Nursery Rhymes in the Classroom

Nursery rhymes have helped babies grasp rhyme and rhythm for centuries, and our students can enjoy them, too. We have three great lesson plans for nursery rhymes, including one for older students.

Lessons for specific nursery rhymes:

Jazz Chants

Carolyn Graham popularized jazz chants for ESL classes back in the 20th century, but a variant is great for a study of nursery rhymes no matter what your students’ native languages may be. Not only is this a fun way to learn some rhymes, it’s also good for concentration, cooperation, listening skills, and rhythm. A basic method:

  • Divide up your rhyme into separate lines. So, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” is one line and “How does your garden grow?” is another.
  • Divide the class into groups and give each group a line to say.
  • Help each group learn and practice their line till they can say it rhythmically together when you point to them.
  • Conduct the class in a chant by pointing to each group in turn.

Begin by having the students say the rhyme in order, with the “Mary, Mary quite contrary” group first, then the “How does your garden grow?” group, moving on to the remaining lines. Then begin to mix it up, pointing to the groups in different orders. If your students are old enough, let them take turns as conductor. You can make a rule that the chant has to rhyme, or that it must have a certain number of lines, or you can add instrumental lines with tambourines, sand blocks, and other instruments.

Rhyming Games

Many nursery rhymes go with singing games. “London Bridge is Falling Down” and “The Farmer in the Dell” are two examples. Have students ask their parents or grandparents for more examples and learn the games. Make a class list and see how many your class can discover.

This is enough of a lesson plan for small children, since just learning the rules of a game and playing it fairly are challenging to kindergartners. In first or second grade, you can begin writing down the rules, perhaps making a Google Doc to share, and older students can make an oral history project of it.

Secret Messages?

It is often said that nursery rhymes have hidden political messages. “Mary, Mary,” for example, is thought to refer to Mary Tudor and “Hey Diddle Diddle” is said to be about the court of Elizabeth I. Not all scholars believe that these explanations are true. Challenge older students to discover the historical stories behind nursery rhymes and then to decide whether the stories were actually connected with the rhymes or not.

Your library may have The Annotated Mother Goose: With an Introduction and Notes, which reports both the historical connections and the sources. For example, this book relates that “Rockabye Baby” has been linked with James Stuart, but also that commentators from the past have reported that people actually did hang their babies in trees, much as we might use a hammock.

You can also find many nursery rhyme stories online with varying amounts of reference and support. Since we can’t be sure of the truth, it’s an interesting critical thinking and research assignment.

You might share with the students a recent example. In 1884, Grover Cleveland was a candidate for President of the United States. There was a suggestion of scandal: specifically, that Cleveland had an illegitimate child. The opposition chanted, “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” When Cleveland won, some of his supporters turned that chant into a little rhyme:

“Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?”
Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”

It’s easy to imagine kids in a few hundred years jumping rope to this, and having no idea what the historical context was. It’s reasonable to imagine that some of our nursery rhymes now came from just such sources, and are in fact connected to old scandals. However, many scholars believe that people took this one step further and made up stories to fit rhymes which were… just rhymes.

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