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More Than Words: Using Nursery Rhymes and Songs to Support Domains of Child Development

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div class="page" title="Page 1"> During her 20 years of work experience using traditional nursery rhymes (including songs) across a variety of early childhood education programs, the author has come to realize their versatility in supporting multiple domains of child development. She contextualizes specific rhymes within domains defined by the Early Development Instrument: physical health and well-being, language and cognitive development, communication skills and general knowledge, social competence, and emotional maturity. By discussing how rhymes can be practised effectively with children of different ages, she aims to highlight the developmental benefits of using them with children and to further promote their use among caregivers and practitioners. </div
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Ginger Mullen has been delivering oral rhyme and storytelling programs for young children and their families for more than twenty
years in libraries, schools, preschools, daycares, and community organizations. She leads professional development workshops
independently and for the Parent-Child Mother Goose Program™. She holds a master of arts in children’s literature from UBC,
which has led to various teaching positions at UBC, Mount Royal University, and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Email:
ginger.mullen@shaw.ca
More Than Words: Using Nursery Rhymes and Songs to Support Domains of
Child Development
Ginger Mullen
Coming to Research
Traditional English nursery rhymes and songs, also known
as Mother Goose rhymes, have long played a role in early
childhood. From the medieval “Baa Black Sheep” to today’s
“The Wheels on the Bus,” the lives of young children have been
enriched with a wealth of verse and song orally passed down
through generations.
My experiences with nursery rhymes are both academic and
professional. I integrate them into my teaching practices at
the postsecondary level. I have also delivered oral rhyme and
storytelling programs for 20 years. My work in the eld of
early childhood education began at Vancouver Public Library,
where I led storytimes for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and
their families. These storytimes usually included interactive
rhymes as movement breaks. It was only when I started to
facilitate programs with my mentor, Jane Cobb, that I began
to understand the developmental benets of “language play,”
which refers to the oral tradition of stories and nursery rhymes,
including songs, enjoyed between an adult and a child or group
of children (Cobb, 2007). Language play forms the bedrock
of the nationally recognized Parent-Child Mother Goose Program™ (n.d.) that brings together parents, caregivers, and children to
orally, and repeatedly, share nursery rhymes and stories. I am now a certied PCMG-P teacher-trainer, and I continue this type of work
with community organizations in Calgary, Alberta, such as Lead Foundation and Families Matter, where I am fortunate to share my
knowledge with parents, children, early childhood educators, and colleagues, including teachers, classroom aides, and therapists. This
knowledge concerns the words and cadences/tunes of the rhymes and songs, as well as ways that language play can be used to engage
children in various contexts.
Throughout the years that I have been leading various programs, I have used and adapted rhymes for different age groups to mitigate
challenging situations, create emotional bonds, and promote children’s early language development. I am passionate about sharing
my knowledge and experience with the professional and academic communities in the eld of early childhood education. I hope that
this article encourages caregivers and practitioners to effectively use rhymes to promote multiple areas of child development,1 such as
motor skills and social skills.
Research
According to the EDI website, the Early Development Instrument is a kindergarten teacher questionnaire developed in 2000 by Dr.
Dan Offord and Dr. Magdelana Janus at McMaster University that measures “children’s ability to meet age-appropriate developmental
expectations in ve general domains” (Early Development Instrument, 2016b, para. 1). While the EDI assesses children in the
During her 20 years of work experience using traditional
nursery rhymes (including songs) across a variety of early
childhood education programs, the author has come to realize
their versatility in supporting multiple domains of child
development. She contextualizes specic rhymes within
domains dened by the Early Development Instrument:
physical health and well-being, language and cognitive
development, communication skills and general knowledge,
social competence, and emotional maturity. By discussing
how rhymes can be practised effectively with children of
different ages, she aims to highlight the developmental
benets of using them with children and to further promote
their use among caregivers and practitioners.
Keywords: child development; Early Development
Instrument; nursery rhymes and songs; caregivers and
practitioners
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second half of kindergarten, when they are between ve and six years, the domains are relevant during the years leading up to this
time. The EDI is used and discussed in this paper because it has been widely implemented across Canada, except for Nunavut, and
the data are considered valid and reliable by educators, researchers, and administrators (Early Development Instrument, 2016b).
The EDI categorizes childhood development into ve areas: physical health and well-being, language and cognitive development,
communication skills and general knowledge, social competence, and emotional maturity. These domains are further divided into 26
subdomains (see Table 1).
