Where is Thumbkin? Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am. Here I am.
How are you today, sir? Very well, I thank you.
Run away. Run away.
Ah, kindergarten with Mrs.Smith. I assumed that all kindergarten teachers had a piano and worked on fingerplays and nursery rhymes with a group of children hiding Thumbkin behind their backs. Every day, I gleefully recited nursery rhymes and fingerplays with my friends on the carpet.
Today, I am a wee bit worried that—as we rush to get our children “ready for kindergarten”—nursery rhymes have fallen off of our radar. In our age of political correctness, these outdated collections of songs and rhymes have been all but forgotten. Yet, nursery rhymes are enjoyable and important tools for the development of pre-literacy and pre-math skills. Rhyme, rhythm and repetition can be used to draw children into a great book or song—and the repetition of words is the first step to recognizing patterns in math.
Let’s go back to kindergarten with Mrs. Smith for a moment. When she asked us to use our thumbs to portray little characters in the Thumbkin story rhyme, Mrs. Smith was introducing us to symbolic thinking. When children begin to understand symbols, they are also beginning to understand numbers and letters, which are really just symbols for quantities and concepts. Rhymes, songs and movement are tried-and-true teaching tools for children who are learning to count.
One, two, three four, five,
Once I caught a fish alive,
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,
Then I let it go again.
When choosing books to read to your classroom, look for books that have only one rhyme per page. Our infants and toddlers enjoy board books that feature only one rhyme for the entire book. These books enrich the learning experience with visually stimulating illustrations as they introduce children to language that they may not hear at home.
When books aren’t in the hands of your early learners, add props, puppets or daily opportunities to bring these rhymes to life.
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe! Itsy, Bitsy, Spider A Tisket, A Tasket
You will see such looks of pride as the children in your care recite their first memorized verse! If your child or class has mastered “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe!” or “ Itsy, Bitsy Spider,” you already know that the rhythms and tunes of these nursery rhymes can be addictive to toddlers and preschoolers.
Nursery rhymes are also full of numbers, patterns, sequencing and counting forward and backward. Children learn to add as they count forward and subtract as they count backward. Some rhymes add “one more” or “one less” as the rhyme progresses.
Rhymes that involve finger counting do more than develop fine-motor skills. They also teach children that fingers can represent numbers when the children are holding their fingers up and counting on their fingers. These patterns lay the foundation for mathematical predictions and reasoning skills. The practice of fingerplay promotes the development of coordination and fine-motor skills in young children—skills that are critical for tasks such as holding a pencil when children enter elementary school. We also use finger puppets and hand puppets when we work on our nursery rhymes, which help children develop their finger and hand muscles. Fingerplays for toddlers don’t need to be longer than three or four lines. “This Little Piggie” or “Round and Round the Garden” are great choices for our early learners.
As Mem Fox—the award-winning author of more than 40 children’s books and a retired associate professor of literacy studies—notes in her book, Reading Magic (Harcourt, 2001): “If children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.”
My former teacher, Mrs. Smith, shared her love of music, math and fine-motor skills during circle time when I was young. I urge you to bring these rhymes back into your classroom and use them when the children in your care are lining up for recess, waiting for their parents or making other transitions during the day.
Interested in using nursery rhymes with your early learners? Take a look at some of my favorite books:
Mother Goose: Four Classic Board Books by Sylvia Long (Chronicle Books, 2016)
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes padded board book by Mem Fox (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2010)
Humpty Dumpty and Other Nursery Rhymes by Lucy Cousins (Dutton Juvenile, 1996)
Big Fat Hen by Keith Baker(HMH Books for Young Readers, 1997)