To the Point - Today's nursery rhymes

Julian Grenier, Early Years Adviser to Tower Hamlets Council in London
Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Last time I wrote that I cannot sing for toffee, I was politely rebuked by one or two people who quite rightly say that everyone should feel confident about taking part in musical activities.

So, for some other reason I was sitting in a circle while a group of children was singing with an enthusiastic and tuneful family support worker in a Children's Centre in Bethnal Green. I found myself wondering what sense the children were making from the songs.

In the middle of 'The Wheels on the Bus' it struck me that practically none of the children will ever hear someone being asked for a ticket on a London bus, now that everyone uses electronic Oyster cards to touch in. Then the children were taken even further back in history as they sang about someone called a conductor telling passengers to 'move along please'.

Then there was 'Miss Polly Had a Dolly', during which the children made a strange twirling movement with their fingers as they sang about calling the doctor. I would be surprised if more than one in a million children in England has ever seen anyone use an old rotary telephone dial, and almost as surprised if any of their parents call a doctor out for such a minor illness. During 'Twinkle Twinkle, Chocolate Bar', the children mimed starting a car up by pulling out the choke - something that even my 20-year-old piece of motoring history does not have.

But does this matter much? Perhaps nursery rhymes are just charming collections of historical words, ideas and actions. How many children know about bobbins and how to wind them up, or have grandfather clocks at home, or have ever heard of curds or whey?

I also wonder why there are practically no nursery rhymes about contemporary everyday life - none I know refer to mobile phones, television, computers, or a more up-to-date celebrity than the grand old Duke of York. The most recent of the songs children commonly sing feel like they are a couple of decades old or more - little spacemen singing, smoky cars with chokes and so on. Or perhaps there is a whole new school of new rhymes I do not know about?

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