Nursery rhymes and early language development

This article, which first appeared in Teach Early Years magazine (April 2016 edition)

Teach Early Years Nursery Rhymes

These days there are screens and electronic devices absolutely everywhere and it’s not unusual to meet a toddler who can happily swipe their way around the functions of an iPad. 33% of parents believe traditional nursery rhymes belong in the past. Should we be reviving the value of nursery rhymes in an increasingly fast paced world?

The importance of songs and rhymes in early childhood is vital. Nursery rhymes and lullabies have traditionally been sung to and with children in every culture for many hundreds of years. There are so many benefits from singing to support developing children yet nursery rhymes are not sung as often as we might think.

A widely publicised Booktrust survey revealed that 25% of parents surveyed had never sung a nursery rhyme to their child, 20% of young parents (under 24) believed that nursery rhymes were not educational, 33% of young parents said they did not sing nursery rhymes because they were too old-fashioned. In addition, another survey TV channel Cartoonito, found that only 12 per cent of parents could recall three or more nursery rhymes in full. These statistics are a reminder that we must continue to share and promote the value of nursery rhymes, which can play a crucial and powerful role in children’s development.

Research published by the Sutton Trust finds that “In the early years sharing experiences through narrative becomes increasingly important. Young children need opportunities for expression in many forms, including dance, song and other creative activities support for language and communication. Using familiar songs and rhymes,can help to foster children’s early language skills”. In her book,The Secrets of Thriving Children, Sally Goddard Blythe recommends that parents should sing to their children every day to avoid future language problems and says “Singing lullabies and using music gets a baby ready for language at a young age.”

The benefits of frequent use of songs and rhymes include:

Increased Vocabulary: Songs can introduce children to the meanings of a huge number words and can also support the development of memory skills

Sequencing skills: Singing the same song to children on a regular basis allows them to anticipate and predict what is coming next, and build a sense of chronology.

Support with Routines and Transitions: Familiar songs can be comforting. At any time and place songs can be applied to circumstances such as bedtime, saying goodbye and putting toys away.

Top 10 Nursery Rhymes/Songs (survey by booktrust):

– Hickory Dickory Dock

– Incy Wincy Spider

– Round and Round the garden

– Baa baa black sheep

– Jack and Jill

– The Grand old Duke of York

– Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

– Humpty Dumpty

– If you’re happy and you know it

Something to try

Choose a familiar nursery rhyme and change a few of the words to personalise it for your child. It might be something as simple as replacing “Jack” with your child’s name in “Jack and Jill” or a complete rewrite to fit in with a particular interest of your child. In this example, written for Jacob, who loves rockets and astronauts we kept the familiar tune of “baa baa black sheep” and came up with: “Flying spaceman, going to the moon, goodbye spaceman come back soon!” This may also help some parents who may feel nursery rhymes are old fashioned and not relevant in the modern world. It is the melodies and tunes that are memorable, words can easily be changed to achieve the same effect. Have a go, its not hard and good fun too. This also supports creativity in children who will sometimes be able to help with their own ideas for new words and rhymes.

Alison, an Early Years Teacher working at a primary school in Yorkshire has been trying to increase the use of songs in her classroom. She says “The children (Foundation Stage 2) in my setting generally know some of the very well known nursery rhymes, such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Baa Baa Black Sheep but I do find that after a while some are less keen to sing them as they are deemed a little babyish. That is why I like to introduce the more ‘forgotten ones’ like Diddle Diddle Dumpling my son John, Ding Dong Bell and Sing a song of sixpence. The language really engages the children and they are much keener to join in. We have recently had lots of fun, during our pirate topic, changing the lyrics together from the sea shanty, ”What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” They loved hearing their names incorporated into the song; “What shall we do with steady Freddie?” and even came up with their own ideas.

Sharing songs with parents and carers

Over the past 2 years I have been working alongside practitioners in a number of children’s centres with a clear aim of building an increased repertoire of songs and strengthening partnerships with parents and carers. Songs and nursery rhymes have been central to the project.

Each week, at stay and play sessions, there is always a singing activity where practitioners lead the singing and parents and their babies and toddlers join in. Whenever new songs are introduced a recording is made and sent to parents via email or text message following the session. We have been using chatta to support this process, and extending the range of audio-visual content the children’s centres share with parents to include familiar stories and descriptions of memorable and significant events. One of the ways chatta is helping is the way in which it captures images and spoken language in a way which can be shared and replayed anywhere.

Nursery Rhymes
Sharing nursery rhymes using chatta with parents/carers

The response has been positive and the impact significant. As the weeks pass by, more and more songs are shared. Parents are listening to the songs at home and singing them more frequently with their children, and they are also building a wider repertoire of songs which they can access on their smartphone wherever they want.

Sometimes we change the words to make the songs more appealing to certain children and we have also shared traditional songs from different cultures shared by parents who speak English as an additional language.

One parent, Monika, explained how this approach was helping her and her son Janusz. “ I am learning new songs every week. Janusz loves them. I know I will remember them and be able to sing them with him whenever we can because I can
listen to them on my own phone.”

This is how the power of today’s technology is being used to capture and share good practice and good ideas. The songs shared by the children’s centre practitioners provide a growing and invaluable resource for parents with an outcome which all of the research tells us we should strive for: More singing with our children.