Tagged children

Elizabeth Austen at table in conversation with writing students

Happy New Year! Честита Нова Година!

Greetings of the New Year!

My literary and language adventures for 2020 include learning Bulgarian.

My goals:

  1. learn enough Bulgarian to be able to easily navigate Bulgarian grocery stores and read / request what I need without English.
  2. start reading Bulgarian stories and poetry.

I’ll try to remember to check in later this year to give you a peek at my progress.

And now…

As you have found your way to me,
Three gifts for your 2020!

A new place for inspiration and author connections

Visit my good friend Gemma L. Brook, torchbearer of stories and storytellers, who shares new publications and spotlights new authors.

Warm wishes for good health

I failed to mail my holiday cards these past two years, but I have never forgotten you. Yes you, sweet stranger. Yes you, my family. Yes you, dear friend with whom I have not spoken in so long! To you all – I wish you the best of health, happiness, inspiration, and prosperity in the year ahead.

2012 Throwback

Since the Wild River Review is now offline, here’s a republish of the original essay, “Our First Language: Why Kids Need Poetry”.

I’ve replaced deadlinks with comparable compass points to help you connect with the inspirations for this discussion.


Our First Language: Why Kids Need Poetry

I believe poetry belongs in every kid’s backpack. Poetry came to me through stories read by my parents at night, songs learned on the playground, and my first grade teacher, whose poetry curriculum was also a primer in paying attention and speaking with purpose.

For me poetry is akin to my favorite garden shovel: always on hand for fun and difficult work alike. I use poetry to dig through questions. On October 31, 2011 our world population passed 7 billion, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon posed us these worthy queries:

What kind of world has baby 7 billion been born into? What kind of world do we want for our children in the future?

When I consider how we will learn to share justice and prosperity among even a fraction of our 7 billion voices, I can only conclude that we must first learn to do the work of poetry. By sharing poems with kids from alphabets onward, we equip them with critical tools for twenty-first century cooperation.

Two young writing students sitting together at a desk and smiling while reading

Poets in Schools, Pair of young writing students smiling while reading. Photo courtesy of the Skagit River Poetry Project.

Poetry is practice in communication basics like curiosity, attentiveness, patience, confidence, and empathy. To interpret poetry, we must cultivate a curiosity for the experiences of other people, attend carefully to each word, have the patience to read through repetition and ego, maintain the confidence to be honest in our responses, and use our empathy to allow each poet’s words and experiences to broaden our world perspective.

These same communication skills enable us to cooperate and work together in groups. Cooperation requires every person to have a say in the decisions that affect their livelihood. When someone speaks, we must be an attentive audience to hear beyond what is spoken. So what do we do when a conversation turns bitter, or data gets confusing, or people start to behave badly? As with poetry, when something is unclear or uncomfortable we must learn to look again, listen closer, embrace uncertainty.

Few kids may plan for cooperative work with fellows, but most kids like to play and have fun. Poet and nurse-midwife Rebecca Frevert muses:

I believe that poetry is our first language; we hear it from birth in the rhythms of ditties and lullabies as our parents soothed us to sleep. I’ve wondered why we lose this love of language as we grow up, becoming intimidated and put off whenever the word “poetry” is attached to a reading.

My educated guess is that kids will not embrace poetry when the practice is not fun. An early start may also be a key to lifelong poetry appreciation. Frevert read poems to her sons from a young age, and she admires how they read and write poems as adults. “I feel that if elementary level teachers performed poetry for the students, it would catch hold and stick,” she says. “For our family, the Youth Speaks program in Seattle with poetry performances at the Moore Theatre were a great influence.”

In 2009 Frevert began to extend poetry to her community in Everett, Washington with a poetry kiosk. She explains how when life gave her a dirt pile, neighbors grabbed shovels and made daffodils:

Years ago, after a load of compost dumped on the parking strip burnt the grass to death, my seventy-year-old neighbor Emory and I dug up the sod and planted a flower bed.  He’s left earth now, but I’ve always called this little garden Emory’s Bed. A perfect spot to catch the eye of the walkers who might stop a few minutes to read a poem. The poetry stand is a simple design painted blue with a Plexiglas lid that keeps out the rain (but not the spiders who love to leave cocoons in its corners).