Table 1: Early Development Instrument Domains and Subdomains
EDI Domain Subdomains
Physical Health and Well-Being •Fine and gross motor skills
•Adequate energy for classroom activities
•Independence in looking after own needs
•Daily living skills
Language and Cognitive Development •Reading awareness
•Age-appropriate reading and writing skills
•Age-appropriate numeracy skills
•Ability to understand similarities and differences
•Ability to recite back specic pieces of
information from memory
Communication and General Knowledge •Skills to communicate needs and wants in
socially appropriate ways
•Symbolic use of language
•Storytelling
•Age-appropriate knowledge about life and the
world around
Social Competence •Curiosity about the world
•Eagerness to try new experiences
•Knowledge of standards of acceptable public
behaviour
•Ability to control own behaviour
•Appropriate respect for adult authority
•Cooperation with others
•Following rules
•Ability to play and work with other children
Emotional Maturity •Ability to think before acting
•A balance between too fearful and too impulsive
•An ability to deal with feelings at an age-
appropriate level
•Empathetic response to other people’s feelings
In Alberta, Canada, the most recent EDI data published by the Early Development Mapping Project Alberta (2014) reveals that only
46.4 percent of kindergarten children show appropriate development in all ve domains. This troubling statistic underscores that
parents and caregivers would benet from support to further help their children thrive, such as relevant information and programs.
Research also shows that children learn well in environments “rich in language, joy, and playfulness” (Makovichuk, Hewes, Lirette, &
Thomas, 2014, p. 105). Nursery rhymes and songs can provide this environment as they have long existed as an interactive childhood
experience. Therefore, I argue that language play can easily serve as an effective medium to foster children’s development in the ve
domains discussed in the EDI.
In this paper, I focus on selected subdomains: ne and gross motor skills in physical health and well-being, age-appropriate reading
and numeracy skills in language and cognitive development, storytelling and age-appropriate knowledge in communication and
general knowledge, the ability to play/cooperate with others and follow rules in social competence, and the ability to deal with feelings
at an age-appropriate level and empathetically respond to other people’s feelings in emotional maturity. First, I provide information
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about how typically developing children learn the skill outlined in the each of the subdomains and why it is important, using the terms
baby (birth to walking), toddler (walking to age 3), and preschooler (ages 3 to 5). I then offer a nursery rhyme that can be used to
foster that skill. Although these rhymes belong to the oral tradition, I provide useful sources with additional information. Finally, in
italics, I include suggestions to help readers—parents, caregivers, teachers, practitioners, therapists—visualize how to make effective
and interactive uses of each rhyme with an individual child or group of children.
Physical health and well-being
According to the EDI, this category’s subdomains include “ne and gross motor skills, adequate energy levels for classroom activities,
independence in looking after own needs, and daily living skills” (Early Development Instrument, 2016a, “Domains and Subdomains,”
para. 1). Motor skills serve as an obvious point of entry into the relationship between nursery rhymes and child development because
we can experientially gauge children’s acquisition of these abilities. We clearly observe when they begin to sit, crawl, walk, and run.
We delight when they begin to point at objects, transfer objects from one hand to another, or colour with a crayon.
Gross motor skills refer to abilities required to control the large muscles of the body: sitting, rolling, crawling, walking, and running.
Action-oriented language play can support children’s development as they progress through different stages. During the reexive
stage, roughly birth to six months, children rely on their involuntary responses to stimuli, such as sucking and grasping (Frost,
Wortham, & Riefel, 2008). They cannot yet move with intention, but we can help their bodies learn and practise movements that
they will soon perform by themselves. For example, babies begin to roll over from back to front on their own between three and ve
months of age (Robinson, 2007), but we can use the following rhyme with them as soon as they are born:
Leg over leg,
The dog went to Dover.
When he came to a style,
Whoops! He went over. (Cobb, 2007, p .159)
For this rhyme, lay your baby on her back. Grab her legs and march them to the beat. At “Whoops!” cross one leg
over the other and gently turn her onto her stomach. Then repeat the rhyme to help her roll back. This rhyme is also
fun to use during a diaper change.
