Learning and Development

Learning with Nursery Rhymes

Brenda Williams suggests exciting ways to support literacy with traditional children’s verse…

From their earliest stages, babies respond to music and rhythm. They can be comforted by the beat of their mother’s heart and rhymes that include touch, such as ‘This Little Piggy’, delight and engage their senses. As they grow older, children’s innate pleasure in the rhythm, rhyme and repetition of poetry is an essential influence in developing imagery and imagination, but equally, these factors also form the foundations to understanding patterns in language, mathematics and music.

In this article I’ll demonstrate how, by passing on traditional nursery rhymes to children and engaging them in a wide range of other early years poetry, we can both support their developing literacy skills and foster a life-long fascination with music and the power of words.

The Land of Nursery Rhymes

Introduce your children to a new topic: the ‘Land of Nursery Rhymes’. You may want to transform your whole setting into a make-believe land, or section off one part of it; either way, remember to inform parents and carers and encourage them to support you through reading nursery rhymes at home, lending books, and providing dressing-up clothes and artefacts.

Within this land you can offer children a host of opportunities to explore popular rhymes and practise their literacy skills. Try setting up some (or all!) of the following:

● reading/storytelling area with illustrated. books of nursery rhymes.

● display area for related artwork, illustrations and photographs of children dressed as characters, with captions written by the children.

● listening area with recordings of nursery rhymes.

● ‘magic carpet’ for children to explore and develop their own narratives verbally, by extending rhymes into stories.

● message board to show the importance of written communication. Include notices and letters written or dictated by children from one character to another. Use a variety of scripts, some hand-written and others printed.

● mark-making and/or writing table. Provide folded, zigzag paper for children to draw storyboard versions of rhymes, which they can later ‘read’ to the group.

● role-play area to develop conversational skills, containing dressing up clothes; a picnic basket and blanket; a café where characters can meet; and a mock-up of an outdoor picnic place.

● cookery area for supervised making of cakes and tarts. Maintain a dialogue with children about ingredients, method and taste; encourage them to respond with relevant questions or suggestions.

● beat and rhythm area with sticks, drums and other percussion instruments to encourage children to first listen to the rhythm and beat of a rhyme, and then accompany a reading of it with a background beat.

Finally, don’t forget your outside area – why not help the children to imagine, debate, exchange ideas and create homes for the characters in rhymes using large building equipment? Take photographs of each stage of the construction and display these indoors for children to recap on the sequencing of their project. Place children’s pictures and stories about the character the home was designed for alongside them.

Poetry, please!

Magical Times in Nursery Rhymes
When the moon was shining bright as day
Humpty Dumpty
Came out to play.

From inside his castle, stole old King Cole
Laughing and joking,
A merry old soul.

Along the road they met a pie man
Selling cakes and pies
To Simple Simon.

‘Come to our party!’ cried Jack and Jill
We’ve a picnic basket
Here on the hill!

‘Can I come too?’ said the Queen of Hearts
‘I’ve brought you a tray
Of strawberry tarts.’

The Duke of York, brought all his men
Who marched up the hill
And down again.

Under the stars they laughed and sang
And danced together
Hand in hand.

But it wasn’t long, in fact quite soon
They saw a cow
Jump over the moon!

And so they shared such magical times
Playing together
In nursery rhymes.

© Brenda Williams

Use the nonsense poem above to extend children’s knowledge of traditional rhymes. Plan to engage them in a make-believe environment, where they can role play characters, imagine scenarios, create conversations and become immersed in the fictional world of rhymes.

● Read just the first verse of the poem. Stop to check their comprehension. Are they puzzled? Attentive? Surprised? What is their initial reaction? Ask, “Has anyone heard of Humpty Dumpty before?” Can they recite the original rhyme? If not, read it to them now.

● Explain that, in this new rhyme, Humpty Dumpty is now mended and having fun in a pretend land where other nursery rhyme people live. Should children ask, “How was he mended?” ask for their suggestions and scaffold a discussion.

● Re-read this verse, inviting children to role play Humpty Dumpty, first by inventing actions and then by telling the group what Humpty is doing. For example, younger children might describe this as skipping, jumping, rolling, smiling. Older children could make up descriptive sentences such as, “He is walking to the shops”, “He is rolling down a hill”, etc.

● Gradually introduce the remaining verses in the poem in the same way.

Building characters:

Where a character in this poem is unfamiliar, read the original rhyme to children and encourage them to find pictures illustrating the character in books in the reading corner. You can help children to understand the concept of the word ‘character’ by bringing each one to life as a real person. For example, encourage them to imagine and discuss each character’s home, family, likes and dislikes. Strengthen their understanding of characters further by exploring characters in rhyming books, such as The Gruffalo.

