Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Poetry for kids (part two)

Link to part one.


Here's an interesting chart for you:


I've cut the chart off at four entries because that's all there were.

Is no one writing new nursery rhymes or are there simply quite enough to suit our current needs? In the previous article I already mentioned some of the classic nursery rhymes we've all grown up with but what struck me, when my father came home with a set of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopædias, was just how many nursery rhymes there used to be. Have any of you ever heard of these ones?

Mother may I go and bathe?
"Yes, my darling daughter!
Hang your clothes on yonder tree,
But don't go near the water."

CheeryPunchrev2 Punch and Judy
Fought for a pie;
Punch gave Judy
A knock in the eye.

Says Punch to Judy:
"Will you have any more?"
Says Judy to Punch:
"My eye is too sore."

A, B, C, tumble down D.
The cat's in the cupboard
And can't see me.

Now what do you think
Of little Jack Jingle?
Before he was married
He used to be single.

That's enough of that although there's a great article on the role of cats in nursery rhymes here if you're interested. I decided to see what I could find under "new nursery rhymes". My initial efforts led to spoof nursery rhymes like this:

Never speak to strangers,
Though statistics clearly show
We'll probably be murdered
By somebody we know.


Jack and Jill went into town
To fetch some chips and sweeties.
He can't keep his heart rate down
And she's got diabetes.


Humpty & Hamble were happy,
Until the day he said
He couldn't "extend their relationship"
`Cos he'd married Little Ted.

002 Anyone unfamiliar with Play School won't get the last one I'm afraid but I thought it was funny. There were a selection of vulgar ones but you really don't want to hear them as clever as many of them were. Not for children, and probably not the slightest bit vulgar either, is This Little Piggy Went to Prada.

I found these two on Rory Ewins' site. He also has a large collection of limericks. His reason for writing these? "I’ve been reading old ones to the little guy, but how many times is he going to encounter pudding strings and haycocks?" Fair point.

The Oven is Hot

The oven is hot,
The oven is hot.
Will I fiddle with the knobs?
No, I will not.
Will I reach up high and grab
The handle of the pot?
No, I will not,
Because the oven is hot.

The Washing Machine

The washing machine
Makes a wonderful sound
As it jumbles the washing
Around and around

We open the door
And we pop the clothes in
And they tumble around
In a spin, spin, spin.

There's a list of nursery rhymes on Wikipedia but I couldn't see one with a date later than 1915. A considerably longer list can be found here. Of course some of Spike Milligan's poems would do for very young kids but I can't think of any one that one could describe as a nursery rhyme.

ringaroundtherosie_willcox The thing about nursery rhymes is that so many of them, and the ones that have lasted, are nowhere near as innocent as they sound. 'Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies' is all about the bubonic plague outbreak in the seventeenth century although some have suggested it goes as far back as the 1300s. There are two versions:

Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies
A Pocket full of Posies
"A-tishoo! A-tishoo!"
We all fall Down!

Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
"Ashes, Ashes"
We all fall down!

The first is the one I grew up with whereas when I asked my wife just now, the second version is the one she rattled off, word perfect, (my wife is American) although she admits has heard regional variations using 'A-shoo' rather than 'Ashes'.

The thing is I can't imagine teaching my kids a rhyme about Swine Flu or AIDS. Thinking back to when I was a kid myself one has to wonder if they don't already exist because when I was at school sick jokes about starving Biafrans were commonplace. So, why didn't we devise rhymes?

Maybe it was just my school or I simply can't remember but there are plenty of unsavoury schoolyard rhymes out there in fact I discovered a whole site devoted to them. A few of the tamer examples then:

In 1966
The Queen pulled down her knicks
She sniffed her bum
And said yum yum
It s better than Weetabix

Michael Jackson came to town
Pepsi-Cola shot 'im down
Coca Cola lit 'im up
Now we all drink seven up!

Pepsi-Cola came to town
Coca Cola shot 'im down
Dr. Pepper fixed 'im up
Now we all drink seven-up

A sigh is but a breath of air
Ascending from the heart.
But when it goes the other way
It's nothing but a fart.

The last one is a good example because the girl who posted it had this to say about it: "Here's one my older sister came home with from her first day of kindergarten." And that was in 1958 apparently.

The question is, did a poet — and by that I mean an adult poet — sit down and compose 'Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies' or any of the above or did they, like so many of the jokes I've heard in my life, simply appear, fully-formed, one day. Of course someone 'wrote' every one of them but after a while, once in the public domain, these things take on a life of their own. I certainly don't expect the person who wrote the Michael Jackson ditty to e-mail me for breach of copyright although Coca Cola may well sue or something.

One has to wonder though if nursery rhymes are still relevant these days. In a post last year the website Nursery Rhyme Favourites asked that very question and here's part of their argument in defence:

I often wonder if one of the reasons literacy rates have dropped so much in the last 30 years is because children today are exposed to less and less nursery rhymes.

Consider this:  nursery rhymes have been around for hundreds of years.  Nothing can survive that long unless it is proven to be worthy or useful.

And in a related post they list seven reasons why nursery rhymes are still critical for a child's development. I'd like to just pick the last point:

7. Although WE may think they're old, nursery rhymes are brand new to each new crop of toddlers. Today's toddlers have never heard the traditional nursery rhymes before.

24071 Is this why we keep going back to the same old rhymes, because we have enough for the job? The argument seems sound enough. A big deal is made about traditional nursery rhymes too: traditional = good, trustworthy.

You can read a report by the California State University Institute for Education Reform here which certainly includes nursery rhymes in its lists of things to do to promote good reading but one can also overstate their importance. What the report does conclude is that "phonemic awareness as the most potent predictor of success in learning to read". It further states:

The lack of phonemic awareness is the most powerful determinant of the likelihood of failure to learn to read because of its importance in learning the English alphabetic system or how print represents spoken words. If children cannot hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words, they have an extremely difficult time learning how to map those sounds to letters and letter patterns - the essence of decoding.

No I had no idea what a phoneme was either and even after I looked it up I found myself struggling but this part of the report helps:

The research outlines a progression of phonemic awareness development in pre-school, kindergarten, and early first grade that includes the ability:

  • to hear rhymes or alliteration

  • to blend sounds to make a word (e.g., /a/-/t/ = at)

  • to count phonemes in words ( how many sounds do you hear in "is"?)

  • to identify the beginning, middle, and final sounds in words

  • to substitute one phoneme for another (e.g., change the /h/ in "hot" to /p/)

  • to delete phonemes from words (e.g., omit the /c/ from "cat")

Now, although the report doesn't state this explicitly, wouldn't you agree that all of this can be found in a healthy selection of nursery rhymes especially the ones that delight in word play? Another thing, a wee while ago some of my friends were memorising and reciting poems and I decided to pass on this. On of the reasons was my lousy memory. And yet, when I think about it, I can remember loads of poems; they're all nursery rhymes admittedly but they're still poems. I can't remember being taught them but clearly I was.

"Listening comprehension precedes reading comprehension." This is really what all the above is saying. That quote comes from Tony Stead, senior national literacy consultant for Mondo Publishing in New York who goes on to say this:

JackJill7-fromOldMotherGoose In order for a child to understand what they are reading, they have to be able to hear the language first. A lot of the traditional rhymes, such as 'Jack and Jill' and 'Humpty Dumpty,' were repetitious and allowed us to memorise basic structures and patterns in the English language, then put it together. It's important that young children learn to memorize through verse. Research shows children learn more in their first eight years than they do in the rest of their lives. This is a powerful time to teach them to be readers and writers. Instead of enhancing children's imaginations, today's media have stunted it … Rhyme is important in developing phonemic [hearing] awareness in children … It's harder in elementary school to teach kids to read when they do not have oral support… - Why Nursery Rhymes?

In olden times, nursery rhymes were used by the elders to teach spiritual teachings and thereby imbibe a sense of being religious in a kid. They have also been used to lampoon political and social events. All of that has gone by the way but as a fundamental tool for teaching basic language skills it looks like there is nothing quite like them. And the ones that have stayed are the ones that work the best. So, why re-invent the wheel? In fact bestselling author and literary consultant Mem Fox states in her book Reading Magic that "rhymers will be readers". Based on research by experts in literacy and child development, she claims that children who know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they are four years old will be among the best readers by the time they are eight years old. (

So, where does this leave us? I would hope with a renewed appreciated for nursery rhymes and — more importantly — the need to read them to our kids. And when they squeal, "Again! Do it again!" we should do exactly that. It's not important that we understand what we're doing. It's enough that we do it. The doctors say we should eat five portions of fruit and veg a day, so, if we know what's good for us, we do it. Teachers say read regularly to your kids. So, do it.


Further reading: I came across this post after I completed this but it is worth checking out: Poetics and Ruminations: Rhyme, Meter, and Poetry for Children


Kass said...

This is so interesting, especially phonemic awareness. There's a lot of poetry for children that may not fall under strict 'nursery rhyme' criteria, but are noteworthy, nonetheless. My friend, Royce Twitchell put 'Six Naughty Poems' to music (hey, Jim - a woman composer!). I sing them as encores in recitals sometimes:#2 - Johnny went to church one day, he climbed up in the steeple. He took his shoes and stockings off, and threw them at the people. #6 - In the family drinking well, Willie pushed his sister, Nell. She's there yet, because it kilt her. Now we have to buy a filter.

Rachel Fenton said...

You've found a new vocation, Jim, nursery rhyme writer!

I've always sung rhymes about everything to my kids - often in place of speech! I like to make up rhymes about utter tosh for them, and sometimes they learn a bit of sense from a lot of fun! It has it's downside in modern society though, my daughter has a much greater vocabulary than many of her peers, so much so that, according to her teacher, her peers don't understand the words she's using and think she's making fun of them. Having higher literacy levels leads to lonliness it seems :( Unless, of course, everyone gets back into the swing of the sing!

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, maybe you misread the post but none of these are mine. Even when my daughter was young I'm afraid I never even attempted any kids poetry. I never even thought about it. Looking back that seems strange and I have no good answer as to why not. I did write a children's book when she was born but she was seventeen before I actually got round to reading it to her. Life is strange.

And, Kasscho, I find phonemes and everything connected to the sound of language fascinating. I've tried to read about it but it all goes over my head I'm afraid. The fact is is was the sound of language that got me excited long before I started trying to manipulate it for myself. I seem to have lost that joy at its most basic level having allowed an obsession with meaning to take over.

Anne said...

Fascinating post, and very timely for me as I'm thinking about nursery rhymes right now.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad to be of help, Anne. Thanks for your comment.

Dick said...

As usual, Jim, a fascinating piece of research in an area supposedly well mined already. There's enough material here for a PhD!

asimov said...

Hi Jim,

It started as a nursery rhyme and ended as a research article.In our place(India) we give importance to music at an early age. In our earlier days before T.V.s enter our homes we feed our kids by singing lullabies in our native languages. But now we feed them in front of T.V. It's too late for my kids. Let me try it with my grandson.

anthonynorth said...

An interesting post. I guess the new nursery rhymes are such as RAP. Media changes - a great shame.

Rachel Fenton said...

Jim - I did misread first time around! Thought you had penned the first spoofs! Apologies!

Life would be dull if it wasn't strange, and no one would want to write about it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dick, thank you kindly. I've heard about those PhD-thingies. Not quite sure what I'd do with one mind. It'd just lie about the house until we decided to declutter and then it'd probably end up in a charity shop.

Interesting point, Asimov, and thanks for chipping in. I like the use of the word 'feed' here because that's what it is really and, as my mother was always fond of telling me: we are what we eat. Clearly that's true metaphorically too.

Yes, Anthony, change is inevitable and, if I can use the analogy I used earlier, there are times we need to have a clearout but how many times have you chucked stuff out that you went looking for a couple of years later?

And, Rachel, that's quite okay, an easy mistake to make.

Dave King said...

As always, a wonderful post! But is it adult interest in new Nursery Rhymes that the report analyses, or children's interest? Or did I miss something? You are correct: from the child's point of view and from a language development point of view , it is word play that the current generation are missing out on - and the previous one has already missed out. Or so I believe. Seeing that most of the classic nursery rhymes began life as political comment to be enjoyed by adults, it could simply be that the current state of politics does not encourage such versifying... Couldn't it?

Art Durkee said...

in the 1970s a really terrific little book was published called "The Space Child's Mother Goose." Basically it was nursery rhymes updated for the Space Age. Some of them were definitely brilliant. I memorized a few:

Hark, hark, a static spark,
the tape is wound around,
so some baboon can croon his tune
in stereophonic sound.

I think new nursery rhymes have been written all along. Mostly they stay in the folklore, don't always get collected and published. Sometimes poets make new ones; much of Mother Goose was poet Richard Cowper, originally.

I agree with the comments that word-play is part of kids' play in general, and an important way they learn. Puns are also word-play, and lots of kids love those, because it makes them think in sideways directions, make new connections, learn what metaphor means. Metaphor and layered meaning are sophisticated language usages that kids take to naturally; it's a magical world when you're still a child, before they've beaten it out of you.

Jim Murdoch said...

There's no way to tell, Dave but my guess would be there are more adults looking up 'nursery rhymes' than kids.

When I was a kid we were always making up rhymes, often disrespectful and quite vulgar, but the thing is we were doing it. My earliest memory along those lines is running around the school singing:

    All the girls have go the measles
    All the girls have go the measles
    All the girls have go the measles
    And the don't know what to do-oo-oo.

Then we'd move onto chickepox, mumps and any other ailment we could think of; it became a challenge to keep the thing rolling without repeating ourselves.

As for the current state of politics not being ripe for ridicule - come on! I've never known a month go by since I took any interest in the news that there wasn't something worth ribbing them about. Perhaps we're just spoiled for choice now, eh?

And, Art, what's my earliest memory of word play? I think it would have to be an old Fantastic Four annual - a hardbacked collection for UK readers only reprinting some of the strips with stories and jokes in between - and they had the following jokes:

    Q: What's the laziest mountain in the world?
    A: Mount Everest

    Q: When is a rock not a rock?
    A: When it's a shamrock

    Q: When is a bow not a bow?
    A: When it's a rainbow

Terrible I know but one has to start somewhere. I think jokes are a lot like nursery rhymes - they just appear fully formed and no one knows where they come from.

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