The rudimentary stage of gross motor development, about six months to two years, sees children begin to intentionally control their
movement. They learn to independently sit, reach, crawl, stand, and walk (Frost et al., 2008). Crawling is an important yet often
underrecognized movement that begins when children are between seven and eight-and-a-half months (Robinson, 2007). Many people
consider crawling simply as the precursor to walking, but it indeed serves several critical functions. For example, through this activity,
children strengthen several muscle groups (abdomen, shoulders, hips) that aid movement and stability. This provides them with
strong wrists and sensory input to their hands that will also benet their ne motor skills. Their cross-lateral movement (right knee
with left hand, vice versa) builds and reinforces neural pathways between the two hemispheres of the brain. And, they hone binocular
vision by looking down, away, and back down. This, in turn, stimulates eye tracking and other areas of brain development (personal
communication, Enns, 2008; also see Haring, 2015). Here is a rhyme to promote crawling:
Slowly, slowly, very slowly
Creeps the garden snail.
Slowly, slowly, very slowly
Up the garden rail.
Quickly, quickly, very quickly
Runs the little mouse.
Quickly, quickly, very quickly
Up into its house. (Cobb, 2007, p. 148)
You need an open area that allows ample space to creep like a snail. For the rst verse, slowly follow your baby.
Repeat the rst verse a few times to get a slow rhythm. Then, for the second verse, chase him, catch him, and end
with a tickle under his arm.
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Once children have mastered rudimentary movements, they progress to the fundamental stage. From two to seven years, they learn
to run, jump, throw, roll, catch, and kick. These activities build foundational skills that foster later participation in sport and other
physical activities (Frost et al., 2008). Traditional horsie-games serve as a great vehicle for this kind of movement:
See the ponies walking, walking, down the country road. (Say twice)
See the ponies trotting, trotting, down the country road. (Say twice)
See the ponies galloping, galloping, down the country road. (Say twice)
See the ponies coming home, all tired out, all tired out, all tired out. (Cobb, 2007, p. 187)
This rhyme is suited for playing/working with a single child or a group. You need an open space in which to run.
Then, let the gait mimic the lyrics. You can easily adapt the rhyme by inserting more diverse movements, such as
running, cantering, and pacing, based on your group dynamics. Suggest nonequestrian actions such as skipping,
twirling, jumping, or ying. Or, change the subject from horses to fairies, monsters, dinosaurs, or anything else
of interest to children. In my experience, most children love this activity and are eager, when invited, to contribute
their own ideas. The challenge lies not in getting them to participate, but in toning down their energy once they have
begun. I often repeat the nal line, speaking very slowly, to bring the group to a calm ending, and then I add, “And
they all sat down.”
Gross motor skills also provide a foundation on which children build ne motor skills involving the smaller movements of hands,
ngers, and wrists. For example, in order for preschool children to cut properly with scissors, they rst need to control the large
muscles used to sit in a stable position (Brook, Wageneld, & Thompson, n.d.).
Similar to gross motor skills, children develop their ne motor skills progressively: from the core to the limbs, or from proximal to
distal (Brook et al., n.d.). They learn to control their arms before their hands, for instance. Hand-clapping rhymes are well suited for
babies who are beginning to bring their hands together, known as crossing the midline, between seven and nine months (Robinson,
2007). The following rhyme is a classic:
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man.
Bake me a cake as fast as you can.
Pat it, and roll it, and mark it with a B.
And put it in the oven for Baby and me. (Cobb, 2007, p. 98)
When you rst introduce this to your baby, hold her hands to help her clap to the rhythm. As she becomes more
skilled, she will independently clap and roll her own hands. Later, in her preschool years, she will pretend to write a
letter of the alphabet on the palm of her hand, or yours.
After children have mastered hand control, they turn to their fascinating ngers, those players of early childhood dramas dangling at
the end of their hands. Between six and nine months, they begin to poke with their index ngers (Voress & Pearson, 2013). Not only
does this seemingly simple milestone allow them to communicate their needs and wants, but it also helps them to isolate and move
their ngers independently. Here is an energetic rhyme for ne motor practice:
Two little dickie birds sitting on a wall:
One named Peter. One named Paul.
Fly away Peter. Fly away Paul.
Come back Peter. Come back Paul. (Cobb, 2007, p. 101)
When you practise the above rhyme with your baby, he will be delighted to watch your actions. But your toddler
will be even more so when he does the actions with you. Face him and ask him to imitate you. Hold out your index
ngers and wiggle them as you say “Peter” and “Paul.” Then, hide your characters behind your back and bring
them out again for the last line. Your imaginative toddler will wiggle his birds, y them behind his back, and make
them reappear.
