Writing nature haiku with children is a wonderful way to help build vocabulary, creativity and a respect for the natural world. It’s an adventure in science, language arts, ecology and art all in one!
Haiku originated in Japan more than 400 years ago and was traditionally used to explore themes of nature and the seasons. It was told in present tense and didn’t rhyme. These days, it is written by people all over the world and explores many different subjects.
A haiku poem is only three lines long and just 17 syllables. Its deceptive simplicity, of five syllables on the first line, seven on the second, and five on the third, holds endless possibilities. The lack of a need to rhyme and the simple line structure makes it appealing to children. It is less intimidating and more approachable than the ‘idea’ of poetry can sometimes be.
For many children, haiku is their first experience of successful poetry writing. As long as it meets the syllable rule, it’s a haiku! The structure of just three lines almost looks like note taking. Being so short, it lends itself to focusing on one specific subject. From the way a leaf falls to the hop of a robin, it asks us to stop and take notice of the little things, which makes it perfect for exploring nature with children.
In order to write about nature, you first need to explore it. A great way is by going on a nature adventure. You don’t need to go much further than the front door; there is so much to see – insects in the grass, worms in the mud, snail trails on the sidewalk, beetles scurrying under leaves. A park visit, if social distancing permits, is another great opportunity to watch nature: squirrels, crows, ducks, insects! A walk around the neighborhood can reveal all sorts of wonders.
Take something to record what you see, such as a notebook or sketch pad, pencils and pens, a camera or a smart phone. An audio recorder is a bonus. Try to focus on all of the senses. What does the wind or the sun feel like on your face? What sound do the leaves make in the trees? What does wet grass feel and smell like?
This is a great time to slow down. Stop, look and listen. What do the children notice? Ask them questions about what they see, hear, smell and feel – a hummingbird’s shimmering feathers, a squirrel waving its bushy tail, a millipede’s rippling legs. When we stop to take notice, there is so much nature to see.
This is a great introduction to some of the scientific methods, questioning, observation, recording, and even hypothesizing. It is also a chance to model respect for the environment—looking, recording, listening and wondering, without disturbing nature, as much as possible.
How to Haiku
Once you have your notes and pictures, it’s time to get writing. An easy way to explain syllables to young children is by thinking of them as beats. Each word has one or more beats. Clapping them out is fun and a great way to understand.
Starting with their name is a fun way to begin. Then move on to some of the creatures you discovered.
Crow – is one
Squi – rel, is two
Hum – ming – bird, is three beats or claps.
Now it’s time to brainstorm some ideas. Focusing on one creature or experience can really help. Maybe you watched a crow fly or a flock of geese fly overhead. Or maybe you watched ants carrying leaves in a line. Have the child or children come up with a list of words and short phrases that help describe what they experienced, using the notes you made together.
For example, for a crow; flapping wings, black feathers, sharp beak, bright eyes, cawing, circling, roosting in a tree, soaring family.
Have them think back to what the creature’s actions were, as well as what they looked and sounded like. Adding other natural elements, such as the time of day or the color of the sky, can give more interesting details. Think of a haiku as capturing a moment, like a photograph in words.
Help sort these descriptions into phrases of five, seven and five syllables, or beats. You can count them on your fingers or use pencil to mark each line’s beats.
Flapping black feathers
Soar against the twilight sky
It may take several attempts to get each line right, but that is part of the fun. Soon you’ll be finding inspiration for haiku everywhere, while encouraging your child’s inner scientist and creativity at the same time.
Keely Parrack is the author of Morning Sunshine, a story written through a series of haiku. She enjoys motivating young people to love reading and to be confident and creative writers. She is the co-regional advisor for the Society of Children’s BookWriters & Illustrators, San Francisco North and East Bay.