We all remember nursery rhymes.
Being bounced loving on our parent’s knees whilst being sung Humpty Dumpty – waiting excitedly for their legs to drop as ‘Humpty Dumpty had a great fall’ or happily clapping out Pat-A-Cake to the rhythm.
Maybe like me, you wondered why on earth they’d send the King’s horses to help mend a broken egg (surely they’d only make it worse).
Or what Jack was doing wearing a crown when he trekked up some hill to fetch water (I now know it’s another word for head – don’t worry).
These days, we may be parents ourselves and enjoy singing these timeless rhymes lovingly to our little ones, bouncing our kids on our knees.
But did you know that not only are they a wonderful part of your childhood but, just like play, they can also aid a child’s development in many ways?
Read on to find out how.
First Though, a Little on the History of Nursery Rhymes
While researching this post I came across some intriguing books and papers which looked at the history of nursery rhymes. There was a lot I didn’t know about them, so I’ll share with you some of the interesting facts I have discovered.
Nursery rhymes are an ancient oral tradition, passed down through many generations and there have been many new rhymes and songs created throughout the years in many different languages.
The oldest known nursery rhyme was reported to be a french poem from the 13th century which numbered the days of the months and was similar to ‘30 days has September’ (who doesn’t still use this to remember how many days are in a month?).
Most English nursery rhymes were created in the 16-18th centuries as this seems to be when they were at their height of their popularity.
They were first printed on to paper as early as 1570 where they were included in cheap pamphlets called ‘chapbooks’ which could be compared to modern day comic books, and contained lots of rhymes, poems and folklore.
Many nursery rhymes were written about particular historic events and then passed orally throughout the countryside to spread the news by word of mouth. For example:
- Humpty Dumpty was actually one of King Charles I’s cannon used during the English Civil War. It was defending Colchester in 1648 against Cromwell’s attackers until it was blown off of the church tower it was situated upon (I now understand why they’d have sent all the king’s horses).
- Baa Baa Black Sheep’s original last line was ‘and none for the little boy who cries in the lane’. The rhyme was said to be written as a protest after Edward I introduced a custom tax on wool to fund his military campaigning. One-third of the price of each sack was to go to the king (the master), two-thirds to the Church (the dame), leaving none for the actual shepherd (the little boy who cries in the lane).
- Little Jack Horner was actually Thomas Horner – the steward to the Dean of Glastonbury. Apparently, he was sent to see Henry VIII with a bowl full of property deeds disguised as a pie in an attempt to bribe the king. On the way, he reportedly reached into the pie and a stole a ‘plum’ piece of real estate for himself (a place called Mells Manor) where his descendants still live to this day.
- The Three Blind Mice was based on the Oxford Martyrs Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer. They were all reportedly blinded and burned at the stake by Mary I (who was sometimes known as the Farmer’s Wife) for their religious views and previous support of Edward VI.
And it seems that many other nursery rhymes have their roots similarly buried deep in our cultural history.
Well enough of the history lesson, let’s see how these fascinating rhymes can benefit your children.
The Benefits of Nursery Rhymes for Kids
Nursery Rhymes Aid Speech and Language Development
Phonological awareness is the ability to recognise the sounds of your language and know and understand how to make them and how they fit together. This is now known to be a major factor contributing to language development.
Nursery rhymes can improve this phonological awareness as children are exposed to many sounds when listening to them. They hear the different vowel and consonant sounds and these are often broken down rhythmically and melodically. This can make it easier for children to recognise the sound patterns of their language.
Many nursery rhymes also have strong rhythms that emphasise the different syllables that words are made up of, think Hump-ty Dump-ty.
And many use rhyming words which can show the similarities between the ending sounds of words (e.g., Twinkle Twinkle Little Star rhymes ‘star’ with ‘are’, and Incy Wincy Spider rhymes ‘spout’ with ‘out’).
Bernice Cullinan, Professor Emeritus at New York University, wrote that the rhythm of the language in nursery rhymes, the structure of the stories they tell, and their weird and wonderful characters all combine to produce the perfect model to pique young children’s interest and help them to develop an ear for words, phrases and sentences.
Through nursery rhymes children can learn the characteristic speech rhythms of their language and also learn about language pitches and where stresses are placed on certain sounds in words.
Children also begin to imitate the sounds they hear in the rhymes and these can be some of the first sounds they say.
