Children learn about all sorts of facts and figures through the national curriculum. Then they come to one of my poetry sessions where there are no facts or figures, and fly – no problem. They don’t pester me with ifs or buts; they don’t giggle behind their hands or stare at me as if I’m mad when I refer to a tempest as a monster in a mood or autumn leaves as daredevils or acrobats, or car lights as diamonds and rubies. They don’t even complain that they’ve never seen a stormy sea, or that we’re discussing autumn leaves a month early or late, or that they’ve never seen a diamond or ruby. They get the gist and buy the game. With the help of a few photos, a brief chat and maybe a glimpse out of the window, they’ve grasped the rules without me having to explain or justify anything, and are ready – keen, even – to play along. That’s one of the reasons I love working with children: they seem to have an instinctive poetic sense which they can just click into, never mind the choc-a-bloc timetable of subject slots around this one, and all their different demands.
The other day, in a 40 minute session with a Yr 2 class, mostly acting out ideas, we squeezed in a few minutes of writing at the end, where children were encouraged to jot down describing words for fireworks. But one little boy decided to go further, with: “Fireworks are kings of the night”. I wished I’d been able to think of such a line – such a metaphor, indeed, not that he knew what a metaphor was or realised he’d produced one, of course. But I’m used to being blown over by the stunning poetry of young children. For instance, I’ve learnt to expect that every so often a child will decide to sing their poem, rather than read it, and I don’t just mean young children, nor just girls, but big, strapping, football-crazy boys too. I also know that no one will snigger or even feel inclined to in this game. Sometimes a child will write their poem in an intricate and beautiful shape, without us discussing shape poems at all, or they’ll write loud words in big letters and quiet words in tiny ones, unprompted, even in the lowest year groups. As for all those techniques and devices children have to learn at different key stages – most children employ them all naturally anyway – just like the boy with his ‘kings’.
I’m used to being staggered by children’s responses, yet the surprise is a different one every time. At reading-out stage in a session last week, for instance, one boy served up his poem as a drama, complete with a bow at the end, after sitting quiet and deadpan with his pen and paper. He seemed to have soaked up every scrap of input from our shared thoughts on fireworks, spun them all into a fireball and shot it up past a plethora of planets into outer space – no wonder he wanted to enact it!
Do we become less daring as we get older? Do we get the game mixed up with the curriculum and entrench ourselves in techniques and terms and thesauruses for the rest of our lives? Or does that sixth sense live on in us somewhere? I hope it will in these youngsters at least.