This short piece is intended primarily for people who work with young children, by which I mean roughly Nursery, Reception and Key Stage One, and would like some ideas for how to make them laugh. It might prove useful to poets and other practitioners who visit schools and would appreciate some fun ways to engage and amuse children. I should begin by saying that I am far from an expert: I do not have children of my own (although I do have a niece and a nephew), and I have not done anything approaching ‘research’ into the ‘science’ of what makes children laugh. I think it is an art rather than a science anyway, and with this in mind I would like to share some tactics and techniques that, in my experience as a professional performance poet, seem to work for me. If these ideas seem incredibly simple, it’s because they are!
Wrong Nursery Rhymes
All children know nursery rhymes. They find it highly amusing when an adult attempts to sing a nursery rhyme, but gets the words wrong. I find this such a successful technique for eliciting mirth that I have even included a poem in my next book that is a mangling of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. The first verse goes:
Baa baa blue sheep
Have you any bread?
Yes sir, yes sir,
On my head
When I sing this, the children find it very funny. There is something about adults getting things wrong that seems to really tickle them. And they find it even funnier when adults get things wrong repeatedly: the poem mentioned above has four verses, all incorrect renderings of the original rhyme. Children seem to love it when adults, ostensibly the harbingers of truth and authority, get things wrong! They love having the tables turned.
Similarly, if I am doing a poem about a mango, say, children find it very funny when I hold up a mango and say “this...is a strawberry!” As above, the more I get it wrong, the funnier it becomes. And the sillier the ideas get, the more the laughter erupts. I might end up, for example, saying “this…. is a pair of alien’s underpants!” The key to the joke is this: they know what it is, and I don’t. Again, the typical adult-child power dynamic has been inverted; the tables have turned. You can do this with anything: hold up a toy bear and announce in a booming voice: “THIS….IS A CROCODILE!” Oh, the joy.
The Opposite Game
Here is a fun game. When you say ‘sit’, the children have to stand; when you say ‘stand’ they have to sit. Do this a few times, and pretend to get really frustrated when many of the kids (inevitably) get it wrong. Pretend to cry - children find that funny. You can then add another instruction: the children have to jump when you say ‘clap’, and clap when you say ‘jump’. Make this game increasingly elaborate, incorporating loads of instructions that are too difficult for most of them to keep up with. The fact that they can’t keep up with it is why it is fun! You can make this go on for as long as you like (perhaps if you need to eat up some time), and the longer it goes on the sillier and hence funnier it gets.
The Three R’s
The little tricks above apply to anyone who finds themselves in front of a group of small children and wants to entertain them. When it comes to poetry specifically, there are three things that I always keep in my toolbox for the little ones: rhyme, rhythm and repetition. I find that as long as a poem includes a healthy dose of all these things, one can’t help but experience a room full of smiling faces. It doesn’t even particularly matter if the content is inherently funny (more on that in the next section); the mere use of these techniques seems to tap into something very primal within the children, and makes them grin, nod along, tap their feet, and generally have a whole heap of fun. And with regards to repetition, the longer it goes on the funnier it gets. You can repeat something loads and loads and loads and loads and loads...and loads and loads...and loads (you get the idea) of times.
What about the material? Well, there are some obvious things that make all young children laugh. Toilet related things. Bodily things. Yucky things. People who seek to entertain, educate and inspire children can fall into one of two camps: embrace toilet humour wholeheartedly, or puritanically avoid it. I think I am somewhere in the middle. It is simply too easy to rely purely on toilet humour for a laugh, but a carefully inserted ‘bum’ can elevate a performance. Another thing that really tickles children, I have found, is nonsense words. An example of this is my poem ‘Ooshus Magooshus’. I always tell children not to laugh at this monster’s name (of course, telling them not to laugh is a guaranteed way of getting it to happen), but they can’t help it; it just sounds funny, doesn’t it? Repeat it. Say it in different voices. It is highly amusing. So if you want to make young children laugh, why not have a stock of nonsense words at your disposal.
Writing the word ‘conclusion’ just now reminds me of when I used to write essays at university. It has been a long time since I’ve written an essay. Actually it hasn’t been that long, as I did two MAs after my undergraduate degree, with the aim being to postpone getting a proper job for as long as possible. And I still haven’t gotten one. Another thing that amuses children of all ages seems to be when I go on long, rambling tangents like just then. Anyhoo, back to the original point: making small children laugh. As I mentioned at the beginning, I definitely do not consider myself to be an expert. The ideas above are merely those that have worked for me in my eight years or so as a children’s performer. They may or may not work for you. Hopefully, at least, I have provided some useful tips for those who are thinking about working with and entertaining young children. Good luck, and may Ooshus Magooshus McSquooshus be with you!