Are nursery rhymes relevant? I hope not, says Griselda Heppel

A relevant jump by Daisy
The Times recently ran a front-page story on the demise of the nursery rhyme: schools are teaching these rhymes less and less apparently, as they are ‘no longer relevant.' 

This did make me laugh. At which stage in our history, exactly, was a cow jumping over a moon relevant? Or four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie?  The wonderful thing about children is that they don’t give half a pound of tuppenny rice for relevance;
Blackbirds are no longer baked in pies

what they can recognise – which, sadly, some education experts apparently can’t – is the magic of strange words and bizarre ideas woven together to stretch both their vocabulary and their imaginations.  It doesn’t matter that the rhymes make no sense, or refer to a piece of long-forgotten history. My 22 month old grand-daughter has no idea that Rock a Bye Baby may refer to the ousting of James II by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688;

Neglectful parenting, not tolerated today
what she loves is the excitement of ‘when the bough breaks’ in the middle of a lullaby. Or that
Ring a Ring a Roses is thought to refer to symptoms of the plague; what matters is that the words rhyme in a satisfying way, you pretend to sneeze and then fall down.

Down with this irrelevant plague!
Other rhymes are even more absurd, and impossible to analyse for a hidden meaning, as in Hey diddle diddle and Sing a Song of Sixpence mentioned above. Or how about this one, a favourite of my own children:

This working practice has no place in today's society
There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
Ninety-nine times as high as the moon.
Where she was going I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she wielded a broom.
‘Old woman, old woman, old woman,’ said I,
‘Where are you going to up so high?’
‘To sweep the cobwebs off the sky!’
‘May I go with you?’ ‘Aye, by and by.’

How wonderful is that image? It literally sends the imagination soaring, all the way to the moon and far, far beyond, through a night sky latticed with cobwebs… 

To demand that nursery rhymes be ‘relevant’ when you could offer children such riches feels mean and restricting. And worse. Nursery rhymes are not so different from fairy tales, both in their literary heritage and in their ability to create strange, fantastical worlds. Consider, then, Albert Einstein’s famous advice to parents:
‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.'
Albert Einstein was clearly read a lot of fairy tales

And – as I know Einstein would have added, had it crossed his mind that it might be necessary – please, please don’t try to make them relevant. Not like a hand-puppet board book, This Little Piggy, recently given to my granddaughter. This version, while using charming finger puppets, has ‘updated’ the classic rhyme for our more sensitive (?) era, destroying meaning and rhythm in one fell swoop:

This little piggy went to market. (Original line, good. From here things go downhill.)
This little piggy stayed home.  (Preposition?)
This little piggy had cookies. (What?? Where’s the roast beef?)
This little piggy had fun. (No, he didn’t. He had NONE. Everyone knows this. Line altered presumably to spare children’s distress for a piggy who had nothing to eat.  I have news for the publishers: children don’t care. It’s life. They can cope with that.)
This little piggy sang wee wee wee all the way home. (No, he didn’t. He CRIED wee wee wee. He was squealing. That’s what pigs do.)

Which brings me to the many, many books and recordings of nursery rhymes on the market, and a heartfelt plea: your children matter. Don’t give them rubbish. Buy them a book of the stature of The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes by the incomparable Raymond Briggs: a beautifully illustrated collection, including lesser known rhymes such as Charley Barley Butter and Eggs as well as Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. 

And for listening, you can’t do better than Tim Hart’s brilliant folk arrangements Tim Hart and Friends: My Very FavouriteNursery Rhyme Record.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:

and her children's books:


Wendy H. Jones said…
Very well said. Kids don't give a fig for the words they just like the rhymes. Id they ask we can do what adults ahve always done, make a fist at explaining and probably get it all wrong. Life is so much more fun because of it
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Griselda. Even my grandchildren are well past the nursery rhyme stage now but it's so, so sad that youngsters are being deprived of these lovely rhythms, rhymes and imagination-freeing 'truths'. They'll get to know soon enough about matter and anti-matter, quantum 'impossibilities' and all the rest of that fascinating stuff, but let's not take away their cobwebs in the stars or the mind-stretching visions of 'normal' people and animals doing extraordinary things. Their worlds are huge, so are their imaginations, there'll be plenty of restrictions on their freedoms later. so let's not clamp on the leg-irons too soon.
Jan Needle said…
Excellent. Thanks Griselda
Susan Price said…
Great blog, Griselda. I really enjoyed it. Like you, I've always been a big fan of the beautiful nonsense in 'nursery rhymes' and 'fairy-tales' -- where the rhymes were never for the nursery and the tales hardly ever have anything to say about fairies.

The rhythms and rhymes are certainly part of their appeal, but it must also be, as Griselda says, the weird, poetical images -- a cow jumping over the moon, a cat playing the fiddle, an old woman flying past the stars in a basket. Look at the long list of artists who've delighted in illustrating the rhymes.

They aren't relevant today? Well, since most of them seem to have been comments on current affairs, they were 'relevant' for a few years: then they were just remembered because they were odd and beautiful. If we need to make them 'relevant' we need some modern, scathing satirical verse - God knows, we have enough material. Anybody feel up to the job?
Anonymous said…
Thank you all - so good to know others value this seemingly trivial (but definitely not) part of our heritage. I'm optimistic on the whole: I don't think they will ever die out completely, though some might become less well-known (when did you last hear anyone sing "I had a little nut tree"?).

Inventing new ones, now that's a challenge. As you say, Susan, if people managed it in other eras, making brilliantly snide political comments, surely SOMEBODY should be able to do something with Brexit and Twitter ...
Umberto Tosi said…
Not only are nursery rhymes gruesomely delightful, they have mythologic, archetypical psychological weight. They are the source of many of our central linguistic metaphors. Up with nursery rhymes! Great post.
Sandra Horn said…
Amen to all that, Griselda! Long may ambiguity and nonsense delight our ears.
Thank you for saying this. Nursery rhymes are meant to be nonsensical and are so in every language I speak; it is essential to teach a child that language is fun and imaginative and even wild.

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