Six years had passed since my children, their wives, and their children had last met at the beach, and things, I soon discovered, had changed.
Children who once dived in the ocean or dug for sand fleas at the edge of the tide were now teenagers who spent much of their time watching big-screen TV, taking quiet walks on the beach and to consult each other in quiet conversations. with a sudden laugh. They walked rather than ran to meals and treats and, when not wearing bathing suits, dressed like it mattered, especially the girls.
They were replaced by a team of siblings ranging in age from a toddler to a 10-year-old. This gang spent half the day in the surf, scoured the sand for hours for shark teeth, and ran wherever they went. When I served my traditional ice cream lunch – and yes, most of the toppings were healthy fruit, nuts and granola – the rising sophomore who had finished her last serving stepped onto the deck , raised his fists clenched like a triumphant boxer, and roared, “This is the most perfect day ever!”
The more I looked at them, the more these younger people fascinated me. They would be engrossed in an object – a bucket full of seawater, a dead crab, a puzzle – which would have bored the teenagers in the blink of an eye. The game was really serious learning; you could almost see the wheels turning in their heads.
Which leads me, in the most roundabout way possible, to consider nursery rhymes as one of those learning and playing toys.
A brief history of rhymes
Ding, dong, bell,
Pussy is in the well.
Who put it?
Little Johnny Flynn.
Who took it out?
Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was he,
To try to drown poor Pussycat,
Who never hurt her,
But killed all the mice
In the farmer’s barn.
This rhyme dates from 1580, the earliest recorded in English. In an earlier version, the cat dies and the “ding dong” comes at the end as a kind of church bell dirge.
Many other such poems for small children are almost as old. ‘To Market, To Market’, ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ and ‘Jack Sprat’ are just some of the verses for children printed between the 17th and early 19th centuries.
In Victorian times, sometimes called golden age of children’s literature, authors like George MacDonald and Beatrix Potter were producing stories for young readers. Among these were poets who composed nursery rhymes and songs for toddlers. In her “Rhymes for the Nursery”, published in 1806 and written in collaboration with her sister, Anne, the British writer Jane Taylor presented “twinkle, twinkle little star.” Although there is some controversy over the identity of the original author of “Mary had a little lambSarah Hale, also known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving” for promoting the holiday, first published this article in her “Poems for Our Children.” This poem became so famous that Henry Ford preserved the school visited by Mary’s lamb, and Thomas Edison used the verse for the first audio recording on his newly invented phonograph.
words in play
As we can see, many of these nursery rhymes are ancient and many focus on rural imagery – sheep, barn cats, farm chores – so what’s the point of teaching them to children today? Few of us plow a field or draw water from a well. Where is the relevance?
Besides the fact that most 3-year-olds don’t care about relevance, there are other reasons to teach them these poems.
Tradition. Not only do these Mother Goose rhymes go back in time, but chances are grandparents, other family members, and friends will know them too; nursery rhymes are a bridge between generations. Grandma remembers how to play “Pat-a-Cake”, and Uncle Charlie will love teaching her nephew “Purple Cow”.
Literature. What are these nursery rhymes if not an introduction to poetry and storytelling? The youngster who learns “Little Boy Blue” and “Three Blind Mice” is ready to hear or memorize Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing” and “Who Has Seen the Wind?” by Christina Rossetti. As they add to their repertoire of words, they’re ready to tackle “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White,” then move on to “The Jungle Book,” “Little Women,” and ” Where the Sidewalk Ends”. They build a library inside themselves, and the cornerstones are nursery rhymes and fairy tales.
Language. What better way to introduce the words, sounds and rhythms of the English language than through Mother Goose rhymes? Beat, meter, unusual words, and more are the heart and soul of these gifts for young people. Here, for example, is one of the shortest of these poems:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty took a big fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Can’t put Humpty back together.
Preschoolers wouldn’t care if this verse could refer to the death of King Richard III, and they probably won’t wonder why poor Humpty is depicted as an egg in a long-practised art convention. But what they’ll love is that wonderful name, Humpty Dumpty, and the magic built into the rhythm of the lines.
The best reason to share Mother Goose
Joy. Nursery rhymes provide pure fun and enjoyment for parents and child.
Among the 1949 edition of the “Childcraft” book set on my shelves is volume twelve: “Guide Index.” Here, the authors wrote words so long ago that remain true today, over 70 years later: childhood.
What is doubly wonderful in these readings and recitations is that the feeling is mutual. Adults – parents, grandparents, even teenage siblings – will revel in the trot and canter of poetry and the smiles of their enchanted audience.
Want to add more sugar and spice to your nursery rhyme moment? Just Google “Rhyme Videos” or “Nursery Rhymes Activitiesand start exploring. You’ll even find sites with great tips for hosting nursery rhyme parties. Want to share a book instead of a screen with your little one? Head to your local library or bookstore, and you should find an abundance of choices. Here in my town library, for example, are dozens of nursery rhyme books, ranging from “Mary Engelbreit’s Mother Goose” to “Read to Your Baby Every Day: 30 Classic Nursery Rhymes to Read Aloud.” And don’t worry about repetitions. Most children love to hear their favorite poems or stories over and over again.
So this is it. Send that “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” into the waterspout every day, or read about the dish that runs away with the spoon, and you’ve got the kids having fun and on the right path to learning.
And it’s a twofer you can’t beat.