When we think back to our earliest memories of songs and stories, often what comes to mind is a nursery rhyme. Parents turn to these classic rhymes to soothe a little one; many moms and dads can describe singing a nursery rhyme while rocking a baby to sleep, for example. Teachers of young children often incorporate nursery rhymes into their curriculum because of their effectiveness at entertaining and engaging children. Nursery rhymes have educational value beyond these general benefits, too. These classic works can help build literacy skills in children, and they offer an opportunity for interactions that appeal to different age groups and generations.
Literacy skill builders
Even before children can speak, they need consistent exposure to communication in order to begin to understand how language works. A key part of the process is the acquisition of vocabulary. Nursery rhymes offer brief, easily-repeated exposure to a wide variety of words that will be new to young children. Consider "Mary Had a Little Lamb," for example. A toddler might be able to recognize a picture of a lamb but might still be learning colors, and "fleece" is almost sure to be a new concept. Parents and teachers can revisit a nursery rhyme after reading or singing it to introduce these new terms.
Nursery rhymes are a great way to introduce children to literacy concepts because they are fun to say and, perhaps more importantly, fun to repeat. According to Michael Sizer of pbs.com, this sort of repetition can enhance children's memory skills. Finally, at a basic level, reading nursery rhymes can give children early exposure to books and, hopefully, contribute to an interest in reading.
Opportunities for interaction
Of course, nursery rhymes can be presented to babies and children as songs, too. In an article for The Guardian, Amelia Hill notes that hearing songs exposes babies to the particular inflections of language, preparing them to learn more later. Babies tend to respond especially when the song is sung by a parent. So, in addition to calming a fussy baby, those late-night lullabies may be paving the way for the development of communication skills and providing a unique bonding opportunity for Mom or Dad.
For toddlers and preschoolers, singing nursery rhymes offers a chance to do some dancing, too. In addition to enhancing coordination, moving to the beat of nursery rhymes provides the side benefit of physical activity, helping young kids spend some of their abundant supply of energy. The brief nature of nursery rhymes helps here, too: Kids can stay focused through a few quick rounds of "Ring Around the Rosie," for example.
Nursery rhymes offer one more benefit for babies and young kids: Their historic nature makes them a long-standing form of entertainment. Many of these tales originated centuries ago in response to political or cultural events. Kids are unlikely to understand these meanings, and that's probably a good thing since many nursery rhymes are about dark topics like illness and moral issues!
However, many generations of children have heard these same tales. They offer a special bonding opportunity within families: Parents can recite the same rhymes they heard from their parents and discuss those family memories. A classic form of entertainment, nursery rhymes also offer a break from technological influences that are so prevalent today. And, who knows, nursery rhymes may even spark an interest in history for some kids!