In addition to small muscle movements, ne motor skills involve the development of hand-eye coordination. When babies rst reach
for their toes, they are beginning to build a necessary skill that they will hone over many years. From feeding to dressing, reading, and
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playing sports, hand-eye coordination and the ability to use two hands together greatly inuences children’s overall development. The
simplicity of this rhyme makes it very easy for adults and children to learn:
Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny
Whoops! Johnny
Whoops! Johnny
Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. (Cole & Calmenson, 1991, p. 44)
Ask your toddler to hold up her hand and spread her ngers. With your index nger, touch her pinkie, say “Johnny,”
and then do the same with her ring, middle, and index ngertips. Say “whoops” and use the curve between her index
nger and thumb as a slide. Say “Johnny” when you rest on the thumb. Say “whoops” and return to the pinkie in the
reverse order. Adapt this rhyme by using specic names (Sally, Sam, Mummy, Daddy). Once your toddler is familiar
with the rhyme, she can try this on your ngers, or her own. She will be able to master this in her preschool years. I
remember my own toddler practising this as he concentrated intently on making his ngertips touch.
In summary, gross and ne motor actions that complement language play can effectively help young children to develop areas of
their physical health. Actions help babies experience age-appropriate movements such as rolling over and clapping. Chase games and
ngerplays help toddlers to build muscle strength and coordination. And rhymes that require greater levels of hand-eye and motor
coordination provide preschoolers with opportunities to practise running, trotting, and using their hands together.
Language and cognitive development
Language and cognitive development are immensely sophisticated neurological processes. According to the EDI, this domain
“includes reading awareness, age-appropriate reading and writing skills, age-appropriate numeracy skills, ability to understand
similarities and differences, and ability to recite back specic pieces of information from memory” (“Domains and Subdomains,” para.
4). Many rhymes offer opportunities to informally introduce children to early reading and numeracy skills.
To become strong readers, children rst need a strong foundation of oral language. In fact, their language skills play a larger role
than cognitive ability in literacy acquisition (McGinty & Justice, 2010). Phonological awareness comprises an important part of this
foundation: Children need to understand that spoken words are composed of different sounds, or phonemes. Exposure to rhyming is
an excellent strategy to help children develop phonological awareness (Bryant, Bradley, Maclean, & Crossland, 1989; Dunst, Meter,
& Hamby, 2011). Oral language also builds vocabulary (McGinty & Justice, 2010); when children know a word, they will more easily
decode it in print materials like books. Language play thus offers great aural opportunities for children to learn the meaning of words
as well as the sounds with which they are constructed. Consider the complexity of sounds and words in this seemingly simple rhyme:
The moon is round,
As round can be.
Two eyes, a nose
And a mouth … like me! (Cobb, 2007, p. 91)
Hold your baby face to face to face so that he can watch how your mouth creates specic sounds. As you lightly
touch his face, he learns to associate the word with the body parts. In your words, he hears a monosyllabic rhyme
in lines two and four emphasizing the phoneme “ee.” He also hears the phonemes “b” and “m.” The repeated
exposure to the comparison of the moon and your face will help him to recognize, much later, the technique of simile
in both prose and poetry.
In addition to fostering age-appropriate early reading development, “The Moon is Round” also addresses age-appropriate math skills.
Counting and identifying geometric shapes is an important rst step in acquiring early numeracy. This rhyme features simple numbers
and a simple shape, both of which are emerging concepts that many children understand by age 3 (HealthLink BC, 2015). In addition,
there is a rhyme scheme of ABCB; nursery rhymes often follow patterns, and patterning is the basis for math study (Kenney, 2005).
Conveniently, rhymes can also provide transitions to “teachable moments” in children’s daily environments. For example, a caregiver
can extend the concepts in “The Moon is Round” by pointing out familiar objects and saying, “The ball is round, as round can be.” Or,
a mother can point to her own body parts and say, “Let’s count the other parts of our bodies: two ears, two arms, ve ngers on one
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hand.”
Preschool children, who by now have grasped basic cognitive concepts, respond well to rhymes with more sophisticated language
structures and complex information, as found in this rhyme:
Ten galloping horses rode through the town.
Five were white and ve were brown.
Five rode up and ve rode down.
Ten galloping horses rode through the town. (Cobb, 2007, p. 80)
Bounce your preschooler on your knee to the rhythm of the rhyme, making sure to emphatically differentiate the
feeling of “up” and “down.” In contrast to the steady iambic metre of “The Moon Is Round,” she senses a beat that
is not uniform. In each line, three trochaic feet are completed with a single stressed foot: TEN galloping HORses
RODE through the TOWN ( /u /u /u /), which better imitates a horse.
