Written by Kathleen Powers


Yes, they are, but sadly, more and more children come to school today with little knowledge of them.

boy pretending to be Humpty

There are many reasons—busy parents without time to read the rhymes, foreign-born parents unfamiliar with the rhymes, and competition from TV and electronics for children’s time.  Yet, for many reasons, nursery rhymes should be part of a child’s education, and the earlier the better.

  • Children—even one-year-old children—can appreciate nursery rhymes, often their first encounter with books, verses and rhythmical sentences.  If they are being read to, they learn what a book is, what side goes up, how to turn a page, what words look like in print and how to get meaning from pictures.  This experience is the beginning of getting meaning from printed words, a start to reading comprehension.
  • They learn that reading books can be fun, social occasions with Grandma cuddling as she sounds out the rhymes.
  • Children can learn what English sounds like.  They hear their mother’s voice rising and falling, speeding up and slowing down, getting softer and louder, and sounding scared or full of laughter.  This can be particularly important for ESL children who might hear these rhymes from preschool teachers.
  • They develop an ear for fluency, and when they are ready to repeat the rhymes themselves, they are likely to add the inflection of a good reader.
  • Kids naturally like rhythm which nursery rhymes offer in abundance.  If Dad claps out the rhythm to “Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker Man,” soon the child will mimic him, picking up the cadence of English.
  • Because nursery rhymes are so rhythmical, children become aware of units of sound (called phonemes) from which words are made.  They learn to progress through the sounds in a word in a particular order (called phonemic segmentation), a necessary prereading skill.
  • Children also love rhyme (one reason Dr. Seuss is so popular).  They begin to learn patterns, expecting a rhyme every so often in the rhythm, and are rewarded when that word comes.  They begin to share in the reading of nursery rhymes aloud.
  • Because nursery rhymes are short, children need only a short attention span for a single nursery rhyme.
  • Also because the rhymes are short, children can memorize them and recite them aloud.
  • Nursery rhymes contain words the child doesn’t hear every day or in a familiar context.  “Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch,” “eating her curds and whey,” and “Jack, be nimble” are examples.
  • Many nursery rhymes tell simple stories with beginnings, middles and ends.  The children hear of problems they might encounter—falling down and getting lost—and hear how those problems are resolved, or in Humpty Dumpty’s case, not resolved.
  • Nursery rhymes are great for group chanting and singing, sometimes called choral reading.  Think of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and “London Bridge is Falling Down.”  Can you think about “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without singing it in your head?  The tune makes the rhyme easier to remember and makes reading fun.
  • Reading nursery rhymes to children preserves an older American culture and a connection with past generations.  Many of today’s grandmothers, as children, were read the same rhymes by their grandmothers.
  • Later on in life, the child will encounter many allusions to nursery rhymes (and allusions to Greek mythology, Shakespeare and the Bible).  But the child will only make connections—and have a richer experience—if he is familiar with the original rhymes.  For example, Agatha Christie called one of her mysteries One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.  Why?
  • Reading nursery rhymes online is a way to connect a child’s use of a tablet, phone or computer with literature from an early age. 

    Father reading to child and child asks, 'How old is Old McDonald?"

    To enlarge, click on the picture.

The history of nursery rhymes in English goes back hundreds of years to a time when most people could not read or write.  Part of an oral culture, they reported events of their time for adults and children alike.  For example,

  • “Ring around the Rosy” is believed to have originated in 1347 during the Black Death in Europe.  The ring referred to a round mark on the skin which was the first sign of the bubonic plague.  The last line, “And we all fall down,” was no laughing matter.
  • “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” refers to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was beheaded for her religious beliefs.
  • “Little Miss Muffett” refers to the daughter of a bug expert in Shakespeare’s day.
  • “Thirty Days Hath September” is believed to come from the 13th century, based on a similar rhyme in French to help remember how many days are in a month.

So are nursery rhymes important?  What do you think?  Did someone read nursery rhymes to you?  Can you recite any from memory?  Have you enjoyed passing along this tradition to your children and grandchildren?

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