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Nursery Rhyme Songs

Learn about the history and value of nursery rhymes.

Children receive comfort from hearing their parents' voices sing nursery rhymes. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Children receive comfort from hearing their parents' voices sing nursery rhymes.

Everyone remembers some of the nursery rhymes songs to which they were introduced as children. These fun and lively compositions are as much a part of growing up as playgrounds and ice cream cones.

What many nursery rhyme listeners do not think about, at least until they are adults sharing favorites with a new generation, is that nursery rhymes have value beyond simple entertainment.

A Brief History of Nursery Rhymes

According to London's V&A Museum of Childhood, parents and other caregivers have been singing and reciting nursery rhymes to children for thousands of years. Also known as "ditties," lullabies and Mother Goose songs, most nursery rhymes have no clear date of origin or author.

Many of the best-known nursery rhymes contain some sort of moral lesson or cautionary tale, and many others have educational value as well. One of the most fundamental benefits of nursery rhymes is that, when parents sing them to their children, it helps to form a bond because children receive comfort from hearing their parents' voices. Babies especially find the simple, repetitive sounds of nursery rhymes to be particularly comforting.

The museum also notes that some nursery rhymes make no particular sense at all and are just intended to be whimsical songs. Others likely originated in pubs and bars and were never even intended to be heard by children.

One of the first-known English language lullabies was written in the 14th century, during the time of King Edward II. It, like many other nursery rhymes, was composed and sung as a way of calming children down or helping them fall asleep.

The V&A Museum notes that an early book of nursery rhymes, called The Baby's Opera, was published in 1877 and contained such recognizable titles as "Three Blind Mice," "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush."

Another Web site dedicated to the history of nursery rhymes, Rhymes.org, contains history on more than three dozen well-known nursery rhymes such as "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" (originated in the United States and likely refers to the large number of German immigrants at the time it was written) and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" (originated in England as the "Incy Wincy Spider" and serves as a manual dexterity exercise), among others.

Many nursery rhymes refer to historical events, such as "Ring a Ring o Rosies," which references the Bubonic plague, and "Remember Remember," which refers to the attempt by Guy Fawkes to kill the king and his family by blowing up the English Houses of Parliament in the early 17th century. More generally, many of the patterns and rhymes originally were intended to make fun of the political establishment, an offense that would have been punishable by death if one was caught doing so directly.

Value and Benefits of Nursery Rhymes Songs

Nursery rhyme details gathered by Southern Connecticut State University is a more academic look at not only the origins of nursery rhymes but their value for children, as well.

Historically, nursery rhymes and their equivalents can be found among all cultures, not just those of Europe and the United States. In addition to their political foundations, nursery rhymes also can be traced back to romantic lyrics, war songs, proverbs, riddles and ancient names for numbers.

Older children who have outgrown the nursery-rhyme-as-lullaby phase of development may continue to benefit from nursery rhymes because they contribute to brain function development in areas such as numbers and counting, vocabulary building, memorization, development of a sense of humor and learning to tell the difference between make-believe and reality.

In addition, nursery rhymes typically are children's first introduction to literature and help them develop an appreciation for and understanding of language and poetry concepts, such as meter and rhyme. Nursery rhymes also help children to grow physically and socially by putting meaning or context behind playful motor development actions like jumping, skipping and clapping.

Parents and teachers are encouraged to use nursery rhymes to stimulate critical thinking by asking questions about the nursery rhymes that children are hearing or reading. For example, a parent might ask, "What just happened in that nursery rhyme?" or "Who do you think was the most important character?" or "What would you have done in that same kind of situation?"

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