The varied rhythm in the previous rhyme is mirrored by complex concepts. For example, it addresses the number ten. It also features
colours and contrasting directions. Moreover, it demonstrates the concept of addition: ve white horses and ve brown horses equal
ten horses. Even though many children do not fully understand this mathematical concept, they will nonetheless be exposed to the
terminology.
In summary, language play exposes children to age-appropriate foundational skills on which to build their early reading and math
knowledge, fostering their language and cognitive development. Rhymes can enhance young children’s understanding of words,
numbers, and concepts such as colours and directions.
Communication and general knowledge
According to the EDI, this domain “includes skills to communicate needs and wants in socially appropriate ways, symbolic use
of language, storytelling, and age-appropriate knowledge about life and the world around” (“Domains and Subdomains,” para. 5).
Storytelling is a fundamental human activity that helps children with a number of important functions, such as understanding narrative
architecture and sequencing, acquiring knowledge, and learning about others.
A child’s experience with storytelling can begin with a simple rhyme shared with an adult. Celia Lottridge (1995), a cofounder of
the Parent-Child Mother Goose Program™, says that “nursery rhymes are little stories for little people” (n.p.). Even if some children
do not yet know the meaning of the words, they have been playfully introduced to a short drama and the building blocks of story:
characters, plot, and setting. This well-known rhyme offers it all:
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown.
And Jill came tumbling after. (Cobb, 1996, p. 82)
Slowly lift your toddler as you say the rst two lines, and then drop him for the last two. This helps his body to feel
the contrasting movements. This classic rhyme features a boy and a girl, simple characters with whom he can begin
to identify. The hill serves as a familiar setting, and there is a hint of conict—person vs. nature—as both children
tumble and fall.
Preschoolers are increasingly able to sustain their attention. They also have more experience with narrative conventions and are
developing active imaginations (HealthLink BC, 2015), which allows them to enjoy longer and more complex stories. This song has a
cumulative story structure:
I know an old lady who swallowed a y.
I don’t know why she swallowed a y.
Perhaps she’ll die.
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I know an old lady who swallowed a spider.
It wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the y.
I don’t know why she swallowed a y.
Perhaps she’ll die.
[The song continues with the old lady swallowing a bird, a dog, a goat. and a cow.]
I know an old lady who swallowed a horse.
She died, of course! (Cobb, 1996, p. 99)
Sing this song slowly with your preschooler so that she is able to join in. If she can’t sing all of the lyrics, pause at
the end of the line so that she lls in the word. The repetition in this song quickly introduces her to many tenets of
storytelling. She learns to create a story by adding details, characters, and events. She learns about rst-person
narration. She learns that rhythm and rhyme are memorable and pleasing to the ear. And she learns about the joy of
hyperbole. Of course a woman can’t swallow all of these animals, but isn’t it fun to imagine?
As conduits of image and meaning, the words expressed in stories and rhymes directly relate to the domain of general knowledge.
Both “Jack and Jill” and “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” present information about the world: Water can be fetched and
spiders catch ies. In fact, all of the rhymes discussed so far offer children opportunities to build their understanding about the world,
from labelling body parts (“The Moon Is Round”) to types of movement (see “The Ponies”). These latter examples demonstrate age-
appropriate knowledge for babies and toddlers. Another example for this age group emphasizes the composition of a family:
This is my mother.
This is my father.
This is my brother tall.
This is my sister.
This is my baby.
Oh, how I love them all! (Cobb, 2007, p. 99)
Wiggle your toddler’s thumb, and then move to each successive nger, or family member, until you reach the baby
(pinkie). Finish by kissing his ngertips. Adapt this by using the specic family member names. You can also bring in
the extended family: grandma, grandpa, uncle, auntie, and cousin.
Knowledge of animals is also age-appropriate for young children, from babies to preschoolers. Take my daughter, for example; “kitty”
was the rst word she communicated when she was about nine months. Numerous nursery rhymes, like the one below, respond to
children’s natural interest in animals:
Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O.
And on that farm he had a cow, E-I-E-I-O.
With a moo-moo here, and a moo-moo there.