Neighborhood poetry kiosk in a small sidewalk garden in the sunshine

Neighborhood Poetry Kiosk in the Garden. Photo courtesy of poet Rebecca Frevert.

Her sign encourages passersby to read poems and contribute. When the Frevert family’s beloved dog Sunny passed away in 2009, one of her sons placed a poem about death and loss in the kiosk. Neighbors replied over several days with flowers and notes of sympathy. In 2011, a young poet named Devany (now 10 years old) shared three of her own handwritten poems in the kiosk, including this one:

My aunt

She has lots of


She really likes blue

She has a baby

It drives me crazy

But she says love makes a true lady.

Frevert’s kiosk visitors demonstrate the communal nature of poetry, and remind us that poems are shared person to person through language and breath. Poet Robert Pinsky elaborates:

The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing … in poetry, the medium is the audience’s body … The reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words. This makes the art physical, intimate, vocal, and individual.

Poems are “intimate…individual” conversations that we can use to share ideas, gain audience, and discuss challenging subjects. By teaching kids to experiment with words, we can prepare them for the hard work of adult problem solving.

Kurtis Lamkin standing beside a student with a musical instrument at the front of class while in conversation with writing students

Poets in Schools, Kurtis Lamkin with writing students. Photo courtesy of the Skagit River Poetry Project.

University of Cambridge Professor of Children’s Poetry Morag Styles makes the case for children’s poetry. In addition to didactic and popular children’s poems, she celebrates perhaps the most sacred of all kid poetry—ridiculous songs that kids create with each other. Styles shares a few rhymes from the Scotland playgrounds:

Man United are short-sighted

tra la la la la la la la la

They wear rubies on their boobies

tra la la la la la la la la……

She goes on to quote 2010 T.S. Eliot prizewinner Philip Gross, who suggests: “children imbibe poetry from people who bring to it some ease and passion … young people can be bold readers of rich and demanding poetry – and writers of it too – when they come to it as participants, rather than as passive consumers.”

A new national curriculum released by the British Department for Education may help nurture the next generation of poetry participants. Under the proposed curriculum first year students would focus on phonetics, while second year students would be expected to hear and discuss classic and contemporary poetry, be familiar with a range of stories, fables, and literary language, and be capable of reciting poetry with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear.

My adult-poet self says, “Awesome! Way to bring home the poetry, Secretary Gove.” However, my inner perpetual teenage-poet self says, “Curriculum, phonetics, intonation? Yawn. Can’t breathe with all this hot air!” Kids know that the proper order of operations is play first, then work.

During his time as US Poet Laureate, Billy Collins hosted the Poetry 180 Project at the Library of Congress to help American high school teachers and students have fun with poetry. Useful resources like “How to Read a Poem Out Loud,” accompany 180 handpicked poems. Collins uses his own “Introduction to Poetry” for Poem #1, which describes an attempt to share a poem with students. Instead of heeding his guidance to carefully consider the poem, students “begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

Elizabeth Austen at table in conversation with writing students

Poets in Schools, Elizabeth Austen with writing students. Photo courtesy of the Skagit River Poetry Project.

A quick online search for “why do people hate poetry?” or “poetry sucks” retrieves hundreds of articulate poetry students (and teachers) who describe feelings of expectation and disappointment when they approach a poem, think poems sound absorbed with distant and unknown language, or feel like poems are written as private and unsolvable mysteries. These honest writers call out what many people think: “I totally don’t get this, and I have no idea where to start.”

I often get the “where to start?” feeling when I read too much news. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye describes how we can use poetry to gain perspective on difficult situations:

… I do think that all of us think in poems. I think of a poem as being deeper than headline news. You know how they talk about breaking news all the time. Too much breaking news; trying to absorb all the breaking news, you start feeling really broken. And you need something that takes you to a place that’s a little more timeless, that kind of gives you a place to stand, to look out at all these things. Otherwise you just feel assaulted by all the tragedy in the world.

