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What is a Nursery Rhyme?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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A nursery rhyme is a short rhyming story, often set to music and usually designed for young children, such as those in a nursery. Songs for children are a part of many cultures, and they often serve as an oral record of important political and historical events. They also can preserve archaic forms of language. In the English language, the bulk of commonly used nursery rhymes date from the 16th-18th centuries, with some originating in Europe and others, such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, coming from North America.

A Learning Tool

Typically, a nursery rhyme has simple vocabulary and a catchy rhyme. Children can quickly learn to sing along with a nursery rhyme, and nursery rhymes are often used to help young children build their vocabulary. Counting is often integrated into nursery rhymes as well, so children also can learn to count using nursery rhymes. They also show children how to find and keep a beat, and they can be used to get children to start reading. When a child learns a nursery rhyme, he or she also can learn to follow it on a page, so many children learn the fundamentals of reading this way.


Nursery rhymes are often consolidated into collections, such as Mother Goose, a famous collection of nursery rhymes that actually originated in France. Translations were published in England and the United States, and later authors added rhymes or new interpretations to the collection. Many English-speaking children are familiar with at least one collection of Mother Goose rhymes. Some of these collections use very old rhymes, so the language of a Mother Goose nursery rhyme can sometimes be confusing for modern children, but it provides an interesting window into the way that people once spoke.

Hidden Meanings

In some cases, a nursery rhyme might have actually served as a mode of political expression or social commentary. Nursery rhymes sometimes dealt with controversial subjects or carried hidden messages. In these instances, the nursery rhyme would have been designed for adults more than children, in eras when people did not feel comfortable or safe speaking freely. Some of these adult rhymes took the form of satire or mockery, as is the case with Yankee Doodle.

Ideas for Parents

A collection of nursery rhymes typically includes songs, poems, short stories and illustrations. Parents are encouraged to read to and with their children to get them excited about reading and to improve their language skills. Enterprising parents might make up their own nursery rhymes, creating a rhyme using objects and places that are familiar to the child. In time, these rhymes can be passed from generation to generation through the oral tradition of singing nursery rhymes to children.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Heavanet — On Feb 16, 2014

I agree Rundocuri. It doesn't seem like nursery rhymes are used as much as they use to be at home and in schools. That's too bad, because they use to be an important part of childhood.

By Rundocuri — On Feb 15, 2014

I remember when every child knew nursery rhymes like humpty dumpty, jack and jill, and little boy blue. These children's nursery rhymes taught kids valuable lessons.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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