Boris Johnson would know more if he knew eight nursery rhymes by heart

Ben Case
Friday, November 22, 2019

Seeing Boris Johnson painfully mumble his way through The Wheels on the Bus while on the campaign trail, was a catalyst for many to lament that teaching children nursery rhymes had fallen out of fashion.

Ben Case
Ben Case

It’s surprising because experts in literacy and child development have found that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight. If that’s not reason enough, here are my five personal reasons why children, and political leaders, will benefit from learning their nursery rhymes:

  1. They help develop a child’s imagination. Not many children will ever see Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, but ask them to describe who Humpty Dumpty is, and many will be able to describe a rounded egg type character. (This skill will help as they get older and imagine travelling around the world on zip wires.)

  2. They help develop a child’s vocabulary. Taking ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ as an example, by linking the actions, noises and words, children develop their vocabulary with each nursery rhyme. (This skill will help as they get older and come across obscure words such as ‘mugwump’.)

  3. They help develop a child’s communication and social skills. When singing together, children need to listen to each other. There are thousands of videos of children singing completely out of time, but eventually, they do understand that singing nursery rhymes together is a combined effort, and not a race to finish first! There are also lots of examples of ‘turn taking’ in nursery rhymes which help develop a child’s conversation skills. (This skill will help as they get older and understand the need to listen and provide relevant responses during important debates.)

  4. They help develop a child’s language rhythm. When you add expression to a nursery rhyme, it helps bring it alive for the child. Listen to a child who knows lots of nursery rhymes speak, and you will hear them add expression to their everyday speaking, and questioning. (This skill will help as they get older if they need to issue passionate rallying statements to make sure everyone is behind them and their ideas.)

  5. They help develop a child’s understanding of how words are formed. By learning the nursery rhymes and songs, children are at the beginning of their journey as readers and writers. Nursery rhymes help children learn how to pronounce different words, especially those initial sounds which are so important when they begin to learn phonics. (This skill will help as they get older to write great speeches or manifestos in their workplace.)

The Wheels on the Bus may seem like a childish song, but anyone who has sung a nursery rhyme with a child will have seen first-hand the learning they gain. Whether a child becomes a politician, a polar explorer or a postal worker, nursery rhymes are an important foundation for learning.


Ben Case, education advisor for Tapestry and the Foundation Stage Forum. Ben was previously a primary school teacher for more than than 10 years with a focus on early years.

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