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Seven Poetry Games

More about Play and Games

Good writing begins and ends with poetry. Just a few words, chosen at random, can result in something rare and beautiful, which makes this the most child-friendly form of writing. Poetry is also the most elegant way humans have of expressing language, which makes poetic form a challenging aspiration worthy of the wisest writer. This is why good writing both begins and ends with poetry.

Here is what my son Solomon wrote, dictated at age three, using the prompt, “If I could fly…”.

If I could fly with new wings
I would land
I would land with my face in the grass,
And then I would fly to someone who loved me —
I would fly to you.

I have been a poetry teacher for 25 years. Every April is poetry month, and cause for celebration in the home and classroom. I have participated in beatnik café experiences, publishing and bookmaking events, group readings by professionals and children, and played countless poetry games. Here are seven games that you can play with all ages, sure to result in lots of fun poetry! See also More Poetry Fun.
  1. The Fantastic Binomial

    For two or more players, the more the better. Select a noun first, more than one if only two are playing. Define a noun: a word for a person, place, thing or idea, which can often be preceded by “the.” Don’t use proper nouns (places or names). Everyone writes a noun down secretly on a slip of paper and hands it to the leader. Young players can whisper a noun to the leader. If a noun is repeated the leader can ask the player to change it. Then everyone does the same with a verb (defined as an action word, something that a noun might do), and another pile of paper is assembled. Now the leader chooses a word from each pile out of order, seeking to make unpredictable pairings. Instead of the “piano plays,” the “bomb explodes” or the “cat meows,” you might have the piano explodes or the bomb meows — the more nonsensical the pairing, the better. Then explore the odd idea. Why would a bomb meow? What is it trying to say? This is a great warm-up for nonsense poetry or fantasy writing. Read more about this game in The Grammar of Fantasy, by Gianni Rodari.

  2. Black-Out Poems

    Clip a column or paragraph from a newspaper or magazine and get a black marker and have some fun. Black out all the words you don’t want. Here are some examples. I like using horoscopes, interviews, and movie or film reviews. Ask your doctor’s receptionist if they can give you some of their old magazines.

  3. Play with a Rhyming Dictionary

    Start with simple ending sounds that have long lists of words, or words that are related to each other, such as colors. Red and Blue will be easier to rhyme than yellow, but all colors will have good rhyming words (except orange!). Make word lists to facilitate the writing and brainstorming process. Try a list of colors or animals or both. Brown: frown, clown, town, down. Bear: care, stare, pear, glare. I met a friendly bear / who handed me a pear. I met a bear dark brown / who danced with me to town. Once you have a list of rhyming words, it’s easy! Rhyming dictionaries are available on-line:

  4. Crambo

    This is an ancient rhyming game that has been played for centuries, so there are many versions. There is no writing involved. You can play it as a verbal rhyming game (good for when you’re in the car). Think of a verb or a noun and find a rhyme for the clue. Use a clue that is not the same part of speech. Try to match the same number of syllables in the word with the clue. Examples: This verb rhymes with the noun “day.” The child guesses play, say, pay, lay, pray, slay, weigh, before guessing the answer: stay. This noun rhymes with the verb sat (cat, hat, mat). Crambo teaches parts of speech and builds memory skills while playing with rhymes. In the end, you can exhaust all possible rhymes for a word.

      4a Dumb Crambo

      Crambo has been turned into a theater game, called Dumb Crambo, which is a lot of fun to play. Use a noun as a clue for a verb, which is then silently acted out by the opposing player or team. For example: Player or team A offers the clue as “bride.” Player or team B then acts out the word “ride” and hears A say, “No, it’s not ride.” Then B acts out the word “dried” and A says, “No, it’s not dried.” B acts out “hide” and hears, “No, it’s not hide. B acts out “fried” and hears “No, it’s not fried.” Finally B acts out the word “slide” and A says, “Yes, it’s slide.” Then it is B’s turn to provide the clue and A’s turn to do the silent expression of each word while B answers yes or no. You can exhaust all possible rhymes for a word and get a physical workout too!

  5. Map Poetry

    Take a map of a place you know and create new names for each place. Rely on memories and associations. What happened there and how did it make you feel? A young child can dictate his or her word choices to an adult. Print out the names on a computer in a small font to match the map and paste these words over the original names. For example: Maine could be renamed Summer Mosquito Paradise and Penobscot Bay could be renamed Sailboat Race Bay. It’s easy to print out maps on-line, even maps of your own neighborhood. You can find free maps at tourist bureaus, subway and bus maps at libraries and subway stations, and maps of states and countries through travel agencies and AAA. Give names to more than streets and towns, like a certain mailbox or streetlight or corner. These poetic maps can become special gifts for others who have shared those memories, or illustrations for memory stories.

  6. Initial Haiku

    This is a simplified version of Haiku that can be played verbally. Haiku is a three-line poetic form. You can count the syllables in the traditional form (7-5-7), or write the lines as long, short, and long, but for a young child just three lines is enough. Take a person’s initials and use them to write three lines, or even just three words, to describe that person or send that person a message. My initials are LBS (Laurie Block Spigel), so I might write this message to myself: Let’s Brain Storm! (This is actually two words: Let’s Brainstorm.) Or I might write a new name for myself: Laughing Brave Seeker. Or I could create a traditional seasonal haiku, writing three lines that each being with one of my initials: Late summer sunset / Bullfrogs croaking in the pond / Speaking poetry.

  7. Make a Shape Poem (Concrete Poetry)

    Arrange your words in a way that adds to their meaning. The invention of this form is credited to Guillaume Apollinaire. Here you can see his original version of Il Pleut (It Rains), where the words trail down the page like falling rain: Here is a digital rendering with sound. The way the words are arranged adds to their meaning. You can arrange the letters of just one word, or of all the words, to change and add to their meaning. Or you can put the words of your poem into a specific shape. For example, write a poem about candy in the shape of a lollipop, or a poem about winter in the shape of a snowman. First write the poem as a first draft. Then draw the shape and place the poem inside. Or just choose one word in your poem and arrange those letters in a way that adds to their meaning. Examples of shape poems on-line:

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