Before donning the weight of all the tragedy in the world, some kids can be overwhelmed by personal hardships. Founded in 1992 by Richard Gold, the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project is a nonprofit volunteer effort to help kids in distress express themselves through poetry. Pongo reaches out to children and young adults who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. By sharing poetry with kids in a safe environment, Pongo participants learn to discuss losses and traumas like the death of a parent, abandonment, neglect, abuse, rape, addiction, or a parent’s addiction. In a recent blog post, Gold writes:

I’ve seen that life’s worst experiences can exist as strangers in us, separate, like people we don’t know and don’t want to know … I’ve seen that our emotions after life’s worst experiences can be sealed in a variety of containers, some buried, or in a black hole, some that explode unexpectedly … But I’ve also seen that through poetry, people can open these containers, and move their contents, these painful emotions, into new frames that are more open and repurposed for a meaningful life.

The poem that follows Gold’s remarks is entitled, “Poetry Saved My Life” by Bad One, a young woman, age 14. Bad One’s poem describes how she chooses poetry, rather than violence, as her path to resolution. Why does poetry work for Bad One? Perhaps it is the warm Pongo welcome:

You don’t have to be an experienced writer to create Pongo poetry. We appreciate the importance of what you have to say. Honesty is the quality we value most.

Pongo makes poetry accessible if not through jubilation, then at least through honesty and direct speech. With their open approach, Pongo uses poetry like a discussion table of unlimited seating capacity, where the most sensitive subjects are open for everyone’s respectful consideration.

In Yemen, poetry is an essential mode of community and political discourse within rural areas and among metropolises. The introduction to Johanne Haaber Ihle’s documentary “Men of Words” states, “In the context of illiteracy and censorship, current problems are discussed through the ancient tradition of poetry.” Programs like Literacy Through Poetry (LTPP) use poetry and oral traditions to teach Yemeni girls and women how to read without formal education. Dr. Najwa Adra explains:

Using women’s poetic expression serves not only to promote literacy, but to preserve a valued and valuable tradition as well. In Yemen, short, two line poems are utilized effectively to mediate conflict. Poetry synthesizes the issue at hand and allows for disagreement without confrontation. When someone feels insulted, expressing anger in a poem is more sophisticated than physical violence or shouting. Moreover, rhetoric that one’s adversaries appreciate increases their willingness to accept compromise. This is critical thinking at its best.

Folk poetry is also a centuries-old oral tradition in poet Kristiina Ehin’s home of Estonia. In an interview with The Bitter Oleander, Ehin describes her delight at how quickly children can adopt the traditional regilaul—runo song. These rhythmic narratives tell amazing, sometimes frightening stories with themes that preserve layers of unwritten cultural laws:

Yesterday I sang regilaul to the children at the seashore. To my surprise they listened in fascination and sang along … if you explain the dialect and archaic words a little, then children can find it very interesting. Going to bed in the evening, five-year-old Emma started singing to those tunes, making up her own words. She sang a long regilaul … it was very special to hear how easily a child had acquired the metre and poetics of this form and how easily she improvised in it.

Ehin goes on in her interview to articulate the tasks of the poet:

How can I find common ground with my listeners, and introduce my poems in such a way that even themes that might seem strange to some are nevertheless interesting to them?

These are the tasks for all of us: to listen to each other for subtle common ground, to speak with thoughtful honesty, to visualize and experiment. The collective needs and messes of 7 billion people demand the slow, creative work of cooperation among neighbors as well as nations.

Without tools like poetry to move us beyond fear, our ability to think clearly and creatively will suffer. Poetry empowers us to meet the “where to start?” feeling with curiosity, attentiveness, patience, confidence, and empathy. If we want to acknowledge old ways that do not serve prosperity, move on toward a more just and equitable future for everyone, let us teach our children to play with poetry.

Please join our conversation with a link to a favorite poem, or a fun idea for teaching poetry for kids. To enjoy weekly poetry discourse I recommend the PoetsWest broadcast on KSER community radio every Thursday at 6:30pm Pacific Time. When in doubt, pop a poem in your pocket and share it with someone you meet.

Photos of Poets in Schools courtesy of the Skagit River Poetry Project in La Conner, Washington.

Photo of Poetry Kiosk and Devany’s poem courtesy of Rebecca Frevert

The author wishes to acknowledge the generous contributions and enthusiastic support provided to her by:

— Director Molly McNulty, Linda Talman, and staff at the Skagit River Poetry Project

— Washington State Poet Laureate (2012-2014) Kathleen Flenniken

— Washington poet and nurse-midwife Rebecca Frevert

— Pennsylvania author Gerri George

The Makings of Good Tree Forts

Western Hemlock Passageway

When I was young I spent much of my time, especially my summertime, making and playing in tree forts. Although my sister and I took advantage of the neighbor boys’ tree house, I always felt more adventurous while cleverly ensconced at the feet of the trees.