Our little boy has started to saw ‘row, row’ when we sing Row, Row, Row the Boat to him.
As they get older and better at speaking they have the chance to practice their speech when they can join in or sing the nursery rhymes by themselves, and because the rhymes are often short they can be some of the first complete sentences they say.
Nursery Rhymes Improve Reading and Literacy Skills
It’s so important for children to develop a love of books and reading from a young age and reading and reciting nursery rhymes to your little ones can be a great way to help encourage a love of literature.
Goswami and Bryant argued that the rhyme awareness that can come from nursery rhymes could contribute to reading and literacy skills in two main ways.
Firstly, they stated that rhyme awareness helps children develop phoneme awareness (phonemes are the smallest unit of sound in a word – it’s what children learn in phonics classes). They explain that this awareness can make it easier for children to break down and hear the different sounds which make up words.
Secondly, they write that in English, rhymes are often represented by consistent spelling sequences (e.g., light, fight, night; tail, nail, mail). Children’s awareness of rhyme could therefore help them to group words and make reading and spelling easier.
Clay, in her book Change over time in children’s literacy development, agreed and stated that “children who have worked with nursery rhymes become better readers because they develop an early sensitivity to the sounds of language as they have learnt to think their way through a word, sound by sound, in the order which they hear it. This ability known as phonemic segmentation is the best predictor of future reading success”.
This idea is further backed up by a study by Bryant et al., which monitored the reading progress of 65 4 year olds until they were six. It showed that listening to rhymes improved the children’s rhyme and phoneme awareness which in turn improved the children’s reading ability.
Another study found that there was a significant relationship between nursery rhyme knowledge at age 3 and success in reading and spelling at ages 5 and 6, even after factors such as social background and I.Q. were taken into consideration.
And the nursery rhyme knowledge of children who were sung to at home, before they entered kindergarten, was found to have contributed strongly to word identification skills when the child reached Grade 2.
They Can Aid Physical Development
Nursery rhymes often involve movement in some way and singing and moving along to nursery rhymes can be a fun way for a child to practice both gross and fine motor skills.
Some rhymes such as Incy Wincy Spider and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star can involve the use of the hand and fingers when reciting. This can be a great chance for you to model the different movements that are possible with the hands and also give your child a great opportunity to practise their fine motor skills.
Others, such as Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, include large movements and can improve their coordination and gross motor skills.
Hand-clapping rhymes such as Pat-A-Cake can encourage children to cross the midline.
And knee-bouncing rhymes such as Humpty Dumpty can help children improve their balance and spatial awareness.
Nursery Rhymes Help With Cognitive Development
According to Susan Kenney, nursery rhymes can aid cognitive development in many ways these include:
- Improving the child’s memory – rhymes are often short and as we sing them a lot the child has many opportunities to remember them
- Helping children to understand sequences – there’s a natural flow to the rhymes and the rhythm that they are sung in and often a ‘story’ is told
- Helping the children to improve listening and speaking skills
- Being able to hear and understand patterns – which she argues are the basis for maths and reading study
This is backed up by an Effective Provision of Pre-school Education study, carried out by Sammons et al. This project followed a large sample of young children attending 141 preschools in the UK. They found that teaching nursery rhymes and songs to your children at home, as well as playing with letters and numbers, showed benefits in terms of the child’s cognitive and social development and that nursery rhymes showed a significant positive impact on language scores.
Nursery rhymes, when coupled with language activities, can also help children to practice inference skills – that is working out what may happen based on previous experiences
Nursery Rhymes Can Improve Maths Skills
These rhymes can also be a way for children to practise maths skills as:
- They often contain numbers and counting – think 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Once I Caught a Fish Alive and Five Little Ducks. And the great thing is that this counting can be forwards as well as backwards.
- They can contain mathematical vocabulary to get them thinking about size, height, weight and shape – think Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Little Jack Horner and Thumbelina
- The also often contain patterns and sequences
Nursery Rhymes Are Great For Social Skills and Bonding
Whenever you take a moment to spend some special time with your child it allows you to bond with them.
Nursery rhymes can be great for this as they often involve holding, touching or tickling as the rhymes are chanted. This kind of positive physical contact between a parent and their child has been shown to be very important for bonding.
As the rhymes are often short, the children can join in and repeat them successfully on their own. This can give them a great sense of accomplishment and boost their self confidence. It also helps if you give them lots of praise!
