By Antonia Van Der Meer

“Once upon a time, there was a man sitting on a wall who fell and broke into a million pieces. No one could help him. The end.”  You would never read this story to your child. Yet, as a nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty” has been a favorite for generations.

Any parent who recites Mother Goose rhymes is occasionally struck by the fact that they make no sense and are often not very kid-friendly. Why would anyone want to write such dark, nonsensical verses for children?

In fact, they weren’t written for children, according to Iona Opie, an expert on the history of nursery rhymes and coeditor with her husband, Pete, or the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press).  Although it’s widely believed that the meaning of these ditties is tied to events of the past (“Ring A Ring o’ Roses,” for example, is supposedly about the bubonic plague), Opie says,  “There is no historical evidence backing these beliefs.” Instead, she notes, “Many nursery rhymes originated in the 17th century as songs sung in taverns, often in rounds. When the men had too much to drink, their words became nonsense.”

To little kids, though, the silliness of the rhymes doesn’t matter. “Young children do not demand that language make sense. The melody and rhythm are the hook,” says Judith Schickedanz,Ph.D., a professor of early-childhood education at Boston University.

And nursery rhymes have a loot more to offer than just entertainment value. They introduce children to the idea of a narrative, promote social skills, boost language development and lay the foundation for learning to read and spell.

In fact, reciting nursery rhymes may be just as important as reading stories and talking to your child. “A rhyme’s repetition can sensitize the children to the individual units of sound, known as phonemes, which make up words,” says Dr. Schickedanz. Fir example, the line, “Baa baa black sheep” places three “/b/” sounds in a row; later in the verse, the words dame and lane highlight the long “/ay/” sound. “Nursery rhymes are organized so that similar sounds jump out at you, which doesn’t happen in every day speech,” she explains. Having developed sensitivity to language, children are ready, at age 5 or 6, to think about the sequence of sounds in a whole word, a skill that is crucial for learning to read and spell.

“Nursery rhymes and other repetitive language help children learn to think their way through a word sound by sound in the order in which they hear it,” says Dr. Schickedanz. This ability, known as phonemic segmentation, is best predictor of future reading success, she adds.

Learning to listen gives kids an affinity for books.

Mother Goose rhymes can also pave the way for a love of books. “They’re the perfect first stories for young minds,” says Charles Smith, Ph.D., author of The Encyclopedia of Parenting (Theory and Research Press).

“They introduce the idea of listening from beginning to end as the narrative develops, but they’re short, so a child doesn’t have to sit still very long,” he says. “As a child gets older, the timeline can be stretched, so you can read longer stories with a real plot.” Rhymes that invite your child’s participation provide even more learning opportunities,. When you play pat-a-cake, for example, “your baby learns to clap his hands and to recognize his own name,” says Opie.

Emotionally, very young children find plenty of territory they can relate to in the brief verses of Mother Goose. Such subjects as falling down, getting lost, fear of spiders, and losing mittens are all close to children’s hearts.  “These rhymes have probably lasted as long as they have because they help kids laugh about things that are usually stressful,” says Dr. Smith.

Some of the rhymes are reassuring, such as “Little Bo Peep,” whose first verse ends with “Leave them alone, and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.”  Others, such as “Jack and Jill” and “Humpty Dumpty” are rather grim, though they don’t seem to disturb most children.

Still, it can be fun to take some creative license and make up alternative endings. “In doing so, you boost your child’s imaginative abilities and show him that things can change for the better,” says Amy Flynn, director of the Bank Street Family Center in New York City.  For example, when playing with the toddlers at Bank Street, Flynn sometimes changes the last line of Humpty Dumpty from “Couldn’t put Humpty together again” to “Brought him to the doctor – now he’s better again!”

There are social benefits to nursery rhymes as well, “In a way, the parent who plays word games with her child is saying, ‘You can use language to be close to other people,’” says Dr. Smith. Later, when children recite or sing the rhymes together, “they have a very powerful effect,” he notes. “Kids discover they have something in common with other kids, It creates a bond between them.”

Finally, nursery rhymes don’t just connect us to other people; they also link us to the past. “The retelling of each nursery rhyme is a sort of connective tissue between the past, present, and future,” says Dr. Smith. “We remember, perhaps unconsciously, the experience of being told these rhymes when we were young.” It’s comforting to new parents to feel themselves a part of a larger chain of parenthood, he says. “The nursery rhyme passed down from generation to generation becomes a verbal heirloom.”


This article is Copyright©1999 Gruner and Jahr Publishing. Reprinted from PARENTS magazine by permission.

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