Why nursery rhymes are magic when it comes to helping children to learn

Traditional English nursery rhymes and songs, have played a role in early childhood for a long time.  From the medieval Baa Black Sheep” to today’s The Wheels on the Bus,” the lives of young children have been enriched with verses and songs orally passed down through generations. 

These rhymes can support all aspects of child development, in this blog we will examine some of the ways they help children to develop their social and emotional awareness. 


Building relationships and a sense of family history 

Many of us have happy memories of sharing a favourite rhyme with a special person, the associated feelings of connection and attachment stay with us for years to come. We often, in turn, pass on our own particular favourites to our children.  

Perhaps there are memories of Grandma tracing our palm as she sang, ‘Round and round the garden like a teddy bear,’ as we excitedly anticipated her ‘one step, two step…tickly under there!  Or perhaps, it was the night time tradition of being soothed and sung to sleep with a familiar rhyme.    

Learning a rhyme that has been passed through the family from generation to generation in this way, helps to connect children to their own history.



Shared attention 

Children can be soothed and relaxed by the person they love being close by and singing them a nursery rhyme. Songs such as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ and ‘Rock-a-bye baby’ are sung in a lower tone and when reinforced by a hug or a rock help to relax the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to elevate stress and calm.  This bond can be increased through physical touch, as you snuggle up during a lullaby or interact during clapping rhymes or tickle songs 

As babies’ brains are formed to imitate behaviours they are motivated to learn the patterns and conventions of the rhymes.  As they join in with the words, intonation and gestures they participate in ‘joint attention’ with you, sharing mutual anticipation and delight. This joint attention elicits attachment behaviours such as increased eye contact and touch. 

The following rhyme is a good example; 

Two little eyes to look around. 

Two little ears to hear each sound. 

One little nose to smell what’s sweet. 

One little mouth that loves to eat! 

You might hold our baby so that you are face to face, and lightly touch corresponding body parts as you say the words. Or alternatively, lay your baby on their back and give them a gentle face massage. This positive touch and eye contact can foster overall brain development.  

As your child grows, the possibility for shared attention widens to include sharing rhymes with people outside their families, such a friends at nursery or school. For example, children might participate in circle rhymes with others. This interaction, supports their increasing capacity to understand others’ thoughts and feelings, supporting them with a structured way to play and interact with their peers co-operatively. 

A familiar circle rhyme might be; 

Ring-a ring of roses , 

A pocket full of posies. 

A tissue, a tissue 

We all fall down! 

Children might enjoy holding hands and walking in a circle and then falling down together for the last line. Anyone who has tried this know it involves children learning to interact together to ensure all goes smoothly and everyone walks in the same direction and falls down at the same time!  Also, there are some children who might not enjoy holding hands and prefer to watch. The “We all fall down,” is often the favourite bit and the anticipation of waiting can sometimes become too much! 



Calming and regulating emotions 

Rhymes can also play an important role in helping to soothe and calm your baby if they are upset (and also can help adults to calm down too!).  One familiar type of rhyme often used for this purpose is the lullaby. 

The word lullaby is believed to come from the Middle English lullen, "to lull or soothe," and bye, as in "bye bye.” So, perhaps traditionally soothing the baby ready for the parent to say goodnight. 

A familiar lullaby; 

Twinkle twinkle little star, 

How I wonder what you are. 

Up above the world so high, 

Like a diamond in the sky. 

Twinkle, twinkle little star, 

How I wonder what you are 

You might rock your baby as you sing, letting your warmth and closeness provide physical reassurance, offering actions which link to the words. 



Exploring a range of emotions 

We know that the emotional development of babies begins long before they fully understand and articulate their feelings, although they might give us clues to help us understand how they are feeling through their early vocalisations, facial expressions, and movements. Toddlers emotions begin to be more nuanced, and they are often driven by their feelings. Rhymes are a supportive way to help children understand their range of feelings and begin to express their feelings in words. 

For example; 

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. 

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. 

If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it, 

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. 

You might enjoy exploring a range of emotions through adding different verses to the rhyme and exaggerating your facial expressions and gestures, to help your child connect the emotional label with body language. For example, stomping your feet and frowning to link with, ‘If you’re angry and you know it…’  

Sometimes feelings and actions could be linked to the current mood, for example, if your child is feeling anxious and does not want to go into a new place, sing, If you’re nervous and you know it, hold my hand.” 

Some nursery rhymes explore feelings and emotions with children through the storyline of the rhyme, such as ‘Jack and Jill’ and ‘Humpty Dumpty’. Talking to children about how they think the characters might be feeling, may help them to recognise similar feelings in themselves. You could ask your child questions about feelings after singing together, for example, ‘How do you think mummy duck felt when all her ducklings went missing?’.  Humour is also often developed through the stories and characters found in nursery rhymes.  



Repetition and Routine 

Children will often join in with the rhymes and want to repeat them over and over again,  gaining comfort in replaying the familiar sequence, The predictable nature of the rhymes and actions can fulfil your child’s need for stability, reinforcement and connection. 

The repetition of these favourites can provide continuity by marking familiar routines of the day such as bath times, bedtimes, or a car journey.   Rhymes might also support your child during times of transition. When they hear the same rhyme in different places it can form a connection. For example, if you sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’,  regularly at home and then your child hears it sung at nursery, they may feel comforted whilst away from you.  

We have more blogs coming soon that will explore the other areas of learning that Nursery Rhymes can promote!