Sharing nursery rhymes with families of children in the Early Years

    Published: 22 May 2020

    Do you remember nursery rhymes? What do they make you think of?  Jane Greenslade and Andrew Boyes from the Herts for Learning Early Years Team explore some of the ways in which music and nursery rhymes support children’s learning and development and offer some strategies and tips along with some video clips to help practitioners think about ways in which they can promote the benefits of nursery rhymes with parents/carers at home.


    Children singing illustration


    Nursery rhymes are so important for helping children to learn language and to develop skill in listening and concentration. Singing and enjoying nursery rhymes together is something we can all benefit from in our settings and it is definitely something that we can promote with parents/carers as an easy way for them to have fun with their children while they support vital language development. We know that children learn in a holistic way and nursery rhymes are one of the best examples of this:

    Personal, social and emotional development (PSED)

    So what does music do for us emotionally?  Well I’m sure you all remember a special song from when you were a teenager. Maybe it was linked to a fantastic holiday on your own for the first time with friends without your parents, maybe it was you and your partner’s song, or perhaps there is a cultural or religious theme that speaks to your heart and soul?

    This importance of music goes back centuries to where music was used in gatherings as a marker for significant events and we feel this now through the memories we have of our own special times.  Of course it could be just a theme tune from a TV programme. For Jane, it would be the Onedin Line, always a must watch when she was a youngster. For Andrew, it’s The Banana Splits; he can’t help but smile each time he hears it and it has a visceral impact, taking him straight back to when he was six years old. For slightly younger people it may be the Friends theme tune, or even younger than that…someone will have to help us there!

    So when we sing to babies we are creating that closeness and engagement that is so important to their PSED. They are strong attachment devices. Right from the word go as a parent of a tiny baby we are using that slightly high pitched sing song voice naturally as somehow we know instinctively that this is what babies need.  Very quickly they respond, so we do more of the same.  As they get older whether you are a parent/carer or a practitioner in a setting, it is music, singing and rhymes that can calm children, excite them, and can most of the time guarantee that they will come to you and join in.


    Child laughing


    Sitting a toddler on your lap or in front of you and singing a rhyme and acting out some actions with them gives that special connection where children know that for those few minutes you are totally focused on them and that they can lead the play as well as you.

    Have a look at the video of Arabella Miller being demonstrated by Jane and think about how this can support children’s engagement, ability to hear rhyme, development of close relationships, anticipation and fun.

    Physical development

    Songs with actions help children’s physical skills, their balance, co-ordination and strength.  Watch the family here doing  ‘Heads shoulders knees and toes’ together: 

    We are using arm and shoulder muscles, we are tipping forwards to touch our knees and toes so need to have good core strength and balance and then we need to pull that body up again to a standing position.  Lots going on! To use our scientific terms here children will be developing proprioception, that is knowing where their body is in space and how to control it, and also developing their vestibular sense, that is their sense of balance and knowing which way is up. All of these are important for learning how to control their large body movements (gross motor skills) which then leads to developing small body movement so they can  manipulate tools such as crayons, pencils, scissors, building bricks and puzzles (fine motor skills).

    Think about singing Incy Wincy spider and the fine finger movements you use.  Watch the family again, here doing Incy Wincy with Mum.

    Another thing to think about when singing and saying rhymes with children is to build on the sense of anticipation. This helps them to focus on you and be part of the experience. So when you start a song or rhyme you might say, “Ready to we go…..1….2…3.”  You might get a bit slower at certain points or stop and wait with your hands in the air giving lots of great eye contact with the child or children before you go on to the next part of the song or rhyme. 

    Communication, language and literacy development

    Nursery rhymes are a powerful learning source in early literacy, helping children become interested in pattern and language, as well as delivering a rich vocabulary for children to assimilate. Children love to sing nursery rhymes over and over, so each time we sing a nursery rhyme, we are practising rhyming again and again. We can sometimes point out the rhyme or we can pause during our singing and let the children make the rhyme. Research suggests that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they are four, they are likely to be effective readers by the age of eight.1


    Nursery rhymes reinforce counting and concepts such as pattern and one more or one less. Think about all the ‘five’ rhymes you know: 5 little speckled frogs; 5 little ducks; 5 currant buns; 5 little monkeys and then there is 10 green bottles.  Some rhymes such as 10 fat sausages introduce other concepts such as subtraction as it is counting backwards in 2’s, and others such as ‘One, two buckle my shoe’ count up in 2’s and use rhyming words as well. 


    10 green bottles


    Knowledge and understanding of the world / expressive arts and design

    Nursery rhymes will often generate discussions on many aspects of the world around us with their strange images of cows jumping over the moon as well as some more macabre scenes such as the farmer’s wife cutting the tails of the three blind mice using a carving knife. Children will bring nursery rhymes into their creative play. It’s something you will observe in many activity zones. Try painting to music and encourage children to move their paintbrush around to the rhythms, beats and moods of the music.

    What should we be thinking about as practitioners in our settings?

    • Don’t be afraid to lead nursery rhyme singing with the children. The quality of your voice is not an issue and the children won’t be thinking about that at all. The important thing is to lead the sessions confidently. Children will love singing with you and with their friends. Also, a lot of rhymes lend themselves to being chanted just as well as being sung.
    • Try to teach your children as many rhymes as you can and sing them as often as you can. Introduce at least one new rhyme each week.
    • Feel free to use backing tracks but don’t put them on and then go off to do something else. Being in relationship with the children during small or large group community singing is really important.
    • Have nursery rhymes available for children to listen to in your music area or book corner.

    What can we provide for parents and carers to support children’s knowledge of nursery rhymes?

    • Video yourself singing nursery rhymes so that the children and their families can enjoy singing them together.
    • Promote the importance of nursery rhymes with parents/carers and explain the ways in which they help children’s development.
    • Ask parents/carers if they remember rhymes from their childhood. This is an amazing activity to do if you have parents and carers that grew up in different parts of the UK or in other countries.
    • Provide links to nursery rhyme websites. For instance, the BBC has a good selection of nursery rhymes with videos that children and families can join in with. You can find many others through a simple online search.
    • Consider more in-depth sharing of nursery rhymes as an intervention to support children and families where communication and language development are delayed. Put together a ‘Rhyme Bag’ for children to explore and fill it with rhyme related objects such as puppets, small world characters, a toy tea-pot and cup and saucer (Polly Put The Kettle On, I’m A Little Teapot) or rubber ducks (Five Little Ducks) and so on.
    • Show parents and carers ways in which they can encourage their children to explore music creatively using things that can be found at home.

    Nursery rhymes are one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children. See if you can find more opportunities to share rhymes with your children and families. Enjoy these precious moments. Children will remember them for the rest of their lives.


    Fox, M (2008), Reading Magic, Mariner Books (Boston).


    Authored by 

    Jane Greenslade and Andrew Boyes.

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