Old Mother Goose,
When she wanted to wander,
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander
Nursery rhymes, which are considered part of the tradition of folk literature, are very old having been passed down through generations for hundreds of years. They serve a vital purpose: often providing a child’s first experience with poetry in language.
This module provides you with the skills needed to effectively evaluate collections of nursery rhymes.
That first experience with nursery rhymes can help set the stage for a natural and life-long love of rhythm in all human beings. As humans our first listening experience involves a natural rhythm: the sound of our mother’s heart beat heard before we are even born. Babies are, in essence, “listening machines” responding to both rhythm and rhyme. Toddlers learn language from both the repetition and the rhymes found in nursery rhymes. Preschoolers learn sentence structure and some basic memory skills as they chant the rhymes they have learned on their own.
Nursery rhymes foster children’s development in a number of areas including the development of both language and thinking skills. In addition, they help a child to develop socially, physically and emotionally.
Encouraging children to listen and recite nursery rhymes ultimately helps them acquire language. Children learn about the “sounds” of our language from listening to nursery rhymes. They learn how sentences are patterned and they learn how repetition works. They are introduced to the concept of rhymes: both at the end of lines and internal – that is, within the line itself. Children also learn how to begin to discriminate between words that have similar sounds, for example “quick” and “stick” are rhymed in Jack Be Nimble. Listening to and reciting rhymes helps children develop their sense of rhythm. Furthermore, children develop a sense of listening appreciation by hearing adults or older children repeat the rhymes.
Nursery rhymes can also encourage vocabulary development. For example, they often include challenging words, such as Jack be nimble that help children expand their vocabularies painlessly. The sillier, nonsense rhymes, such as Hey Diddle Diddle even encourage a sense of humour. Finally, because nursery rhymes are easily memorized, a child can “pretend” to read while looking at a nursery rhyme book.
Children learn many valuable cognitive skills from nursery rhymes. For example, they learn the basics of counting by repeating the rhyme, One Two, Buckle My Shoe. Solomon Grundy teaches the days of the week. A ‘mini epic’ such as Jack and Jill demonstrates the basics of story development or plot. Since nursery rhymes usually provide children’s first encounters with fictional characters, exposure to nursery rhymes helps to build an understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy.
Social and physical development
Other rhymes encourage social and physical development. For instance, Pat a Cake is based on cooperative play and encourages interaction between a very young child and an adult. Other rhymes such as London Bridge require physical coordination and encourage children to cooperate to act out the story together.
Listening to nursery rhymes also encourages emotional development. Many children will adopt favourite nursery rhymes and ask to hear them over and over again. These rhymes act as a kind of “security blanket” for very young children. Other rhymes provide the opportunity for children to begin to deal with some of their stronger emotions. For example, Little Miss Muffet deals with the very real fear of spiders. (Norton, 236, Russell, 74-77)
Nursery rhymes can provide a basic introduction to the various literary elements found in more complicated literature. Those rhymes that contain stories, for example, Little Miss Muffet have plots that move quickly achieving a resolution in only four lines. Action can vary from the simple fall taken by Jack and Jill to the more complex story line of Who Killed Cock Robin. Characters are also quickly sketched; many of us have a clear mental picture of Old Mother Hubbard, her dog and her bare cupboard. In addition, settings, where included, are brief and to the point: such as the old woman who lived in a shoe. (Lukens, 236)
Origins of the rhymes
Where did the rhymes come from? Russell explains -
Nursery rhymes are derived from a number of sources: war songs, romantic lyrics, proverbs, riddles, political jingles and lampoons, and street cries (the early counterparts of today’s commercials). But one thing that can be said for certain: Few of these rhymes were originally intended for children. (73)Some scholars also believe that some rhymes had their origins in events that really happened. The chart below explains the origins of a number of well known nursery rhymes. You’ll note that many of them contain references to royalty or upper class personages. Many believe that these nursery rhymes provided a safe way to comment on the activities of the upper class when any negative kind of commentary was discouraged.
