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Studies suggest that learning nursery rhymes builds children’s confidence and can help with
reading skills
Coming home from nursery, my daughter Ava, 3, recites
Humpty Dumpty
. “Daddy,”she
says. “Did you know, Humpty Dumpty is an egg?” She ponders for a moment, her
brow furrowed: “But Daddy, eggs don’t have legs! And eggs don’t have bums. So how
can he sit on a wall?” This leads to a lengthy discussion about other things eggs don’t
possess—such as eyebrows, nostrils and bicycles.
Nursery rhymes have always been part of Ava’s life. But a recent survey has shown
that nursery rhymes are falling out of favour, with parents claiming they are too
old-fashioned to interest children. According to the survey, only 36 per cent of parents
in the UK regularly use nursery rhymes, while almost a quarter admit they have never
sung one with their child.
It’s sad that so many parents don’t even think about nursery rhymes. Our goal is
to encourage children to have a love of books but, before that, it’s about living in a
language-rich environment—and rhymes are part of that. They’re also tremendously
valuable as a confidence-builder. What you find out about yourself when you learn a
rhyme and then get a round of applause is really important.
More than 20 per cent of young parents claimed not to use rhymes because they don’t
consider them “educational”. Yet numerous studies report a significant relationship
between nursery rhyme knowledge at the age of 3 and success in reading and spelling
at 5 and 6. The reasons are complex, but the theory is this: the better children are at
detecting syllables and rhymes at an early age, the quicker and more successful their
progress with reading. Familiarity with nursery rhymes appears to help. They have an
educational value we still don’t entirely understand. They enable children to become
interested in the rhythm and patterns of language in a way that listening to stories
doesn’t provide.
I arranged to sit in on the “music” sessions at Ava’s nursery to see what role nursery
rhymes have in the education of preschool children, and if children have the foggiest
idea what they mean.
The singalongs usually consist of half traditional nursery rhymes and half original
compositions, where the appeal lies in repetitive melody and strong rhythmic element.
Rhymes with actions, such as
Incey Wincey Spider
, are especially good for early learning.
Some kids can’t sit still for long, so these rhymes help them to focus.
The group start with
Ring a Ring o’ Roses
, with its much-loved cue to “all fall down”.
The children love it. Next,
The Grand Old Duke of York
. Afterwards, the class discusses
the words. The teacher asks, “Where does the Grand Old Duke march up to?” Blank
expressions. It’s clear that they just sing along with the sounds.
Next, it’s
Baa Baa Black Sheep
. Out of 12 children, ten claim that this is their favourite.
Ask them what it’s about and once again they haven’t a clue. “Who does the sheep give
some wool to?” asks the teacher. Silence. She gives them a hint: “He gives some to the
master, and some to . . .
“The Dane!” exclaims one two-year-old.
At this point a little girl breaks into a rendition of “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world.”
Which neatly brings us on to adverts. If we’re looking to point a finger of blame for the
death of nursery rhymes, we could look at toys and clothes companies with jingles that
worm into our brains.

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