Linking characters to activities

Humpty Dumpty

● Enjoying rhyme: Show children a picture of Humpty Dumpty and recite the rhyme together.

● Interpretation and response: Assist each child in making a Humpty Dumpty model using a large white cardboard egg shape for his body, and gluing on concertina-folded narrow strips of sugar paper as arms and legs. Ask them to draw a belt across his middle, with details of his face above.

● Speaking: Encourage children to show and talk about their model to others. Writing: Involve children in writing captions to display with their work in their make-believe land.

Old King Cole

● Speaking: Ask children to role play the characters of the original rhyme, inventing conversations between the fiddlers three and Old King Cole.

Simple Simon

● Listening and paying attention: Emphasise the alliteration and sound of the initial letters of words beginning with S or P in the original rhyme. Divide children into two groups, one to represent Simon and the other the pie-man. Combine the two games of ‘Simon Says’ and ‘I Spy’ by asking one child from the ‘Simon’ group to say Simon says ‘I spy something beginning with s (or p)’. Anyone from the pieman group can answer this.

Jack and Jill

● Speculation: Ask children to think what Jack and Jill might have had in their basket for their picnic.

Queen of Hearts

● Sequencing: Ask children to role play the traditional rhyme before involving them in creating a storyboard which sequences the events in the correct order.

The Duke of York

● Developing vocabulary: Can children find action words which could be used instead of marched? For example, ‘He walked, ran, or chased his men to the top of the hill.’ Creating rhythm: Use the ‘beat and rhythm’ area to create different drum beats suitable for each action word.

Understanding rhymes

Gradually introduce and familiarise children with other traditional nursery rhymes before discussing their favourites.

Explain: The original meanings of some traditional rhymes are sometimes so unpleasant that they are best left unexplained to young children, leaving them to enjoy the rhymes and characters at a superficial level; however, some contain words which may need explanation for children to understand and create visual images. For example, a ‘pail’ (or bucket) of water in Jack and Jill, or Miss Muffet’s ‘tuffet’ – a small rise in the ground or a low seat.

Predict: Help children to predict what might happen if they added an extra verse to a rhyme. Can they, for example, suggest what Old Mother Hubbard might do next, when she finds she has no bone for the dog? What would they do?

Speculate: Involve children in playing ‘What if…?’ games to encourage them to speculate and predict alternative consequences:

● What if… Miss Muffet had not run away but had made friends with the spider? What if Humpty Dumpty had not fallen off the wall?

● What if… Jack and Jill had used a tap for water, in the kitchen? You can help younger or less confident children by offering sentence starters:

● ‘I think that…’

● ‘Miss Muffet and the spider might have…’

● ‘If Humpty had not fallen off the wall, he would…’

Older children could speculate on the cause of some happenings:

● Why did the cow jump over the moon?

● Why did Mary’s little lamb follow her to school?

Playing with rhyming strings
Draw attention to rhyming words within the rhymes children hear. The well-known rhyme ‘Pat a Cake, Pat a Cake, Baker’s Man’ is an easy one to start with. Let children verbally play with the words pat, cake and man to create rhyming strings such as mat/cat/rat, make/take/bake and ran/van/can. Include nonsense words if they rhyme.

Types of poem

Most nursery rhymes tell a story, so try to involve children in developing their own narratives from their favourite rhyme. Explain that a story needs a beginning, middle and end. Some might like to begin with ‘Once upon a time…’ Encourage them to improvise, and add embellishments to their story if they wish.

● ‘Magical Times in Nursery Rhymes’ is a narrative poem, but it is also written in the style of a list poem. Together, create a list from it, writing the name of each character, one below the other.

● Follow the same pattern to create a non-rhyming ‘recipe’ list poem called ‘The Perfect Picnic’, gathering together all the ‘ingredients’ children decide are needed. For example, sandwiches: fruit juice: strawberries: sunshine: picnic rug: best friend.

Jack and Jill’s picnic

● Set a date for a nursery rhyme picnic. Read rhymes which include food, such as Five currant buns: Five fat sausages: Hot Cross Buns: and Hicketty Picketty My Black Hen.  Make some of these items, or ask parents to supply them.

● On the day, invite children to dress as their favourite character. Play the game of ‘Who am I?’ Inviting the group to ask questions to help them decide who the character is.

Brenda Williams is a children’s author, poet, and educational writer. She is an early years specialist and former teacher. Her books include Lin Yi’s Lantern, The Real Princess, and Home for a Tiger, Home for a Bear, published by Barefoot Books, and Fun With Action Rhymes and Poems by Brilliant Publications.