Learning and Development

Rhyming games for Early Years – Why they matter and ideas to try

  • Rhyming games for Early Years – Why they matter and ideas to try

Learning rhymes and playing rhyming games in Early Years ticks many developmental boxes. It also helps children to build confidence and be curious about the world, explains poet Jane Newberry…

Repetition in nursery rhymes and play rhymes helps memory and language development in young children. This is especially important in multicultural schools where children are frequently bilingual and still experimenting with language. Rhymes are an essential part of a multi-sensory teaching approach.

A lot of poetry is about sound. It links closely with music and helps children learn and build a sense of rhythm.

Rhyming games for Early Years

As an author, I know countless rhymes by heart. After all, I’ve been doing it for what seems a lifetime.

However, as an Early Years practitioner it really is worth learning some rhymes off by heart. Whack them on your phone and play them on your commute. Practise in the bathroom mirror. You cannot appraise children’s responses if you are reading the text, so:

  • choose short rhymes with lots of repetition
  • overact and demo the actions with gusto to make it fun
  • encourage TAs and other adults to join in
  • when practising for an assembly, set up teddies and toys to ‘watch’, so children know what an audience is

When your class is confident with a rhyme they will start to do their own variations (some very nonsensical or rude!). It’s important to acknowledge these imaginative contributions and test to see if they ‘work’.

In any rhyme about shopping, cooking or food you can always ask children for variants on what they might like to include.

Rhymes with actions

Rhymes with accompanying actions and bold pictures teach gross motor control. These are essential for the mastery of fine motor control that children need to coordinate brain/fingers to form letters and construct models.

Copying animal movements or jumping in a controlled way are useful skills and important developmental stepping stones.

In nursery settings, rhymes with a hiding/peek-a-boo element will sustain the concentration of young children with naturally short attention spans. Start with Incey Wincey Spider and Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.

Jingle ring resource

One surefire way to draw even the least willing child into circle time is a ‘jingle ring’. This is a simple length of marine rope with bells and ribbons tied on at approximately 30cm intervals. Allow 30-40 cm per child.

Tie the ends together and empty this magical rope from a pillowcase onto the floor. Without any instruction, curious children will grasp their ‘bit’ and back off to form a circle.

Then you can sing anything you fancy or make something up until everyone is shaking the rope.

To pack up, ask the children what happens when they drop the rope, then bundle it away and start your next activity.

Cross-curricular rhyming games

There are loads of cross-curricular benefits to playing rhyming games in Early Years. Poetry can cross into music, PE, art and PSHE.

To offer children a wide range of opportunity, look back as well as forward. Many older books – AA Milne, Beatrix Potter and Edward Lear, for example – have delightful rhymes. They’re funny, nonsensical and perfectly rhythmic, which children love.

Three Little Fisherman

I’ve used the following play rhyme for years. It demonstrates almost everything I’ve been talking about here. It’s low-maintenance and needs few resources.

Three (two) little fishermen jumped in a boat

Out on the salty sea.

Along came a wave and WHOOSHED one out.

How many men can you see, see, see?

How many men can you see?


One little fisherman jumped in a boat

Out on the salty sea.

Along came a wave and WHOOSHED him out.

How many men can you see, see, see?

How many men can you see?


Three little fishermen swimming all about

Out on the salty sea.

Along came the lifeboat, PICKED them up.

Home for a nice hot tea, tea, tea.

Home for a nice hot tea.

How to use this rhyme

Sit children on your lap and lift them up high each time the word ‘whoosh’ comes along. Alternatively, act out the rhyme using a boat and small figures/toys. The lid of an egg box makes a fine boat. Hide a fisherman each time a wave whooshes. Bring them back at the end when your boat becomes a lifeboat.

Read and learn the rhyme yourself. Recite the rhyme to your class, jumping up for the whoosh of the waves.

Let the children join in, copying you and repeating. Show children videos or images of wild seas and lifeboats.

In the next session, act out the rhyme using a blue sheet, toy boats and sharks/fishes/play people. Make a long wild sea picture on a roll of paper. Add boats, fish and collage textures.

Extending the activity

Extend the topic by talking about the fishing industry. Use other rhymes such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Once I Caught a Fish Alive. Study rescue services such as lifeboats, coastguard and helicopters.

On a warm day use water trays outdoors to make waves. Finally, perform the piece in groups, taking one verse each.

More Early Years rhyming resources

My poetry collection, Big Green Crocodile, was shortlisted for the CLiPPA Award in 2021. Find time-saving teaching sequences for it on the CLPE website.

Its sequel, Big Red Dragon: Play-Rhymes Through the Year, is published in August 2024.

Jane Newberry spent over twenty years sharing music and rhyme with parents and toddlers while bringing up her four children. She has published two songbooks: A Sackful of Songs and A Sackful of Christmas (Cramer Music).