MyÂ Grandfather had just arrived home from a long day atÂ work and sat down in his favourite spot on theÂ verandah. Of course, I quickly climbed into his lap to snuggle up with my book ofÂ nurseryÂ rhymes. He read them so eloquently, rounding his mouth as he carefully fed the rhythmic words to my ears. My eyes bounced in rhythm from the curvy letters to the colourful illustrations on the pages.
These are some of the earliest memories of my life –Â GrandpaÂ reading nursery rhymes to me. So, it felt quite natural to hold myÂ newborn’sÂ tiny feet and recite, “This Little Piggy” – until I got to the part about a pig eating the flesh of a roasted cow! Why hadn’t I noticed before, that a roast beef sandwich was being consumed by another farm animal? I quickly changed the lyric to “roast yam” – since it’s a popular Jamaican dish and fit well into my family’s plant-based diet. But, I still had more of these poemsÂ and songs to scrutinise in the weeks and months to come.
Picking ApartÂ Nursery Rhymes
A nursery rhyme is a traditional poem or song that’s designed for young children. The ones I grew up learningÂ originated inÂ BritainÂ (since JamaicaÂ was once a British colony)Â and they included riddles and proverbs. Some of them recorded historical events, English customs and superstitions, while others were tongue twisters, Â memory aidsÂ and ring games. These nursery rhymesÂ have effortlessly stayed with us for centuriesÂ because they are included in many early childhood school curriculums, and not without good reason. They are excellent tools to aid in optimal child development particularly because they are based in music and rhyme. Activities that include both music and rhyme will build your child’s spatial reasoning ability, which is the springboard for their success in the STEM fields. They benefit your child’s numeracyÂ development, since many, like “1, 2 Buckle My Shoe”, Â includeÂ countingÂ andÂ logic, like “As I Was Going To St. Ives”. The hearing or recitation of some of these songs and poems may be the first activity to introduce numbers to your little one, and most likely in a fun and entertaining way.
Nursery Rhymes may also be used asÂ memoryÂ aids, because they are repetitive and predictable; andÂ mnemonic rhymes like “Thirty Days Hath September”, are still used by adults to recall common info from day to day. Yet, the most obvious benefit (and my primary reason for sharing nursery rhymes with my baby girl) is the development of literacy and language skills. Children’s poemsÂ and songs are filled withÂ newÂ vocabulary, rhythm, pitch and literary devices, like alliteration (e.g. “Peas Porridge Hot”), onomatopoeia (e.g. “Old McDonald”) andÂ rhyme (e.g. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).Â
So, you may come across the ideas that children who have memorised 8 nursery rhymes by age 4, will become excellent readers and spellers. Though the exact amount of rhymes is probablyÂ irrelevant, the connection between rhyming activitiesÂ during early child and reading skills during school years, is clear. There are more benefits that can be derived from feeding our little ones these songs and chants, but we also know the words and backgrounds of some of these catchy rhymes aren’t allÂ kosher.
Sinister & Negative Rhymes
ManyÂ of Britain’sÂ traditional nursery rhymesÂ are said toÂ have sinister backgrounds.Â SomeÂ areÂ thought to beÂ satiresÂ aboutÂ periods ofÂ political or religious upheaval, Â whileÂ others areÂ theÂ retellings ofÂ local scandals.Â I’ll go over a few of the possible tales that generated some of our favourite rhymes:
PeterÂ PeterÂ PumkinÂ EaterÂ – AÂ jealous husband kills his wife and stores her dismembered body inside a hollowed out pumpkin shell after he was unable toÂ keep herÂ control her promiscuous and adulterous behaviour.
Lucy LocketÂ –Â AÂ bar maidÂ dumpsÂ herÂ pocketÂ sugar daddy, butÂ gets into a brawl with another prostitute after the latterÂ takesÂ him on and brags about her fortune in finding him.
RingÂ Around the RosieÂ – Millions of childrenÂ dieÂ during the pandemic called the Black Death. There are so many bodies that burials are too burdensome, so they are collected and cremated amass. The ashes blow everywhere.
Mary, Mary Quite ContraryÂ – A zealousÂ queen tortures and slaughters subjects who chose a different religious denomination from her, filling herÂ gardenÂ graveyard with them.
GeorgieÂ PorgieÂ – A court gentleman has affairs with the wives of other gentlemen of the court, and sometimes his exploits are not consensual or welcomed by the women.
Three Blind MiceÂ – The ‘bloody’ queen found out that a trio of men did not approve of her religious persecution and decided to treat them to her specialty of torture and death, for their lack of vision.
Old Woman Who Lived in a ShoeÂ – Although there is a political backstory, the plain reading is still disturbing. Since she is unable to care for her many hungry children, she gives them flavoured water and ensures they feel the weight of her hands.
Jack & JillÂ – Some point to the beheading of aÂ King and his Queen, while others refer to the King’s request for an increase in theÂ liquor tax which was denied. The sly monarch responded byÂ halving the volumeÂ ofÂ a Jack (2.5 fluid ounces) and, inadvertently, a Gill (2 Jacks or 5 fluid ounces).
If you do just a little research you may find supportive arguments forÂ these backstories andÂ also arguments declaring they are justÂ pure, nonsensical lines.Â There’s a Jamaica proverb which says, “EfÂ anohÂ soh, aÂ nayliÂ soh” which translates to, “If it isn’t the truth, it’s very close.” So, Â it is up to each person to decide whether these verses are coded historicalÂ narrative, covert protest and propaganda, or feel-good tunes to aid a child’s learning. Either way, rhymes and music are key tools for child development. So, we can either sift through the rubble and teach our little onesÂ the old British nursery rhymes we approve of, or opt for other rhythmic songs and poemsÂ that will just as easily do the job.
Didan Ashanta is a natural living enthusiast who blogs at DidanAshanta.com. A native of Jamaica, she currently lives in Tokyo with her husband and 1-year-old daughter.