Here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo-moo
Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O. (Cobb, 1996, p. 89)
When you sing this song with a group of toddlers, they join in by imitating your words and sounds, because the
sounds and vowels are easy to say and fun to play with. Preschoolers demonstrate their knowledge by suggesting
their favourite animals. You may not know how to vocalize some of them—dinosaurs, zebras, koala bears—but
have fun imagining how they sound. It also works well to pair the song with visuals, such as pictures, toys, stuffed
animals, or ash cards, to help children connect the name of an animal and its characteristics, such as its sounds,
habitat, and diet.
In summary, language play fosters young children’s communication and general knowledge. The narrative techniques and devices
found in many rhymes model storytelling strategies. These rhymes also convey age-appropriate information about the world, such as
nature and animals, which will be scaffolded in children’s increasingly complex ways of knowing.
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Social competence
The EDI’s denition of the social competence domain is broad, including “curiosity about the world, eagerness to try new experiences,
knowledge of standards of acceptable public behaviour, ability to control own behaviour, appropriate respect for adult authority,
cooperation with others, following rules, and ability to play and work with other children” (“Domains and Subdomains,” para. 2).
Because language play requires interaction between an adult and child or group of children, it can gently immerse children in the
social expectations about how to play and how to follow rules.
The social world of children begins with their families; their experiences predicate how they interact with others outside of the home.
Language play models mores of social interaction. As babies’ brains are formed to imitate behaviours (Hendrix, Palmer, Tashis, &
Winner, 2013), they quickly learn conventions. For example, in Western culture, we value eye contact, which shows the need for
children to participate in joint attention, that “mutual delight shared with another human being” (p. 6). The following rhyme elicits
eye-to-eye engagement:
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! (Cobb, 2007, p. 92)
Cradle your baby with one arm so that you are face to face. With your other hand, lightly touch her corresponding
body parts as you say them. You can also lay your baby on her back and give her a little face massage. This positive
touch and eye contact foster overall brain development (Cobb, 2007). It is also a great rhyme to say while eating.
As children grow, their scope of shared attention widens to include activities with people outside their families. Between 36 and 42
months, children are able to participate in circle games (Voress & Pearson, 2013). This interaction, in turn, supports their increasing
capacity to understand others’ thoughts and feelings, known as “theory of mind” (Robinson, 2007). This social building block is
essential for children to successfully play/interact with each other and create friendships. The following circle game has delighted
children for centuries:
Ring around the rosie,
A pocket full of posies.
Husha, husha,
We all fall down! (Cobb, 2007, p. 86)
Ask everyone in your group to hold hands and walk in a circle and then fall together for the last line. Children must
work together to smoothly execute this rhyme. I am always delighted by the children’s joy when we “all fall down.”
Besides joint attention, it is important for children to follow rules, for social and safety reasons. Preschoolers are able to follow two- to
three-step directions (HealthLink BC, 2015), allowing them to take an active role in games that also require them to follow rules. This
rhyme works well in the classroom:
If you’re wearing red today,
Red today, red today,
If you’re wearing red today,
Stand up and shout hurray. (Cobb, 1996, p. 55)
Sing this to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It is easily adapted to help children transition between activities.
For example, change the direction in the last line: “Line up to wash your hands.” Children must practise self-
control during this song. Waiting for the appropriate time to do the action may be challenging for those busy kids
who like to leap into movement.
In summary, the interactive nature of language play supports the building blocks of social competence. Babies learn about joint
attention, which later helps them, as preschoolers, to play cooperatively with other children. Children are also required to follow rules,
and rhymes and songs present directions in a fun and engaging way.
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Emotional maturity
The EDI states that the domain of emotional maturity “includes the ability to think before acting, a balance between too fearful and too
impulsive, an ability to deal with feelings at an age-appropriate level, and empathetic response to other people’s feelings” (“Domains
and Subdomains,” para. 3). Any discussion of children’s emotional lives must begin by recognizing the power of attachment, their
affectional bond with caregivers (Music, 2016). Children feel more secure, and they are better able to self-regulate and understand
emotions, if their parents/primary caregivers, from infancy, respond quickly and sensitively to their needs (Creighton, 2011). Thus,
children’s abilities to develop aspects of emotional maturity are dependent on how they are treated by the adults who take care of
them. Language play fosters attachment and, by extension, positive feelings.
