I didn’t discover this fact until I’d already started writing, but it turns out it was World Nursery Rhyme Week in November. Knowing this gives me slightly more confidence in writing about something which we are perhaps not inclined to take very seriously!
I started thinking about this because I had been struck by how rhymes are everywhere in the parent-and-baby world into which you enter as a new mum, and yet they are such an accepted part of the provision on offer, that the explanation given for why we sing them does not seem to go much further than a very basic listing of the benefits for a child’s development. As I attended various rhyme time sessions at the library, I found myself wondering: if this is to be a part of my life now, then does it mean anything, in terms of the language we are introducing to little ones? Is there anything more to this than having a nice time together?
It is easy for the singing to become a bit mindless, once you’ve done the hard work, of course, of learning the tune and the words of the rhymes which are new to you. And the mindlessness can be a relief: it gives you time out to smile at the other babies as your own looks around, and even the repetition gives you a break from having to think all the time of what to do next.
The actual fun is in the interaction, in anticipating the next line and then almost acting out a response for your baby. ‘Hickory dickory dock, The mouse ran up the clock’ [babies around the room are whisked into the air]. Or in Sleeping Bunnies: ‘They’re so still, are they ill? Wake up little bunnies! [lifting baby onto her feet] Hop little bunnies, hop hop hop …’
Some of our favourites give us a reason to dance: Down in the Jungle (‘splish, splash, a boogie woogie woogie’), and, of course, Dingle Dangle Scarecrow: (‘I can shake my hands like this, I can shake my feet like that’). Numerous rhymes are great for counting, providing the perfect trick for spinning out the lines: Ten Green Bottles, Five Little Speckled Frogs and Five Fat Sausages are possibly the most memorable from my own mental list.
But there are a few rhymes that have won my attention for other reasons, in that they seem to have something more to say. It has made me smile to notice a little germ of thought here and there and to recognise that that must have come from a fellow caregiver, even if I can’t know who they are. Vita Sackville-West described nursery rhymes as ‘tiny, unconscious works of art within their own limitations’, and there are several here where I started to become more conscious of that ‘something’ that they had to say:
- Celebrate the ordinary – why not!: The Wheels on the Bus – This is the first nursery rhyme we introduced to our daughter, and it has certainly stuck. Buses, as we know, daily make their unending journeys round the circuit, just as the song itself goes round and round, and yet the song happily converts what could feel like dreary repetition into a bobbing rhythm.
- Keep calm and carry on: Incy Wincy (Itsy Bitsy) Spider – You might think the rain would finish him off, but no! By the last line our spider has set off once more to climb ‘up the spout again’. This might be a nod to the genuine difficulty of getting rid of spiders for good, but who can feel annoyed when you realise it’s Incy Wincy?
- Imagination & word painting: Twinkle twinkle little star – This, so I learn, started off as a poem of five stanzas, written by Jane Taylor, who would have been in her twenties at the time. The rhyme is now so well known that it is easy to gloss over the words, but reading the poem allows me momentarily to appreciate it afresh. I love how it points out the ‘little’ and ‘tiny’ light that makes such a difference to the traveller, even if we know that it is only from our own limited perspective that the star seems tiny. The words themselves gesture towards something that we do not fully understand: ‘How I wonder what you are!’
- Emotional literacy: If you’re happy and you know it – Mostly this song just repeats the ‘if you’re happy’ line. It’s good that there are two steps here: being happy and also knowing it / owning it. But how about if you’re not happy? Occasionally, I’ve seen other verses added: ‘If you’re sad and you know it, shed a tear’ or ‘If you’re angry and you know it, stamp your feet’. Personally I think the more we can use these other verses alongside the first, the better. I like the idea of being told how I might safely express an emotion, especially when it’s an uncomfortable one.
- Love & loyalty: Mary had a little lamb – Based on a true story, this is the tale of the lamb who accompanied Mary everywhere, even when she had to go to school. “Why does the lamb love Mary so?” ask the other children. I suspect they receive their most important lesson, that day, in the answer that follows: “Why, Mary loves the lamb”. What makes us special is not just who we are but also how we love.
- Independence starts early: Five Little Ducks – What are those little ducks getting up to when they don’t come back? I so recognise these ducks who won’t come when they’re called, and yet I love that it all works out ok in the end. Well done Mother Duck for hanging in there!
- Family & bedsharing: Ten in a Bed – In times past I’m sure it was more common to have to accommodate ten in a bed, or four or five. But certainly there is more struggle involved in bedsharing than I had really been prepared for, and ‘the little one’ isn’t necessarily the one who takes up the least space. “Roll over! Roll over!”
- There are consequences: Five Little Monkeys – Every parent knows not to leave a baby on the bed. And that jumping on a bed is likely to end in tears. But how to convince a Monkey of this until it happens?
- Difference & solidarity: John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt – This little ditty originated in America, but the internet of course means that we now share many of the same media, and so I heard this sung with no preconceptions and some interest. There is just one verse which runs on repeat: ‘John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, His name is my name too. Whenever we go out, The people always shout, There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. Dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah’. Apparently the rhyme touches on the arrival of a large number of immigrants from Germany, whose names seem to have provoked some mirth amongst the locals. But the line that sticks out for me is ‘His name is my name too.’ I certainly wouldn’t want to go out of it meant I was to be shouted at everywhere I went, but if I had a friend who identified with me and made up a song to counter all the shouts, well – that would make a difference.
- Your way is not the only way: The Country Mouse and the City Mouse – The city mouse thinks nothing can compare with the pleasures on offer in the city, only to find that there are things which the country mouse values beyond the rich variety of tasty treats that can be salvaged in the city. I thought this was telling in itself, but I also didn’t realise that this tale has such a long heritage and that it has been explored by so many writers down the centuries. This is one I’m certainly going to look out for in some of its other iterations.
Mostly what is written about nursery rhymes seems aimed more at early years educators/practitioners, as opposed to parents, but I wanted to include a few further thoughts on the subject with the latter in mind:
- The sense isn’t separate from the nonsense in nursery rhymes. Perhaps this is related to the importance of play in learning?
- Even if we don’t understand exactly what the meaning is, these rhymes are not meaningless. They ‘provide the opportunity for children to value language’ (‘Importance of Nursery Rhymes and Songs’, earlyyearscareers.com).
- Nursery rhymes give us a common language to share whilst we’re struggling to work out who we are and what we’re doing.
- They connect us to parents and caregivers in other times and places, and can reconnect us with our own childhood memories. ‘Nursery rhymes are part of our cultural heritage, passed down through generations linking the childhood of grandparents with their grandchildren.’ (Tales from the Sandpit blog)
- They remind us that not everything will go right, and it would be strange in fact to expect that it would. ‘If you acquire a nursery rhyme-ical attitude, you’re not at all put out by life’s little bumps and bruises. They just seem funny and entirely normal.’ (Iona Margaret Balfour Opie) How I need that plain common sense in my life!
Kookaburra is the nursery rhyme I remember from my childhood. It was the rhyme that taught me my first few facts about Australia: 1) the Kookaburra is a native bird of Australia; 2) Kookaburras don’t sing, they laugh; and 3) Australia has gum trees. Thank you for this blog post, it really got me to think about nursery rhymes – pieces of music which I take for granted.
Oh I love this! It would be fascinating to know more about rhymes from other places and cultures. I had to look up Kookaburra, and it’s nice to find that it has that recognisable feel to it. Thank you for telling us about it!
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