My father engineered our first tree forts around the yard as it evolved, and my sister and I worked with the tree-house-owning neighbor boys to develop ground-bound tree forts sprinkled about the local woods. I learned to translate my techniques for playground use (where permanent tree forts were not permitted).

Douglas Fir Ring

Let us examine some of the key qualities of good tree forts:

1) There are no rules for the construction of tree forts.

2) Do what you can with what you have.

3) Shade, privacy, and secret-hiding-spots are ultimate.

4) The less non-forest material you bring in, the better (pack it in, pack it out).

5) Beware of ants’ nests and bees’ nests.

6) If you live in an area where ticks are present, clear the underbrush.

7) If you’re not having fun, you are probably doing it wrong.

[Now that I look at my list, I see that it could potentially apply to many fun forest activities. But I digress…]

Back Fence Enclosure


To start, you want to select a site for your tree fort. Kids know how to do this, perhaps by instinct.

If you’re a kid you already know where you want your tree fort, and if you don’t, you just need a little walk around your yard or neighborhood to pick your spot. Remember, you can always make another, even better one if this one sucks or gets taken over by neighbor kids.

If your home doesn’t have a yard, it just means you have to be more creative with location, and minimalist with construction. It also means that you need to travel to the site (say, once a week), ‘cause what’s the point of having a tree fort, if you don’t use it?

Public parks and public school playgrounds can provide a helpful compromise for those without yards. With these kinds of tree forts, you’re looking for places which already have big trees in close proximity so that you make no changes to the landscape (for example, I just visited Wilcox Park in Lynnwood for the first time a few weeks ago – it has tree groves perfectly suited to tree fort purposes). You will not be able to move, stack, weave, and/or brandish branches in public parks as you can on your own private property. [You may be permitted to erect picnic canopies for the day, so check your local park for rules.]

What you want is a forest floor and canopy. Early mornings are often the BEST times to be at parks, when they are cool and quiet. And remember: you can’t own the park, so consider the diplomatic approach when another group of kids shows up and wants to play in your tree fort too.

If you are a parent or guardian, pay attention to the shady green spaces where your kids are attracted to play and explore. These places are often near or at the sources of local creepies and crawlies such as frogs, snakes, lizards, or tadpoles, and they may also coincide with edge spaces like culverts, construction sites, abandoned lots, and quiet street ends. You want to help your kids find the right balance of safety and privacy.

Western Red Cedar

To find a good public park, take your kids to as many in your local area as possible, and get a sense for the parks they like best. Follow your kids’ lead to identify the top two park choices with good trees, playgrounds, and other qualities such as: good morning bird songs, pens with farm animals, really good swings that let you go super high, water access, mud access (yes, I said mud access), well-maintained trails, wide open run-around-crazy spaces, good wheelchair/stroller accessibility, good benches for kid watching, good parking, safe and managed, etc. Having two choices available means you can alternate parks according to convenience, availability, mood, etc.

Make it as relaxing and enjoyable as possible for yourself, and your kids will enjoy themselves too (in other words, don’t pick the park across town if you have to drive through lame traffic every time you visit). See note in previous section regarding early mornings.

If your kids (or you) aren’t used to playing outdoors, or if they (you) cry when unplugged, you may need to ease into the transition to the open world. I suggest that you start by incorporating affordable toys which are easy to take outside (and easy to give out in quantity to many kids at a time), using a different toy for each outing. Examples include bubble soap with wands, plastic snap-out “light sabres”, wax lips, pencils/watercolors and sketch books, noise makers, pinwheels, squirt guns, super balls, big rubber balls, and absolutely anything messy, stinky, noisy, and colorful. Work your kids up to outdoor toys and games once the park setting is comfortable and familiar (and remember the sunscreen and brimmed hats).

Finally, good plant and animal identification books are awesome for parents and kids alike. Binoculars, magnifying glasses, and flower/leaf presses are helpful tools. It’s never too early or too late to learn about what lives where you live.