|Mother Goose Rhyme||Personages||Situations|
|There was an old woman who lived in a shoe||Parliament|
James VI of Scotland / James I of England
|Geographic location of Parliament. England had many people. This disliked monarch was not English, but Parliament told the people to get along as well as they could.|
|Old King Cole was a merry old soul||Third century - King Cole||He was a brave and popular monarch.|
|Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.||Richard III - 1483||The "usurper" when he lay slain upon Bosworth Field.|
|I love sixpence, pretty little sixpence.||Henry VII - 1493|
Charles of France
|Miserliness of Henry resulted in public jest.|
French ruler pacified Henry with 149,000 pounds when Henry signed the treaty of Etaples.
|Little Jack Horner sat in a corner eating his Christmas pie.||Jack Horner, an emissary of the Bishop of Glastonbury.||Jack lived at Horner Hall and was taking twelve deeds to church-owned estates to Henry VIII. The deeds were hidden in a pie. On his way, he pulled out the deed to Mells Park Estate and kept it.|
|Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye.||Henry VIII||Henry's humming over the confiscated revenues from the friars' rich grain fields.|
|Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.||The friars and the monks.||The title deeds to twenty-four estates owned by the church were put into a pie and delivered to Henry VIII.|
|When the pie was opened,|
The birds began to sing:
|The friars and the monks||The monks put their choicest treasures in chests and hid them in a lake.|
|Wasn't that a dainty dish|
To set before a king?
|Henry VIII||Henry picked the deeds he wanted and bestowed others as payments.|
|The King was in the counting house|
Counting out his money
|Henry VIII||Henry was counting his revenues.|
|The Queen was in the pantry|
Eating bread and honey:
|Catherine of Aragon||She was eating the bread of England, spread with Spain's assurances that the King would not divorce her.|
|The maid was in the garden,|
Hanging out the clothes
|Anne Boleyn||Anne had dainty frocks from France and was smiling at the King in the garden of Whitehall Palace.|
Americans and the British differ in the terms they use for nursery rhymes. The British tend to refer to the poetry now enjoyed by very young children as nursery rhymes, while American often refer to them as Mother Goose rhymes.
Was there a real person referred to as Mother Goose? While we will never really know the answer, the tile seems most likely to belong to Bertha, wife of Peopin and mother of Charlemange, the King of the Franks, from 742 -814 A.D. Charlemange also reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 800 to 814 A.D.
Bertha, who was also known as “Queen Goose Foot” or “Goose Footed Bertha” spent most of her days spinning with the children of the count gathered round her, listening to her stories. We don’t know what caused the deformity that lead to her nickname. Some speculate that it could have been gout or possibly a club foot.
Eventually, the French came to call any folk or fairy tale as one told during “the time when Queen Bertha spun.” In 1697 Charles Perrault published Histories ou contres du temps passe avec des moralites in France. Not a collection of nursery rhymes, this book contained Perrault’s retellings of such well known fairy tales as Sleeping Beauty. Perrault recorded the all ready well-known stories for the entertainment of the French count at Versailles. The frontispiece showed a woman telling stories to children by firelight: a plaque on the same page stated “Contes de Ma Mere L’Oye” (Tales of Mother Goose.)
In 1729 Perrault’s book was translated into English and publishead as The Histories, or Tales of Past Times and the plaque was translated as “Mother Goose’s Tales”. John Newberry, the first to publish books specifically for children, printed Mother Goose’s Melody or Sonnets for the Cradle in 1765 in Great Britain. At the time it was published the book was described as “the most celebrated Songs and Lullabies of the Old British Nurses, calculated to amuse Children and excite them to sleep.” (Carpenter and Pritchard, 362-363) A collection of nursery rhymes, this was the first book to associate the name of Mother Goose with nursery rhymes. Popular in Great Britain and North America, the book provided maxims or morals for the rhymes. The moral paired with Jack and Jill was “The more you think of dying, the better you will live.” (Sutherland and Arbuthnot, 67)
But regardless of her origins, Mother Goose has provided, and continues to provides, an opportunity for very young children to experience the joys of language first hand.