Nursery rhymes are often silly and funny and this can help them to develop a sense of humour.
Rhymes such as Pat-A-Cake and Oranges and Lemons involve hand slapping actions that need to be acted out with a partner. This can be a nice way for children to play and bond with each other.
The rhymes also often contain a range of characters who express different feelings as the rhymes unfold. This can allow the children to think about their own feelings and may help the children to develop empathy as well.
Nursery Rhymes Can Increase Children’s Knowledge
Nursery rhymes can increase a child’s knowledge in many ways. What’s great is that this learning takes place very naturally and in a fun way, without the child actually feeling that they are being taught anything.
When a child listens to nursery rhymes they can be learning about new words and concepts. The rhymes can expand their vocabulary by exposing children to words they probably wouldn’t hear in everyday language.
With Jack and Jill they’re learning that a ‘pail’ is an alternative word for bucket and that ‘crown’ is another word for head (hooray!). Mary Had a Little Lamb teaches them that a sheep’s woolly coat is called a ‘fleece’ and Little Miss Muffet sat on a ‘tuffet’ – which is actually a footstool or low seat.
Nursery rhymes such as Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes can help teach your child about the different parts of the body such as the head, shoulders, knees and toes – oh, and let’s not forget the eyes, ears, mouth and nose!
They can also teach children about new places, people and they are being exposed and connected to a part of our cultural history.
If you read the section above about their history, you may want to teach them some of the facts about their origins. You could even share some of the (child-friendly) truths behind the rhymes.
Rhymes like Frère Jacques can even expose them to the sounds of a different and new language.
A Few Ideas to Make Nursery Rhymes More Engaging
So we now know that nursery rhymes aren’t just something fun to sing to our children, they can also aid their development in many ways. Here are a few ideas to mix up how you go about nursery rhyming (not sure that that’s actually a phrase).
To help improve your child’s vocabulary you could consider changing some of the words in the rhymes. For example, In Jack and Jill, instead of saying ‘went up the hill’ you could say ran, crawled, rolled, jumped – and if you’re feeling energetic you could even do these actions while singing with your children (good luck!). You could also change some of the names of the characters in the rhymes to make it more personal to you and your child.
Following on from that last idea, you could try to get the child to act out the rhymes as you chant them – this could be especially funny if you had a range of costumes/props available and the child had to quickly pick up and swap props as the rhyme is sung.
If you have a nursery rhyme book you could try and encourage them to read along with you, pointing out words and people/objects and asking questions as you go. I’ve previously written about how this kind of interactive reading can be a great way for your child to develop strong pre-reading skills.
You could make some basic (or complex if you have the artistic skills) drawings of different sections of the rhymes, mix them up and then challenge the child to reorder them as quickly as possible. You could always time them and see if they can beat their score. If you wanted to really push them you could do a few different rhymes and mix them all together with your child then having to first separate and order them.
So there we go, if you enjoyed reading this post or found it interesting please share and follow/subscribe using the buttons below – it would really help me out.
If you have any favourite nursery rhymes or ideas for how you have made them more fun please leave a comment below – it would be great to hear them.
Let’s nurture those neurons!
References and Further ReadingClick here for references
- Change over time in children’s literacy development
- Crossing the Body’s Midline
- Early Childhood Practice: Froebel today
- Early Phonological Development and the Acquisition of Literacy
- Home experiences related to the development of word recognition.
- Language development, metalinguistic skills, and print awareness in 3-year-old children
- Literature and the child
- Maternal-Infant Bonding: A Review of Literature.
- Nursery Rhyme Knowledge and Phonological Awareness in Preschool Children.
- Nursery rhymes in music and language literacy
- Nursery rhymes, phonological skills and reading
- Nursery Rhymes: Foundation for Learning.
- Phonological skills and learning to read.
- Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes
- Preschool children’s retention of rhyming and non-rhyming text: paraphrase and rote recitation measures
- Rhyme and Alliteration, Phoneme Detection, and Learning to Read
- Rhymes, nursery rhymes, and reading in early childhood
- The Impact of Pre-School on Young Children’s Cognitive Attainments at Entry to Reception
- The Importance of Nursery Rhymes.
- The Nursery School and Kindergarten: Human Relationships and Learning
- The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes
- Using Nursery Rhymes to Foster Phonological and Musical Processing Skills in Kindergartners