Young Red Alder Stand


If we refer to the key guidelines above, we know that there are no rules about what trees make good tree forts. Your tree forts will be different depending on what grows where you live.

I grew up in western Washington near Seattle where good tree fort trees include young Red Alder (Alnus Rubra) stands, old Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) trees, Big Leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) woods, mature Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii ssp. menziesii) stands, and large Pacific coast rhododendrons (Rhododendron macropyllum). Naturally creek banks and lakeside woodlands are extra-awesome tree fort sites – weave back the salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) and voilà!

While living in eastern Pennsylvania I didn’t get a chance to build a tree fort, but I did scope out good potentials. Hedges are good candidates, especially those which have been sculpted over generations with Pin cherries (Prunus pensylvanica) and brambles such the Multiflora rose. The Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is considered an invasive species in this region because of how much it likes to make big, impenetrable cane stands (it was once encouraged for planting in gardens). American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) stands have a nice openness about them, but it’s important to be aware of the poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and other plants which are not safe to touch. Black walnut (Juglans nigra) trees seem to be good candidates because their allelopathic qualities tend to eliminate most other plants around them. [NOTE: if you live where ticks live, ALWAYS CHECK FOR TICKS after playing in tree forts. Clear the underbrush and low hanging branches to help reduce ticks.]

Considering what a beautiful diversity of ecosystems exist on Earth, I’ll end my speculation there and invite you to share your favorite tree-fort-tree candidates in the comments.

If you want to plant trees: you can plant trees now and have the makings of a tree fort in a few short years. Young trees still make good tree forts! Before you select and plant your trees, take some time to learn what trees grow best in your soil and climate, what trees are considered nuisance trees in your area, what qualities you want in your trees (evergreen or deciduous? flowering?) and how much maintenance they require (do you have to rake leaves? will sweet gum balls fall on the main walkway?).

It’s also important to “think-tree” when you plant: trees grow up, down, and side-to-side. You don’t want to plant trees too close to your home, your utility lines or your other trees. BEFORE you dig, you may need to call utilities to mark underground power, water, gas, or communications.

Visit The Arbor Day Foundation online to read more information on tree planting and care, including these articles:

And remember, if trees are scarce you can always build a sunflower fort on the lawn.

Douglas Fir Hidden Entrance

The Fun Part

Finally, the really fun part about tree forts: playing with them. Referencing again our “no rules” guideline, remember that you can do whatever you want with tree forts. That said, here are a few things which I learned in my tree fort days:

Branches are great for stacking and weaving into walls, barriers, and canopies.

Look for weeds which are long and strong – strong grasses and reeds, creepers and vines, or anything that’s abundant and handy – these can be used to tie sticks together, join branches, and other good stuff. [NOTE: Poison ivy and poison oak are NOT SAFE TO TOUCH – learn how to identify these and other poisonous plants where you live.]

Boys and girls have different ideas about how to make tree forts. You want input from both if you’re gonna make an ultimate tree fort.

Brings snacks in baggies and water in bottles. It sucks to have to go home for stuff.

Remember to take your trash home with you.

Work with what’s already on the ground when you can – if you strip stuff off of living trees, it will take a long time for it to grow back.

Mosses make good seats. Collect pieces and keep them damp to help them grow into mats.

Big rocks are useful for many things. Keep some in the sun, and some in the shade, and you’ll have hot rocks and cool rocks.

Fallen logs work really well, which is why I believe that a large fallen log on a forested hillside is possibly one of the best places to start a tree fort (but I’m biased).

Red Alder Canopy

If you’re a parent sculpting a tree fort out of grown trees in your yard, read up on good tree-trimming technique, and remember that less is more: a couple entry points and a clear interior space is your goal. If you open it up too much with heavy trimming, you leave the fort feeling exposed.

While attending The Evergreen State College, I accidentally located a domed tree-fort-in-progress. Whatever its intended purpose, the construction was as follows: large/long branches erected in a stable hemisphere with enough crisscrossing branches to create a web. Mosses, ferns, and forest duff were being woven through the web to make a complete (and living) enclosure.

In closing, I’ll share one final suggestion, to always, always remember:

The first step in making a good tree fort is a concealed lookout along the front (and another at the back… don’t want anyone sneaking up!)

Please share your own tree fort ideas in the comments, including your favorite tree fort tree species where you live.

Salmonberry Shade