UA Experts Address the Value of Nursery Rhymes

June 14, 2016

LeapFrog, VTech, and learning tablets and laptops for toddlers are just some of the toys designed for young children in an increasingly lucrative market for childhood educational materials and technologies.

In light of the increased accessibility of such technologies during the formative years of children, University of Arizona researchers spoke about a centuries-old resource that has proved beneficial for brain development: nursery rhymes.

Traditional poems and songs such as "Little Red Riding Hood," "Star Light, Star Bright" and "Frère Jacques" are known to serve as important tools for helping children to learn, retain information, detect patterns and learn language, aiding with early childhood development.

Answering our questions about the continued importance of nursery rhymes were:

  • LouAnn Gerken, a UA professor of psychology, linguistics and cognitive science, whose research centers on language development and its relation to learning more generally, also with a focus on what music and language learning share.
  • Dawn Corso, an instructor of music and ethnomusicology, who is also a conductor and performer. Corso, of the UA's Fred Fox School of Music, teaches courses in ethnomusicology and music in general studies, having previously taught in K-12 schools.
  • Kathy Short, a professor in the UA Department of Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies, is the director of World of Words. Housed within the UA College of Education, World of Words is a unique collection of international children's books. Its mission is to integrate global literature into classrooms and libraries while challenging children and adolescents to understand and accept those different from themselves.

Q: Why do we teach children nursery rhymes?

Gerken: Nursery rhymes highlight the rhythmic nature of the child's particular language, as well as language in general. When children first learn to talk, they tend to organize their utterances into rhythmic sequences. So the rhymes we teach children can help them develop their language skills in a way that's natural to them.

Corso: I think it's important to consider whether the rhymes were created by children or adults. When they're created by adults, the goal is to teach some kind of moral to children. The hope is that they learn the lesson without even realizing it, because it becomes more fun. When children make up rhymes, they seem to have less specific purposes, but mostly just describe the world around them and experiences that are relevant to the child. 

Short: Nursery rhymes, and children's literature in general, offer empathy. I think you can learn a lot of facts about the world and other people, but that doesn't necessarily help children build empathy the same way that connecting with a character in a story or a rhyme does. Also, they're so easy for young children to memorize, because of their alliteration and musicality.

Q: How do these rhymes impact children's language development?

Gerken: Nursery rhymes might help children identify the typical stress placement in their language. I don't know if anyone has formally shown this, but rhymes often highlight the rules for stress in the child's native language. Also, rhymes tend to mirror the way children naturally speak. When children first learn to talk, they organize their utterances into rhythmic sequences. For example, English-learning children try to make words and phrases correspond to a "stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed" sequence. They tend to omit syllables that don't fit into this rhythmic sequence.

Short: Rhymes are an exercise in language play. They build the ability to hear phonemic differences, which is critical to becoming a reader. 

Q: Why do we remember these rhymes, even as adults?

Corso: There are several features of good rhymes that help them stay memorable. They can't be too long, or we would remember only the beginning and the end of the rhyme. That's quite typical of memory. It's why you don’t want to interview in the middle — you're less likely to be remembered. Another feature that makes them memorable is that they are what we call "strophic." This means they have the same melody and rhythms throughout, and only the words change. For instance, in "Hickory, Dickory, Dock," you see that the stressed parts kind of rhyme as well. That makes it easy to learn the musical pattern. Then, even if you forget the words, you have a chance of recovering them. Nursery rhymes are definitely tied to memory, because it's important that they be memorable and enjoyable. 

Q: What musical value do nursery rhymes have?

Corso: Nursery rhymes are very interesting rhythmically. A lot of kids remember and care more about the musical aspect than the words. You see it everywhere: Kids will continue a rhyme they really like and run out of words to rhyme, so they'll make up their own. The semantics don't matter to them, they just enjoy the rhythmic patterns. The musicality of rhymes also helps pass down cultural information. Music is interesting to study as a conveyor of culture because, unlike language, it's not one-to-one, there's not a distinct connection from song to meaning. The melodies and rhythms can convey important cultural values as well. For instance, rhythm helps convey the specific linguistic patterns of the language, especially related to stress placement.

Short: Nursery rhymes emphasize the rhythms and musicality of language. If you look at the words, they can be fairly nonsensical. But they are embedded in the language and, by extension, in the culture. The musicality, the way the language flows, the way the rhymes play with this strongly differs from culture to culture. Looking at rhymes from other cultures in other languages can demonstrate the unique musicality of languages around the world.

Q: What important cultural information can nursery rhymes convey?

Gerken: Different languages have different patterns of stress. For example, in Hungarian, stress tends to fall on the last syllable, which is quite different from English. The typical placement of stress in languages greatly influences the rhythms of nursery rhymes.

Corso: Many different factors sustain culture, including language, traditions, social codes. But music is ubiquitous. Rhymes are a specific form of that, and you can find them in every part of the world. They are usually passed orally and they contain a lot of social information. For my dissertation, I studied how rhymes in the African-American community help students learn outside of school, and what kinds of lessons they teach. These rhymes help pass down the unique social norms of the African-American community. They also present the children with some of the tougher issues that they'll face as a member of that community, but in a way that's fun and more playful.

Short: I think we need very dynamic notions of culture. Culture isn't this static box, it's continuously changing and transforming. Culture is integral to how we think about ourselves, how we think about the world, and how we create our values and beliefs. It's important for children to have this sense of how you interact with people who have different belief systems. Children's literature, including nursery rhymes, is a great avenue for this. Children are in the process of building their views about everything, so the earlier we engage them with this literature, the more they grow and those perspectives become part of their worldview. To be frank, once you're an adult, you can change your perspective, but it's harder.