A lesson in nursery rhymes.

Studying poetry begins in the cradle (or the family bed). The first poem we hear is probably a nursery rhyme- a brief, often silly, wacky imagining with an easy rhyme. So we are all exploring nursery rhymes today.

The Mysterious Mother Goose

The most famous author of nursery rhymes is Mother Goose, but no one agrees as to her actual character. Did she live in New England or in France? A book of poems for children entitled Mother Goose’s Melody was published in England in 1781, and the name “Mother Goose” has been associated with children’s poetry every since.

The History of Nursery Rhymes

They come from many different places. Some were meant to be recited as part of a game, like a grown-up saying “Pat-a-cake” while a little one claps along or like children singing a rhyme while jumping rope. Others were originally written for adults and describe actual people and events from history. Many have hidden meanings that mock kings or other unjust rulers who held power a long time ago. These poems were penned carefully and secretly so that no one could ever be sure whom the poems were actually about. Direct criticism of kings and rulers was considered treasonous so nursery rhymes offered a way for common people to dissent without being held responsible for their opinions.

Other nursery rhymes don’t mean anything in particular. Instead, they reveal the power and fun of stringing words together in a way that pleases the ear and evokes silly images. A rhyme associates words with similar sounds using a rhyming couplet or short verse. It is short and easy to remember, which allowed it to be passed on verbally from generation to generation when many people were unable to read or write.

Nursery rhymes gained permanence around the year 1570, when they began to be printed in England. Printing allowed the production of books and cheap pamphlets, or chapbooks. A chapbook is “a small book or pamphlet containing poems, ballads, stories, or religious tracts”. More people during this time were learning to read but the chapbooks were also popular with people who could not read as they contained pictures, in the printed form of crude wood engravings – A Middle Ages equivalent of a Children’s comic! So the Nursery Rhyme was then passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth and in a printed format. Now let’s explore a few nursery rhymes.

Higglety, Pigglety, Pop

Higglety, pigglety, pop!

The dog has ate the mop;

The cat’s in a flurry,

The cow’s in a hurry,

Higglety, pigglety, pop!”

Samuel Goodrich wrote this rhyme in 1846 as an example of how silly and worthless nursery rhymes could be. He believed that nursery rhymes were bad for children and encouraged foolishness. You can read a scathing review of nursery rhymes by Goodrich online and see how he poked fun at them- this rhyme emerges at the very end. Unfortunately for Mr. Goodrich, his nursery rhyme meant to mock nursery rhymes has become a nursery rhyme classic. The joke is on him.

Little Miss Muffet

Little Miss Muffet

Sat on a tuffet,

Eating her curds and whey;

Along came a spider,

Who sat down beside her

And frightened Miss Muffet away.

A tuffet is a little stool. Curds and whey is a soup-like mixture of milk with bread or oats. It was a very common meal for children long ago. In fact, some people consider it the predecessor of cereal. Look and listen.

This nursery rhyme is thought to have been written by Dr. Muffet, a famous 16th century expert in the study of spiders and insects, for his stepdaughter. You can imagine how eating her breakfast might have been difficult in a house where spiders and insects roamed freely.

There Was An Old Woman

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.

She gave them some broth without any bread;

And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

Supposedly, this rhyme is based on an actual woman, Elizabeth Vergoose, who lived in New England in the late 18th century. She had 6 children and 10 stepchildren. She is believed by some to be the original Mother Goose. Since whipping does not seem like a particularly loving way in which to cope with lack of food, Jordan Riak wrote a “kinder, gentler” version of this rhyme.

Alternate interpretations of this rhyme suggest it might have been written to poke fun at Queen Caroline and King George II.

How this rhyme was used in a Jello advertisement.

Old Mother Hubbard

You can read this longer rhyme online. It was written by Sarah Catherine Martin and first published in England in 1805. Interestingly enough, it is said that the author liked to talk a lot- in fact, she talked so much that people often tired of listening and told her to write it down instead. (Max commented on this: “Hey mom, that’s what you say to me!”) Ms. Martin finally sat down and write and this publishing hit was the result.

Crafts and Activities

  • Print out this Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme Book and color, cut, paste, and staple according to instructions.
  • Listen to Crispin Glover’s reading of Little Miss Muffett at Speakaboos.
  • Make a felt board for Old Mother Hubbard.
  • Choose a nursery rhyme from above to “rewrite”- you can make it kinder, gentler, funnier, scarier, crazier, sweeter, happier, whatever suits your fancy.

Make a poem page for The Old Woman in the Shoe. You will need paper, old magazines, scissors, glue, and crayons. Draw a shoe on a piece of paper, have little ones copy the rhyme near the shoe and then color in the shoe house. Take out old magazines and let them pick images of children to add to the overflowing shoe house.

Max pasting his cut-outs to his shoe.

Micah’s shoe is overflowing with colors and kiddos.

Max’s shoe looks almost habitable.

Sources quoted in this lesson plan: