Picture a warm summer day with a light breeze. Mid-western sun ablaze, blue skies wide open, and just a few wisps of cloud passing by. A smiling gray-haired grandmother sits in her creaking aluminum porch chair rocking to and fro. The chipped paint on the chair reveals layers upon layer of paint coated one on top the other. The house is tiny. It’s a single story, two-bedroom home with one of those crooked floor back-porches and a damp dirt-floor partial basements. It was built around 1900 and the wooden siding has been covered with a vinyl siding that leaves a chalky coat of white on your hands when you rub against it, so you are careful not to—even when playing hide and seek with your brother or neighbors.
These were the days when I would pick pears off the lawn and bite into them on a whim; run up and down an open alley singing wildly; and ride my tricycle up and down the broken sidewalk. When I would get hot and tired, I would run back up to Nanny’s porch and sit on the concrete steps. I don’t know exactly why we called her Nanny, but she was my mother’s mother and just about the most delightful and funny woman I’ve known. She would be rocking just a few inches away and she would have a glass of sweet iced tea waiting there for me. In those moments of refreshment, she would begin singing a song from her childhood or reciting a rhyme. I marveled at her memory and how she could recite something that she learned so long ago. I tried to learn her songs and rhymes, but so many of them were unique to her family, her community, and her era that as I grew older I struggled to remember the words and even more so in finding the lyrics.
When I began teaching Sunday school as a teen, and later Kindergarten in public schools, I surprised myself with just how many children’s hymns, songs, and rhymes I actually did remember. Even though I couldn’t remember some of my favorite and less common rhymes, the simple ones that my Nanny started me out on had been woven through my own years in children’s church, school, and at home with my mother. I had my own book of nursery rhymes and had spent many childhood days “teaching” those rhymes to my teddy bears and dolls.
The longer I teach and the more I converse with children, the less I find them to be interested or aware of those old rhymes. Even the basics like Mary Had a Little Lamb and Baa Baa Black Sheep have lost their place in the tender arms of loving mothers. True, I’ve traveled the eastern portion of the US and lived in both the Midwest and the South, so the genre and culture has varied. Still, when I ask students to share their favorite rhymes or songs with me, they struggle.
I wonder if my Nanny and my mother knew that nursery rhymes help language development? Nursery rhymes and familiar stories teach children how language works, build memory capabilities, and associate pleasure with spoken and written word. They teach rhythm and help children associate it with movement and dance. Phonemic awareness, phonics, oral language development, articulation, and language processing are all integral components of listening to, reciting, and reading nursery rhymes. They spur our imaginations; help us create our earliest ‘mental movies;’ and encourage us to reason and make sense out of what is sometimes non-sense. There is problem-solving involved and, as we get older and begin to understand the lyrics themselves, we can begin learning history through them. Used in early education, nursery rhymes help students connect sounds to print; to begin reading!
Could it be that we have let our modern lifestyles rob the most simple of cultural and educational rituals from our families? I remember when I was pregnant with my first child, I sat down in the rocking chair in her room and began singing to her. I knew some nursery rhymes, some contemporary songs from the radio, and a few lullabies. I struggled to remember the words of some of my favorite lullabies that my mother and grandmother had sung to me. I called my mother and had her dictate the words to several of them to me. I practiced and practiced with the lyrics until I could finally sing them on my own. It was important to me.
The other day, I was talking to a friend about the traditions that he had passed on to his own family. He seemed a little surprised as he realized that he and his wife hadn’t really carried many on. Aside from a well-lit Christmas tree, an Easter basket, and a pre-ordered family dinner from Kroger on Thanksgiving; he couldn’t name many traditions to speak of. There were no traditional family lullabies, no special nursery rhymes, no certain songs.
Maybe I’m just getting old and whimsical, but I found that to be rather sad. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, but what if it does? What if there is an entire generation of rising mothers and fathers who have never experienced the soulful warmth of music or rhyme as a family connection? What if it has been my generation that has dropped the ball?
Nursery Rhymes, shared stories, and familiar songs are a natural tradition in cultures around the world. Sharing them across time and through generations sparks a sense of belonging and deep inner comfort that can’t be replaced with trendy top 40 hits or contemporary songs. It’s never too late to start. What are some of your favorite memories of shared stories, rhymes, or songs from childhood?