You might be recalling an ancient Welsh king in “Old King Cole” who drowned inside a swamp 1700 in years past, along with poemas infantiles “Little Miss Muffet” the daughter of your bug expert in Shakespearean England, or perhaps a queen beheaded for her Catholic faith in “Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” These stories have undergone so many changes over the centuries these meanings -if they did originate of these long-ago dark circumstances -are mostly obscured.
“Many of these songs were not originally for youngsters,” says Kay Vandergrift, Professor Emerita of Children’s Literature at Rutgers University. Most of these songs were part of an oral-based society that relayed news, spread coded rumors about authority figures, and exercised its moral dilemmas (for kids and adults) in rhyme and song. And existing nonsense rhymes that were part of this oral tradition could be used or adapted to produce references to current events. It was in the nineteenth century, when Victorian society sentimentalized childhood and romanticized “quaint” times from your past, that a lot of nursery rhymes were written down and presented as for kids only.
How are these poems-inhabited by kings, queens and peasants of the rural past predating electricity, television and computers-still highly relevant to twenty-first-century kids and parents? If we are so far removed in the world that hatched these rhymes, how come we still read them? Some of the reasons people sang nursery rhymes to each other within the past remain top reasons to do so today. Here are four main reasons nursery rhymes can be beneficial for the kids:
1. They are best for the brain. Not only does the repetition of rhymes and stories teach children how language works, what’s more, it builds memory capabilities that could be applied to all kinds of activities. Furthermore, as Vandergrift highlights, nursery rhyme books will often be a child’s first experience with literacy: “Even before they could read, children can sit and find out how a book works.” This extends to the pictures and music associated with nursery rhymes: it’s a full visual and oral experience.
2. Nursery rhymes maintain a culture that spans generations, providing something in accordance among parents, grandparents and kids-and also between those who do not know the other person. Seth Lerer, Humanities Professor with the University of California San Diego and expert inside history of children’s literature, says that reading nursery rhymes to kids is, to some extent, “to participate inside a long tradition … it is a shared ritual, there’s almost a non secular quality for it.”
3. They are an excellent group activity. Susie Tallman, who has put out several award-winning nursery rhymes CDs, and is particularly a nursery school music teacher, describes how singing nursery rhymes allows all kids-even shy ones-to feel confident about singing, dancing and performing as they are so easy to know and fun: “It builds confidence directly in front of my eyes,” she says. “They really see the connection between movement, rhythm and words.” She has also had kids of different ages collaborate on making music videos because of their favorite nursery rhymes.
4. Most important is because they are fun to state. Lerer downplays living lessons that some rhymes contain, arguing that while parents might consider them important, children probably don’t register them. He remembers how being a kid he’d no idea what “Peas porridge hot/peas porridge cold” meant but that “he just loved the way it sounded.” One should not let any supposed deeper meanings or origins to nursery rhymes obscure their true value: the joy of the child’s discovery associated with an old, shared language.