Research (and our gut instinct) tells us that music is an essential part of children’s lives, but what kind of music? Where do we start?

Nursery rhymes.

Nursery rhymes have been around for generations. They are passed down orally, from caregiver to child, and down further to the child’s children and grandchildren. They become a part of us from such a young age that they live within us our whole lives. I love it when new parents come to my classes and we sing a nursery rhyme they haven’t heard for thirty years, and it takes them back to being cradled in their own parents’ arms. Nursery rhymes naturally connect caregivers and children throughout generations, but there’s actually a whole lot more to them than oral tradition.

There are many ways in which singing and saying nursery rhymes with your children can help them to learn and grow, and one of these wonderful by-products of engagement with nursery rhymes is enhanced language development.

Nursery rhymes are ordered, sequenced, repetitive and predictable. Through exposure to nursery rhymes, children naturally learn how to put vowels, consonants, words and sentences together. And have you ever sung a nursery rhyme with your child and had them NOT ask for it again (and again, and again)? Children thrive on repetition and predictability, and find nursery rhymes engaging particularly when they are repeated several (hundred) times. This repetition leads to retention, and lines from nursery rhymes therefore often end up being a child’s first fully structured sentence.

When children do start to recite nursery rhymes by themselves, they are practicing so many things, including pitch, volume, inflection and rhythm of language. Nursery rhymes allow this precise practice because they can be said or sung at a slower pace than conversational speech. For example, recite “Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear” as you would when playing with a child, then try to say, “Hello, how are you?” at the same pace. It just doesn’t work! Children are developing their language skills when they slowly perform a nursery rhyme again and again – which is made possible by the short simplicity of the rhymes.

Another interesting thing about nursery rhymes is that they expose children to new words that they might not hear in everyday language – “merrily” in Row Your Boat, “master” and “dame” in Baa Baa Black Sheep and “fetch a pail of water” in Jack and Jill to name just a few. Because these unfamiliar words are placed in a simple context and generally surrounded by familiar words, children are able to extrapolate their meaning with surprising accuracy.

We use lots of nursery rhymes in our music programs for early education and childcare services, and we encourage educators and families to do the same. If you’re looking for song and rhyme ideas, our YouTube channel is a great place to start.