suitcase continues to hold my kids' interest though I will probably need to switch the poems and toys soon. We pull it out for long stretches of time, close to an hour each time, if it has been over a week since we've used it. If it has only been two days or so, then their interest is less, for 20 minutes or so.
The trash truck poem we use is called "The Dustman" by Clive Sansom, published in "Poems for the Very Young," in 1993 and selected by Michael Rosen. I'll be happy to e-mail you the full version of the poem or others you may be interested in if you contact me at mincanto(at)earthlink(dot)net. Minerva