Evaluating collections of nursery rhymes
The list in Appendix A of this module shows how widely nursery rhymes vary in their content. They can range from riddles, to songs and tongue twisters, to complete nonsense. Some, such as Ding Dong Bell are completely developed stories. Nursery rhyme characters range from kings and queens to animals, nonsense characters and other children.
When evaluating a nursery rhyme collection consider the actual rhymes themselves, the illustrations, the page layout and the overall format of the book.
Appendix A: Variety in nursery rhymes
This chart demonstrates the wide range of subjects in nursery rhymes. As you scan the list, you’re sure to recognize some rhymes you heard as a child. If you have children, what rhymes do/did you share with them? Does your child (or children) have a favourite, asked for over and over again? Perhaps you can add more examples to the list. Be prepared to talk about the nursery rhymes you remember, or the rhymes your children enjoy.
|Humour/Nonsense||Gregory Giggins |
Hey Diddle Diddle
Higglety Pigglety Pop
|Days of the week||Monday's Child |
|Animals||Robin & the North Wind |
Who Killed Cock Robin
|Riddles||Little Nancy Etticoat |
|Mini epics/stories||Ding Dong Bell |
Little Miss Muffet
|Cumulative/chant||This is the house Jack built |
Old Mother Hubbard
|Songs||Three Blind Mice |
Rock A Bye Baby
Baa Baa Black Sheep
|Tongue twisters||Peter Piper |
|Counting rhymes||One, Two, Buckle My Shoe|
|"True stories"||Ring Around The Rosie |
Sing a Song of Sixpence
A worthwhile collection of nursery rhymes will include the very familiar rhymes. As well, a collection may include rhymes that are new to you. Look for a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Some books include skipping rhymes or other childhood chants. Review the language in the rhymes. It’s best to avoid rhymes with archaic language as they will not be understood by children.
Look for collections of rhymes from other cultures. Virtually every culture has the equivalent of Mother Goose and many of those rhymes have been collected into books. Also, look for interpretations of single rhymes in individual books.
You’ll need to pay particular attention to illustrations when evaluating nursery rhyme books. Artists use a variety of artistic styles to interpret the rhymes and no one single style is more correct than another. Regardless of their artistic style, truly effective illustrations are not just decorative, they extend the rhyme visually. In addition, illustrations should reflect the mood of the rhyme they are illustrating. Generally speaking, younger children need illustrations that are largely realistic. Older children will enjoy elements of fantasy in the illustrations. All children enjoy humour in the illustrations.
Evaluating page layout
Page layout is an important element in the evaluation. Illustrations should be placed close to the rhyme they are illustrating. Too many rhymes and illustrations on a single page are too confusing. The effective use of white space helps avoid the appearance of a cluttered page.
Be sure to consider the following when evaluating a nursery rhyme book:
- Size of the booko Can a child comfortably handle the book?Some large format books may seem overwhelming to the very young, but are fine for one on one sharing.
- Covero Is the art work appealing? Is colour used effectively?
- End paperso Are they decorated?
- Table of contents or an index of first lineso These are essential for looking up rhymes
- Date of publicationo Some older collections may contain rhymes that include sexism or racism
Nursery rhymes are important to a child’s development for a number of reasons. They teach children about the joy of language, about sounds, and about rhymes and rhythms. Listening to and reciting favourite rhymes helps children develop many essential language skills.
Cackle, cackle, Mother Goose,
Have you any feathers loose?
Truly have I, pretty fellow,
Half enough to fill a pillow.
Here are quills, take one or two,
And down to make a bed for you.
Carpenter, Humphrey and Mary Pritchard. The Oxford companion to children’s literature. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Lukens, Rebecca J. A Critical handbook of children’s literature. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1995.
Norton, Donna E. Through the eyes of a child. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill, 1995.
Russell, David L. Literature for children: a short introduction. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Longman, 1994.
Sutherland, Zena and May Hill Arbuthnot. Children and books. 7th ed. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman and Company, 1986.