Studies suggest that babies innately respond to others’ emotions. Lewis, Haviland-Jones, and Barrett (2013) point out that the
“newborn reactive cry,” whereby a baby cries when hearing another baby’s cry, may be “the rst instance of empathy without
awareness” (p. 444). We can continue to foster this trait by modelling emotionally responsive behaviours that help children to develop
self-esteem and prosocial behaviour. An obvious type of rhyme is the lullaby, a slow song to help soothe and calm an upset baby (and
adults, too). The following nursery rhyme is popular as an action song, but works equally well as a 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. (Cobb, 2006, p. 28)
Rock your baby as you sing, letting the warmth and closeness of your bodies provide physical reassurance. Because
this poem is so well known, it works well in family groups. When a child begins to cry, I start singing, and most
parents automatically join in, sometimes adding the actions. The child often stops to listen or join in, soothed by
both the song and the collective response to her distress. These actions acknowledge and afrm the child’s feelings.
Children’s emotional development begins long before they understand and articulate their feelings. At three months, babies start
expressing their feeling states through vocalization, facial expressions, and movement. By nine months, their emotions become more
nuanced, with differences between joy and contentment, sadness and anger. Toddlers are known to be driven by their feelings, yet even
though they experience a range of emotions, they do not yet have the ability to express their feelings in words; this ability does not
typically develop until children are between 3 and 5 (Robinson, 2007). But language play can introduce toddlers and preschoolers to a
solid vocabulary with which to start labelling their different feelings. The following song covers some key emotions:
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.
2nd verse: If you’re sad and you know it, say boo-hoo.
3rd verse: If you’re mad and you know it, stomp your feet. (Cobb, 1996, p. 37)
When you sing this song with your toddler, exaggerate your facial expressions and gestures to help him connect the
emotional label with body language. You can also add feelings and actions to t the current mood. For example, if
your toddler does not want to go into a new place, sing, “If you’re nervous and you know it, hold my hand.”
In summary, language play can help children to build emotional maturity. A song or rhyme thoughtfully chosen by a caring adult
models empathy for children. As well, specic songs equip them with age-appropriate labels for their feelings.
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Language Play in Practice
Examples of nursery rhymes, to this point, have been chosen to illustrate specic developmental subdomains for particular age
groups. For example, “Two Little Dickie Birds” can be used to support toddlers’ ne motor skills. Nursery rhymes, however, are very
versatile, so they can be adapted to suit different age groups for a variety of purposes. For example, “Roly Poly,” sung to the tune of
Frère Jacques, is a rhyme I use with children up to age 6 in Parent-Child Mother Goose Programs™, daycares, and preschools:
Roly poly, roly poly,
Up up up, up up up.
Roly roly poly, roly roly poly
Down down down, down down down. (Cobb, 2007, p. 70)
“Roly Poly” with babies
During baby programs, I share the benets of language play with parents. In particular, “Roly Poly,” used repetitively, can support
their babies’ physical, social, and language development. To support their babies’ motor skills, I ask parents to hold and roll their
babies’ hands to help them practice crossing the midline and using their hands together. When babies watch their caregivers sing with
elongated syllables, they observe how their lips, tongue, and teeth create sounds. Regarding social competence, when caregivers look
at their babies’ eyes and hands during the song, they model eye contact and shared attention. As well, their babies’ vocabularies grow
as they learn words and their meanings, such as up/down and in/out.
“Roly Poly” with toddlers
During energetic circle times, I harness toddlers’ need to move and vocalize in order to promote their social, cognitive, and motor
skills. When their attention begins to wander, I help them to regulate by singing “Roly Poly,” even if I am in the middle of a different
activity. They redirect their focus, we sing a few verses together, and I then bring the group to a quiet state with “slow ... slow ...
slow.” Concerning cognition, toddlers now have a basic vocabulary, so the actions help them further expand their understanding of
opposites. I include more sophisticated concepts like loud/quiet and front/back. Finally, toddlers still have a hard time rolling their
hands smoothly, so this song provides a fun way to practice their motor skills. It works well to add movements, as the mood ts: “Roly
poly, roly poly / Jump jump jump, Jump jump jump.”
“Roly Poly” with preschoolers
Preschool classrooms offer children many opportunities to broaden their general knowledge about the world and each other. Because
the words in lines two and four of “Roly Poly” do not need to rhyme, the song lends itself to supporting many areas of the curriculum,
such as counting numbers one through ten. Visuals can be easily integrated as well. I once observed a practicum student cleverly
adapt the words to reect animals: “Cat cat cat, cat cat cat / Meow meow meow, meow meow meow.” This song also translates easily.
I ask parents, caregivers, and educators to teach the group words for “up” and “down” in other languages. For example, arriba and
abajo reect the concepts of up and down in Spanish. This helps children learn that words sound different in another language. It also
celebrates and validates children who speak a language other than English. They are always very proud to hear their home language
voiced in the classroom, if only a word or two.
