When you sing nursery rhymes to your children, you may be telling the same poems and tales that, in some form, were told by firelight from parents to their children centuries ago, perhaps even as far back as the Middle Ages. Determining the origins of these famous tales before they were written down is impossible, but many have made guesses about their early roots. “Ring Around the Rosy” may refer to the swollen cysts that afflicted the sick during the Black Death. You might be recalling an ancient Welsh king in “Old King Cole” who drowned in a swamp 1700 years ago, and in “Little Miss Muffet” the daughter of a bug expert in Shakespearean England, or a queen beheaded for her Catholic faith in “Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” These stories have undergone so many changes over the centuries that these meanings –if they did originate in these long-ago dark circumstances –are mostly obscured.
“Many of these songs were not originally for children,” 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 worked out 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 make references to current events. It was in the nineteenth century, when Victorian society sentimentalized childhood and romanticized “quaint” times from the past, that most nursery rhymes were written down and presented as for children only.
How are these poems—inhabited by kings, queens and peasants of a rural past predating electricity, television and computers—still relevant to twenty-first-century kids and parents? If we are so far removed from the world that hatched these rhymes, why should we still read them? Some of the reasons people sang nursery rhymes to each other in the past remain good reasons to do so today. Here are four main reasons nursery rhymes can be beneficial for kids:
- They are good for the brain. Not only does the repetition of rhymes and stories teach children how language works, it also builds memory capabilities that can be applied to all sorts of activities. Furthermore, as Vandergrift points out, nursery rhyme books are often a child’s first experience with literacy: "Even before they can read, children can sit and learn how a book works." This extends to the pictures and music associated with nursery rhymes: it is a full visual and oral experience.
- Nursery rhymes preserve a culture that spans generations, providing something in common among parents, grandparents and kids—and also between people who do not know each other. Seth Lerer, Humanities Professor at the University of California San Diego and expert in the history of children’s literature, says that reading nursery rhymes to kids is, in part, "to participate in a long tradition … it’s a shared ritual, there’s almost a religious quality to it."
- They are a great group activity. Susie Tallman, who has put out several award-winning nursery rhymes CDs, and is also a nursery school music teacher, describes how singing nursery rhymes allows all kids—even shy ones—to feel confident about singing, dancing and performing because they are so easy to grasp and fun: "It builds confidence right 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 for their favorite nursery rhymes.
- Most important is that they are fun to say. Lerer downplays the life lessons that some rhymes contain, arguing that while parents might consider them important, children probably do not register them. He remembers how as a kid he had 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 a child’s discovery of an old, shared language.
Michael Sizer is an Assistant History Professor in the Department of Humanistic Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, MD. He puzzles over nursery rhymes while reading them to his daughters every night.