Why do we learn nursery rhymes in kindergarten?


In mid-December, before lunchtime, in the nursery school of a medium-sized provincial town, two mixed classes of medium and large sections are gathered with their teachers in the playground. Nearly fifty children aged 4 and 5 years repeat songs and nursery rhymes learned for the following week, with a view to a show which will be given for the whole school, then later only for parents of these two classes.

Christmas is, unsurprisingly, the theme of the nursery rhymes and songs selected. Besides, Have you seen Him? Have you seen him, the little guy? and Christmas is like a jazz rhythm , the children also hum the following words:

“1, 2, 3, In his wooden basket
4, 5, 6, Lots of surprises
7, 8, 9, Brand new toys
10, 11, 12, Joy for all”

They also sing: “5 little sheep running in the snow, all white, all white, the pretty merry-go-round, 5 little sheep running in the snow, one is falling, that makes 4 little sheep”, words which are available successively for 4, 3, 2, 1, then 1 little sheep. Last rhyme of the day:

“NN, here come the reindeer
OO, we will have presents
EE, the children are happy
LL, it’s Christmas Eve
Christmas, Christmas, CHRISTMAS, Christmas, Christmas, CHRISTMAS”

The vast majority of students sing with enthusiasm; they applaud each other at the end of each song. A few still have the tunes and lyrics in their heads this afternoon… just like the researchers who observed the scene, as part of a Franco-Quebec research project on kindergarten! Without us paying attention, the rhythms and melodies have also settled into our heads and we will notice them when we leave school at the end of the afternoon.

Rhythms that help with memorization

Why do we learn nursery rhymes in kindergarten? Coming from the roots “count” and “story”, these by definition include mimed songs, finger games and short chants. As our observation shows, they can fuel learning in the nursery school program . They are the vector of language learning – sounds, rhymes, vocabulary, etc. What we call in kindergarten the “digital nursery rhyme”, made up of the sequence of the names of the numbers, is the object par excellence of the nursery rhyme. It is not to be confused, moreover, with digital learning, that is to say the discrimination of an order or a quantity.

These nursery rhymes attract wide support from children, a method of learning through imprinting, with rhythms conducive to memorization. Without forgetting, sometimes, the pleasure of uttering a series of syllables that go beyond ordinary language. They also give substance to a group of children who are seen as such, singing with one voice, with the shared pleasure of repetition.

Beyond the academic learning that they can convey, it is not uncommon that through this experienced pleasure of the group, nursery rhymes are used by teachers as a means of regaining control of the class, a tool for bringing people together and refocusing when it tends to disperse. Easy to memorize, they also give good visibility, as in the choir observed, to the work carried out in the class among parents.

But it is not only in kindergarten that nursery rhymes are offered to young children; in nurseries, in libraries, etc., nursery rhymes play on the boundaries between speech, rhythm and play, between French and other languages. Here, first and foremost, the musicality of the nursery rhymes, the complicity of sharing between young and old, a path to language is sought. In the book Reading while singing nursery rhyme albums , Michel Manson clearly shows how during the 20th century  children’s songs became books, marking the transition from “folklore to the nursery rhyme album”.

A cultural heritage from childhood

The tradition of nursery rhymes, along with that of traditional childhood rounds and games, is older in nursery schools. We have to go back to the middle of the 19th century  , when nursery schools were still “asylum rooms”, to understand their use. Let us indicate what it owes in particular to Marie Pape-Carpantier , director of the first normal training course for her staff, to whom we owe precisely this name of nursery school, well before it was made official in 1881. With it comes an institutional reappropriation of childhood practices, instead of the quasi-military discipline to which young children were subjected in asylum rooms.

In the end, we can, it seems, bring the teaching of nursery rhymes closer to the school learning of writing analyzed by Anne Marie Chartier. It responds to data that are both pragmatic, cognitive and relational: a way of responding to the expectations of the institution, but also to the concern for class management by giving it material to experience a shared collective.

In addition, it makes sense towards a children’s culture, that of playgrounds in the first place, prolonging the pleasure of formulas transmitted between children , of “amstramgram” and other “plouf-plouf” analyzed by Julie Delalande. It is undoubtedly also in their hybridity, between children’s culture and school culture, that we must look for the reasons for their longevity in nursery school.

Author Bio: Pascale Garnier is a Doctor in Sociology, Professor in Educational Sciences at Sorbonne Paris Nord University