Conclusion
Children benet greatly when adults interact with them using the nursery rhymes and songs of language play (Cobb, 2007). Drawing
on domains dened by the Early Development Instrument, I have carefully chosen several rhymes and described how adults can
utilize them to support children’s development in different domains. When children physically participate in the actions, they practise
their motor skills and hand-eye coordination. The content within the rhymes and songs introduces children to words, numbers, and
concepts, aiding their language and cognitive development. Through simple stories woven into the rhymes, children become familiar
with narrative elements and they also gain knowledge about their world. The shared experience of rhyming and singing helps to
prepare children to play cooperatively with others, and some of the material also creatively presents them with rules to follow. And,
importantly, language play contributes to children’s emotional development. Nursery rhymes can serve as a tool to teach children
about feelings. Furthermore, children who have strong, positive relationships with their primary caregivers experience a world in
FALL/AUTOMNE 2017 52 Vol. 42 No. 2
JOURNAL OF CHILDHOOD STUDIES IDEAS FROM PRACTICE
which their needs are valued, and so they can become equipped to show empathy to others.
Early childhood educators and practitioners are in the position to promote, encourage, and model language play with families and
children. These centuries-old, tried-and-true nursery rhymes and songs support children’s overall development in meaningful and
engaging ways. Forms of language play exist in all cultures, plus they are orally disseminated, making them accessible to all families,
regardless of their socioeconomic status or level of education. It would be especially benecial to help parents and caregivers
understand how language play can further strengthen emotional bonds, for it is only on a solid foundation of attachment that all
children’s relationships and developmental learning are built (Cobb, 2007).
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(Endnotes)
1 My endeavours to nd scholarly research about nursery rhymes have proven diverse, but limited in scope. Folklorists and
literary scholars have looked at versions of nursery rhymes across time, exploring their origins and socio-political contexts (Opie &
Opie, 1997; Nodelman, 1989/2008). Attention has also been given to the illustration of rhymes (Nodelman, 1989/2008). While these
examples focus on content, a parallel body of work exists that examines the relationship between nursery rhymes and their intended
audience of young children. Largely, this research explores the connection between children’s exposure to nursery rhymes and their
acquisition of literacy skills (Bryant et al., 1989; Dunst et al., 2011). Academic approaches to nursery rhymes are also appearing in the
context of music education (Cardanay, 2013), parent-child attachment (Scharfe, 2011), and parenting strategies (Carroll, 2005; Terrett,
White, & Spreckley, 2012). In general, research tends to focus on one developmental domain, such as literacy, or offer a very brief
treatment of a few domains (Kenney, 2005). However, I have discovered a need for scholarship concerning the relationship between
nursery rhymes and multiple domains of child development.
... Not only are they fun and entertaining, nursery rhymes (and rhyming songs, chants, and stories) are recognized by early childhood educators for their added value in multiple domains of motor development, communication, social-emotional skills, world knowledge, cognition, language, and literacy (Bolduc and Lefebvre 2012;Kenney 2005;Mullen 2017;Read 2014). ...
... Nursery rhymes provide children opportunities to practice fine and gross motor skills; use their muscles to gain coordination while climbing, balancing, and tumbling (e.g., "Jack and Jill went up the hill"); and develop hand-eye and motor coordination (e.g., "Itsy-Bitsy Spider") (Kenney 2005;Mullen 2017). Hand-clapping rhymes not only help develop arms and hands (e.g., "Pat-a-Cake") but teach children how to touch others in acceptable ways (e.g., "Pease Porridge Hot") (Kenney 2005). ...
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Nursery rhymes have been a part of childhood for centuries. Spanning the generations, children and adults continue to delight in their poetry and melodies. Educators consider these rhymes traditional literature for music and language instruction. Within this article, the author includes a brief historical discussion of nursery rhymes and writes contemporary music lessons for young children using traditional English verse.
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This volume has 7 sections of chapters about the many aspects of the psychology of emotion. Each section is drawn from a diverse set of disciplines including: history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, biology, and neurophysiology, including coverage of compelling new findings on brain–behavior relationships. The development of emotions is represented, along with social processes and personality, the interface between affect and cognition. New to this edition is a section on recent research on emotions and health that represents one of the field's most dynamic and fruitful areas of inquiry. This volume could be a helpful resource for students, researchers, and clinicians. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)