The Joy of Nursery Rhymes
For anyone working with young children, nursery rhymes are part of a tool kit, an essential source of learning opportunities. They are used by practitioners to teach language development, new and sometimes strange vocabulary, different seasons, actions and finger movements to aid cognitive development to the sheer joy of using the voice to sing. They are a resource that are taken for granted, accepted as part of a strong, nursery curriculum and something that children have enjoyed for centuries.
The sound of a nursery rhyme has a pattern and cadence similar to a conversation in English. The ups and downs and pauses experienced whilst repeating the memorised rhyme aloud gives children patterned and predictable practice of these components of language. The musical, sing-song rhythm has the power to entertain but also to comfort. They have a natural flow with rhymes that are easy to share and remember. They rely on meter and rhyme to stay in our memories. Sackville-West agrees stating “No one could charge the nursery rhyme with not being memorable: it owes its survival to that particular quality” (1950:68) The benefit these rhymes have to language acquisition demonstrates their relevance in a modern setting. They introduce children to the rules of our language and to new and sometimes complex vocabulary.
Nursery rhymes are used as a rich resource in the curriculum and in settings where I have worked, they are considered a crucial part of the day. They have become part of nursery and school life to such an extent that The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) non statutory guidance, suggests behaviour for practitioners to observe, such as “Listens to and enjoys rhythmic patterns in rhymes and stories” and “Enjoys rhymes and demonstrates listening by trying to join in with actions or vocalisations”. It also advises that children “Fills in the missing word or phrase in a known rhyme, story or game, e.g. ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a ...’.”
I am very aware that whereas other areas of development in the settings are meticulously planned, reflected on and revised, song time is often an afterthought, a few nursery rhymes are sung before a story is read, and without too much incidence, or thought, it is home time. This has led to the children sitting still for about twenty minutes and as we all appreciate, the longer children sit, the less engaged and attentive they are. For very young children, having to sit quietly is extremely challenging and can lead to unwanted behaviour. What should be a time of active engagement, joyful singing, fun rhyming words has become a time filling slot before going home. Something to be endured rather than relished.
Nursery rhymes are part of our cultural heritage, passed down through generations linking the childhood of grandparents with their grandchildren. They connect us to other people, linking us to the past; they become part of a wider shared experience for young children – they are not only able to sing along with adults but there is a moment when they realise that other people also know these rhymes too. This sense of being part of a group and being able to join in is an important step in growing up and interacting with others. Each retelling connects us to the past, present and future.
The singing of nursery rhymes creates a social experience for both the children and adults and a feeling of group togetherness. According to Prosic Santovac this builds a positive atmosphere creating a sense of belonging. She also maintains that as rhymes appear across cultures it familiarises children with their culture. (2015:29) Goddard Blythe explains this familiarising of culture by explaining that nursery rhymes “are important because they contain the specific melodies, stresses and accents peculiar to the language and the culture from which they grew” (2011:46). She continues by adding that these rhymes “help to welcome the child into the language of his culture” (2011:46). This gives children a sense of belonging and an understanding of their place in the world.
As well as a social and cultural experience, singing nursery rhymes can also help develop children’s social skills as it is a great opportunity for children to get to know the other children in your setting. Singing together, joining in with all the actions and holding hands during rhymes such as Row row your boat helps to develop those social skills.
As children develop at different rates, using nursery rhymes will support children’s communication and language development at whatever stage they are at, for example older children may be beginning to learn to rhyme and rhyming words, whereas younger children may still be at the stage of learning new words.
The singing and retelling of familiar rhymes and rhyming stories is a great way to teach children:
auditory discrimination – the ability to recognise differences in sounds allows a person to tell the difference between words and sounds that are similar as well as words and sounds that are different.
listening skills - children need to be able to listen (active listening) rather than just hear
a rich range of language - as discussed, nursery rhymes use complex vocabulary that the child may not be introduced to in normal conversation
concentration skills – this is of course vital as children need to concentrate to learn oral storytelling / poetry skills - these skills will be useful as children advance through school
phonemic awareness - phonemic awareness refers to the specific ability to focus on and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. Phonemes are the smallest units comprising spoken language. Phonemes combine to form syllables and words. For example, the word 'mat' has three phonemes: /m/ /a/ /t/.
