Can Nursery Rhymes Make Baby Smarter?

Memorizing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” may not make the cut as preeminent advice in most parenting columns, but it turns out there are more than just sentimental reasons to weave “Itsy Bitsy Spider” into your child’s web of experiences. Recent cognitive neuroscience findings support the use of nursery rhymes to enhance young minds, according to Betsy Diamant-Cohen, children’s programming specialist at Baltimore, Maryland’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. Brain research is an integral player in Diamant-Cohen’s award-winning, infant and toddler early childhood literacy program called Mother Goose on the Loose.

“Scientific studies have shown that children who have recited nursery rhymes in their younger years end up being better readers and doing better in school [when they are older],” explains Diamant-Cohen. “By being exposed to nursery rhymes, you are also teaching children to listen. The brain gets ready to read and translate from the heard word to the written word later on.”

While living in Israel in the late 1980s, Diamant-Cohen and her own toddler became hooked on a music-and-movement program. The following year, with the founder’s support, she created her own curriculum and added library programming practices to the mix.

After moving to Baltimore, Diamant-Cohen continued to build the program and has led trainings around the country. Before “the Goose,” as one parent affectionately calls the program, launches in your community, Diamant-Cohen offers this advice about activities you can do at home based on the magical moments she witnesses every week.

Sing Nursery Rhymes

Whether karaoke was part of your pre-kid life, you’re a secret shower singer, or are tone deaf, Diamant-Cohen encourages you to sing with your tot. She points out that rhymes such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” have simple tunes that introduce complex vocabulary—such as “fleece” or “Jack be nimble.”

“Other rhymes document things we do in everyday life,” Diamant-Cohen says, breaking into the song, “This is the way we wash our hands.”

Diamant-Cohen also suggests using different books to illustrate one rhyme. “If your child sees the same rhyme with different illustrations, then she sees that there are different visual representations for the same thing, and you are giving her an early start for what’s called ‘visual literacy.'”

Simeon Brodsky, who plans to start classes with his newborn daughter, shared many a Goose session with his now three-year-old daughter Esther. When asked about the fact that some parents may be better schooled in nursery toys than nursery rhymes, Brodsky commented, “I think that’s why these other things are more attractive. They come pre-packaged, and you just open them up and stick them in front of your kids. With things like nursery rhymes, I would love to say I’m creative enough to do all of the motions that go along with ‘The Grand Old Duke of York.’ Certainly, three years ago I wasn’t. Now, I can do it.”

“Be willing to be silly,” Brodsky says. “It will pay huge dividends.” For Brodsky, the rewards have come in the form of quality interactive time and even a soothing solution during challenging car trips.

Susan Warren, a mother of two young sons, also has a new appreciation for age-old rhymes. “I think that’s why these rhymes have been around for so long. I think parents through the centuries recognize their values and that’s why they’re still with us.”

Incorporate Positive Reinforcement

During Mother Goose classes, you’ll hear applause after a child throws a stuffed pig into the air, jumps over a candlestick, or pulls a flannel Humpty Dumpty down from the wall.

“In each of these cases, by clapping, you’re setting a realistic task for children and having them develop a sense of self worth that they can accomplish something and that their achievement is recognized,” explains Diamant-Cohen. “It never ceases to amaze me that even children as young as three months respond so strongly, to the point that all I have to do is say, ‘It’s time for Humpty Dumpty!” I’ll [put the Humpty Dumpty doll] on the board and children are already straining against their mothers’ arms [to reach him].”

To support and empower children when they succeed in these accomplishments, Diamant-Cohen suggests parents strive to introduce new words of recognition such as “marvelous,” “fantastic,” and even “unparalleled.”

Play Games

The Freeze Game: Diamant-Cohen recalls a speaker at a brain development conference talking about how movement creates connections in the brain. She uses freeze games to help children understand the word “stop.” The idea is that as her participants walk, crawl, or are carried around a circle to music and instructed to stop, as “the drum says stop,” the repetition will help them absorb the meaning of the word.

“What you are doing is teaching them the word ‘stop’ in a fun, non-threatening way. All children need to learn the word ‘stop,’ rather than waiting until something potentially dangerous like sticking their finger into an electrical outlet happens. Saying the word ‘stop’ in a very urgent, angry voice could be frightening to a child and may not convey the message that they need to stop.”

She tells the story of a colleague seeing a toddler run off through a grocery store. The colleague heard the father calmly call out, “And the drum says ‘stop.'” When the little girl froze, the librarian knew the pair had been to Mother Goose.

Knee Bounces: Diamant-Cohen encourages adults to sit on the floor, with their legs extended out and children on their knees. In class, as everyone sings “The Grand Old Duke of York,” the children are bounced up and down as the Duke’s men march up the hill and back down again.

In addition to teaching concepts like up/down, Diamant-Cohen says knee bounces have another positive outcome. She refers to the book Neurons to Neighborhoods by Jack Shonkoff and says, “Research suggests that the connection between the child and the primary caregiver has all sorts of important implications for development later in life. Having a strong positive connection with the caregiver can help your child get a good start in life. And playing together is one way to build this connection.”

Read! Read! Read!

Long before children can identify words, Diamant-Cohen explains reading aloud teaches early literacy skills; little ones learn that written symbols are connected to something.

She encourages parents to read in a joyful manner to help children develop a love for reading.

And, if you hear the word, “again,” after a story, night after night, science sides with your child. “Brain research findings say children learn best with repetition,” says Diamant-Cohen. “At Mother Goose on the Loose, 80 percent of the activities are repeated from week to week. Brain research tells us not only do people learn better when they are building on what they already know, but that it creates a safe and secure environment when you have something that is familiar.”

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