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Finding Humor Through Poems, Rhymes and Stories
By Carolyn Ross Tomlin

Remember the "Knock-knock" jokes we heard as children? And what about the silly joke kids tell over and over—the one that's sure to produce laughter?

While listening to a group of kindergarteners recently, I realized this same type of humor continues today. What makes a joke, poem, rhyme or story funny? What makes children laugh?

Little research exists of the topic of humor in children. Educators agree that Paul McGhee (1979) a developmental psychologist, continues to provide some of the best data. McGhee, a researcher and author of five books on children's humor, conducted a longitudinal study of the development of humor at the Fels Institute. He believes that humor provokes a moderate amount of cognitive challenge, perfect for the conserving young child. When some incongruity, such as something unexpected, inappropriate, or out of context happens, individuals find humor. The child must know enough about the situation to understand the incongruity that can be recognized, plus they must be in a playful frame of mind. Incongruous events are funny to children precisely because these events are at odds with reality and they know it! An example might be an elephant wearing a silly hat, or, a man wearing over-sized shoes.

The kind of humor children appreciate depends on their underlying cognitive development. True humor begins at about age two or after the child has begun to be capable of fantasy and make-believe. It continues to develop in a uniform sequence of stages related to cognitive development.

Value of Using Poetry for Children

In addition to poems offering humor, poetry brings warmth, reassurance, even laughter; it can stir and arouse or quiet and comfort. Above all it can give significance to everyday experience. To miss poetry would be as much of a deprivation as to miss music. For these reasons it is essential that we know poetry and that we know how to introduce it to children. The experience of poetry should come with so much pure pleasure that the taste for it will grow and become a permanent part of a child's emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic resources (Sotherland & Arbuthnot, 1972).


Elements of Good Literature for Children

Rhyming poetry is often the literature of choice for young children. However, jingles written for children become a starting place for appreciation of poems. As boys and girls are introduced to poems, stories and other literature they gain experience and discrimination. Harry Behn says, "I believe that children's judgment of what books are best for them to expand into is better than our judgment if we make the best as easily available as television" (Behn, 1968). Children's taste will improve if they have repeated experiences with good poetry.

Edward Lear (1812-1888) a British artist and writer, published his first Book of Nonsense in 1846. Lear's limericks have delighted children for ages. The lasting quality of his work is understood and appreciated by children of today as well as generations ago. Lear's limericks include the following:

There Was an Old Man with a Beard

There was an old man with a beard,

Who said, "It is just as I feared!

Two Owls and a Hen

Four Larks and a Wren

Have all built their nests in my beard."


There Was a Young Maid Who Said, "Why"

There was a young maid who said, "Why can't I look in my ear with my eye?

If I give my mind to it,

I'm sure I can do it,

You never can tell till you try."


Mother Goose

What would childhood be like without the Mother Goose rhymes? The rhymes and poems underwent many changes during the years as they were passed on by word of mouth, and later as they traveled from one printed edition to another. Numerous editions exist today. Many of the rhymes consist of nonsense jingles. Others offer bits of history, old customs, manners and beliefs. Englishman, John Newbery, is credited with publishing an edition of Mother Goose's Melody or Sonnets for the Cradle between 1760 and 1765. But it may have been his stepson, T. Carman, who continued the business in 1781. Generations of children still continue to find humor in the collection of rhymes:


Hey! Diddle, Diddle

Hey, diddle, diddle

The cat and the fiddle,

The cow jumped over the moon.



Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,

Baker's man,

Bake me a cake

As fast as you can.

Pat it and prick it,

And mark it with a B,

And put it in the oven

For baby and me.


Jack Be Nimble

Jack be nimble,

Jack be quick,

And Jack jump over the candlestick.


Had A Mule

Had a mule, his name was Jack,

I rode his tail to save his back;

His tail got loose and I fell back—

Whoa, Jack!


Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;

All the King's horses and all the King's men

Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.


Selecting Poems, Stories and Rhymes for Children

In presenting literature to children, parents and teachers should consider the following suggestions:


·        Read over the selection before presenting to children.


·        Know the difference between literature written about children and those that are for children.


·        Avoid lengthy selections, or those that contain long descriptive passages.


·        Realize that figures of speech or obsolete language may be confusing to children.


·        Choose literature where children possess an understanding of the text, or have an interest in the situation.


·        Choose literature in which children understand the language.


·        Read poems aloud so children hear the cadence of the rhyme.


·        Provide a variety of stories, poems and rhymes through books, records and tapes.


·        Select contemporary literature as well as the classics.


·        Encourage the writing of poems, jokes, rhymes and stories. Children who are not yet writing can dictate to parents or teachers.


·        Include literature that contains action and humor.


Just for Fun Poems

The following poems (and their authors) are only a few that young children find funny. Some have passed the test of time and are considered classics.

  • "The Vulture" by Hilaire Belloc
  • "The Purple Cow" by Gelett Burgess
  • "Eletelephony" by Laura E. Richards
  • "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Edward Lear
  • "The Moneys and the Crocodile" by Laura E. Richards
  • "Twenty Froggies" by George Cooper
  • "Road Fellows" by Barbara Young
  • "There Once was a Puffin" by Florence Page Jaques
  • "The Duel" by Eugene Field
  • "I Saw a Ship a Sailing" - Old Rhyme
  • "He Thought He Saw" by Lewis Carroll
  • "Mr. Nobody" - Author Unknown
  • "Jonathan Bing" by Beatrice Curtis Brown
  • "The Raggedy Man" by James Whitcomb Riley
  • "The Sugar-Plum Tree" by Eugene Field
  • "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod" by Eugene Field


A sense of play is important for learning in children. Play is to childhood what work is to adults. During the preschool years, it contributes to the social, cognitive and emotional development. Never underestimate the value of humor in promoting maturation.

Carolyn Ross Tomlin has taught in preschool and kindergarten and been an assistant professor of education at Union University in Jackson, TN. She contributes to numerous educational publications.

National Poetry Month

The month of April is National Poetry Month. During this time, booksellers, librarians and teachers plan events that focus on poets and their materials. Poetry awards, discussion forums and exhibits feature biographies, photographs, bibliographies, and audio clips. One of the goals of the organization is to introduce more Americans to the pleasures of reading poetry. Another goal is to bring poets and poetry to the pubic in immediate and innovative ways. Check with your school and city librarian for information on events and on authors who may visit your area during the month of April.


Web Resources

The following websites list humorous children's poems and information on individual authors. Several of the sites offer contests that encourage creative writing by youngsters.


Fun-4-Children - www.fun4children.com/

Includes poems, riddles, stories, jokes, for, about and by children.


Giggle Poetry - www.gigglepoetry.com/

Includes funny poetry, contests, lessons, and poems about school.


Giggle, Giggle, Snicker, Laugh! - www.robertpottle.com.

Robert Pottie's original poems: text and audio; reader feedback poll.


Grandpa Tucker's Rhymes and Tales - www.night.net/tucker/

Includes silly poems, stories, and songs from "Grandpa" Bob Tucker.


Jeff's Poems for Kids - www.garnet.acns.fsu.edu/

Jeff Mondak provides a collection of humorous children's poems.


Poems for Kids - www.pitara.com/talespin/poems.

Includes simple, lighthearted poems for younger children


Poetry for Kids - www.poetry4kids.com

Includes poetry for kids by author Kenn Nesbitt.


Polly Poets - www.pottypoets.com

Promotes reading, particularly poetry, through the use of humor and fun.