Nursery rhymes enable children to learn:
to be able to listen for and keep a steady beat - you can support this by clapping, patting, stamping etc along with the beat so the children can join in with this and feel the beat.
to learn whole rhymes off by heart from a very young age - this happens in an enjoyable and fun way.
to be able to retell and sing these independently - a Froebelian approach to rhymes places emphasis on these being sung either by adults or children spontaneously and frequently in settings.
to be able to complete a rhyming sentence or couplet by predicting the word that is missing - e.g Hickory, dickory dock, the mouse ran up the ……
to be able to discriminate rhyming words and identify those that don’t rhyme
to make their own strings of rhymes during wordplay eg cat/ fat/ mat/ sat/ hat/ bat
to invent and experiment with making their own “silly” words that rhyme - during song time recently on hearing the word spider one of the boys turned to me and made up several nonsense rhyming words such as blider, fider etc. He was so pleased when I laughed along with him.
Teaching children nursery rhymes will help them be better readers later on in life. When singing nursery rhymes, we naturally speak more clearly and slowly than we normally would which is a good way for children to learn the words and understand how they are formed. They also love to imitate you, so have fun with the songs by making funny face and movements to match the words, and they will have lots of fun doing them with you.
Singing nursery rhymes and songs to children as young as babies can help develop their language and communication skills from an early age. There are so many different ways adults can make this type of learning fun, whether this is by using props, music or musical instruments. Creating a fun experience for children will help engage them and they are more likely to sit and participate in the songs. It is important to remember that younger children will only sit for short periods of time so don’t expect them to sit for a half hour song time session.
Introducing children to a variety of nursery rhymes can help them understand and learn about different sounds. This is an important part of developing those early literacy skills. Listening to different sounds in the environment as well as in nursery rhymes provides children with the foundations in helping them to read and write.
As nursery rhymes are fun and full of sounds, children will tune into these sounds. Older children will experiment in combining sounds and blend them together to form a word.
As previously mentioned nursery rhymes and songs have a huge impact on children’s language and communication development. Children relish in listening to songs full of rhyming, rhythm and repetition. By singing songs containing these core elements it is helping boost children’s language, communications and literacy development.
Understanding the full value of nursery rhymes and songs will open up the learning opportunities for children and help create a positive attitude towards language.
So why is singing nursery rhymes and songs important?
- Children learn new words
- Develop their non-verbal communications skills
- Learn early maths skills
- Children understand how words are formed
- Enables children to copy actions
- It boosts children’s language, communication and literacy skills
- Helps develop children’s social skills
- Children learn about different beats and rhythms
- Provides the opportunity for children to value language and become confident learners.
- Creates a close relationship between adult and child
Adult’s role in singing nursery rhymes and songs:
Be confident - I have worked with many members of staff who are embarrassed to sing and feel foolish. I always say, this is not a talent show, the children do not have scores or red buzzers, they just enjoy the activity of singing together with an interested adult. If you are confident when singing nursery rhymes, this will be portrayed to the children. If adults are having fun children are more likely to respond.
Sing songs slowly and clearly - children need to be able to hear the words and melody to join in.
Use props to support the songs - I have observed staff using a bag or a box containing props such as a plastic spider, toy sheep etc to prompt the children.
Involve children - encourage their interaction by enabling them to think of appropriate actions to the rhymes.
Is singing nursery rhymes and songs included in your everyday routine? Singing nursery rhymes doesn’t just have to be during song time why not share a song or two during nappy time or when children are sitting down for lunch or whilst playing outside. These times are ideal in providing children with opportunities to develop their communication and language skills. I always think, there is nothing more wonderful than children bursting into spontaneous singing. Remember, singing is fun and should be part of a rich Early Years, so relax and go for it! The children will love it!
Goddard Blythe S. The Genius of Natural Childhood. Hawthorn ltd. Stroud. 2011
Opie I and P. The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes. Penguin Books Ltd. Harmondsworth. 1963.
Sackville -West V Nursery Rhymes An Essay. Michael Joseph LTD. London. 1950