Do Nursery Rhymes Make Kids Smarter? Here’s the Science


You’ve probably heard that listening to and learning music helps kids concentrate and makes them perform better on educational tasks. But can nursery rhymes, those apparently nonsensical, even silly songs, have the same effect?

Yes, listening to and learning nursery rhymes does make kids smarter by developing pathways in their brains that build all eight of the multiple intelligences. These benefits are enhanced if children participate physically when singing nursery rhymes and when read aloud to by an adult.

Nursery rhymes are an excellent way to entertain children but this isn’t the only reason why nursery rhymes remain so popular. Nursery rhymes are known for their repetitive phrases, catchy tunes, and enjoyable repetition which engage the brain in a pattern of repeated actions that strengthen neural connections. So let’s look at how that works so you understand the benefits and how to use this simple but incredible educational tool in your home or classroom!

How a baby’s brain develops

As early as the sixteenth week of pregnancy, a baby’s auditory function begins developing. This part of the brain deals with listening and hearing. At this early stage, babies can already hear sounds from within the womb, including parents’ voices and music. Their developing brains can distinguish between these sounds; this early exposure helps to develop auditory processing skills.

In their first year of life, babies’ brains are incredibly plastic, which means they are malleable or can change and adapt easily. During this one year, the brain develops and grows more rapidly than any other time, in terms of both speed and size. All sensory functions are activated, and the brain absorbs stimuli like an intelligent sponge. By the time a child is three, the brain has tripled in size and developed thousands of billions of neural connections, more than adults have.

Crucial parts of a child’s developing brain are stimulated by sound, and most notably by musical sounds. Studies show that babies’ brains are more attuned to learning via singing or a sing-song voice (which adults often use when speaking to babies) during quality interactions with adults. Nursery rhymes formed part of a study where mothers interacted with babies, and their brain waves or the activity in their brain were shown to be in sync. Scientists and researchers were able to see the brain in this learning state via neural imaging- brain scans that show neural pathways essential for information flow and thus learning. Neural pathways are basically the nerves that receive, store and send messages around the brain. They are like the corridors in a building except they can sometimes be closed down when no longer in use and new ones built when new information is learned. The more neural pathways a child develops the more pathways they have for information to be accessed, learned, and stored.

Therefore, exposing babies and small children to music is extremely helpful to the cognitive stimulation of their neural pathways essential for learning and development. Neural development is enhanced if children are in a loving, nurturing environment, with lots of eye contact and individual attention from adults. This basically means, singing and listening to nursery rhymes with your child WILL help make your child smarter!

What are the Multiple Intelligences?

Traditionally, standardized intelligence or IQ tests measured intelligence. However, scientists have criticized these tests as limited to only specific ways of being smart – Professor Howard Gardner, a psychologist from Harvard University, argues that there are eight different kinds of intelligence or intelligences and that people exhibit a combination of these:

  • musical intelligence: musical awareness
  • linguistic intelligence: adept with spoken and written words
  • logical-mathematical intelligence: proficient with numbers or analyzing/solving problems
  • bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: fine and gross motor skills
  • interpersonal intelligence: skilled at interacting with others
  • intrapersonal intelligence: having self-knowledge
  • spacial/spatial intelligence: visual thinking
  • naturalist intelligence: connection to our environment, plants and animals

How nursery rhymes develop different kinds of intelligence

When we sing nursery rhymes with children we are developing their auditory and listening skills. When we add in hand movements we are developing their visual and spatial skills. When we add in actions, like clapping or stomping our feet, we are also stimulating their motor development. These are just a few basic ways nursery rhymes develop the different kinds of intelligences but they can do so much more which we are just now beginning to understand.

Repetitive rhymes also help embed the nursery rhymes’ words in children’s memories and develop memory skills, which enhance all eight kinds of intelligence.

One thing to note is that each area of intelligence is important and that we all have varying levels of ability in each area. We all also have the potential to develop any of the intelligences or we may naturally lean towards certain areas over others depending on our personalities, likes and interests. So although one person might excel and be the example given for an intelligence, it doesn’t lessen your or a child’s ability to develop in that area in their own way. For example you have musical intelligence just by being able to sing nursery rhymes, but your scope in this area may not match the exemplar we give in this article of Beyonce! And that doesn’t make this area of intelligence any less important for your or your child’s development just because you are not at her level of ability in the area!

What is musical intelligence?

Musical intelligence is your ability to appreciate melodic patterns (rhythm, pitch, etc.) and create, compose, and perform music of all kinds, using both voice and instruments. Examples of people with high musical intelligence are Beyoncé and Louis Armstrong.

Because the brain’s auditory center develops early, hearing is one of the first ways in which babies process the world. The rhythm of the mother’s heartbeat is the soundtrack in utero, and children are born recognizing their parents’ voices. Children, even as infants, are innately musical, singing to themselves and creating rhythms by clapping, kicking, or drumming.

How do nursery rhymes develop musical intelligence?

Children today are surrounded by sound and music – however, this is often “unchosen”, such as ringtones, television soundtracks, computer games, or outside noise. The scientific effects of this ubiquitous passive listening have not been adequately researched. Still, it does appear that children are not being given a chance to listen to music specifically for them or to have the space to create their own music.

Exposing children specifically to nursery rhymes by singing to them or reading to them is therefore helpful to develop musical intelligence. The repetitive rhythms and rhymes of nursery rhymes and their simple tunes help develop this musical intelligence by enhancing children’s capacity to discern pitch, rhythm, timbre, and tone as well as expose them to music. Nursery Rhymes are a great start and introduction to more formal music lessons that a child can start to take when they are cognitively mature enough. Many music teachers do not take children for private instrument lessons until they are of school age.

Best nursery rhymes for musical intelligence

  • Old MacDonald had a farm: Using different voices and sounds (and later children participating) is an informal introduction to pitch and tone of voice.
  • If you’re happy and you know it: Help children develop rhythm by helping them to clap, stomp or even splash along to rhymes with a strong beat.
  • I am the music man: Offer children drums, shakers, or rattles to expose them to instruments’ different timbre and tone. Tip: Children love making their own musical instruments from items around the house, such as pots and spoons.

What is linguistic intelligence?

Linguistic intelligence is associated with spoken and written language, including communicating effectively and persuasively and learning new languages. Examples of people with high linguistic intelligence are William Shakespeare and Oprah Winfrey.

Educational experts explain that listening precedes speaking, so children first hear speech before they start to reproduce it. Listening is a natural part of speech and language development, as babies hear and repeat the sounds made to and around them. Speaking to babies and ‘having conversations’ where you respond to their sounds as if they have meaning is essential in developing linguistic intelligence.

How do nursery rhymes develop linguistic intelligence?

Playing, singing, and reading nursery rhymes aloud helps develop children’s listening skills in terms of meaning and how voices sound when reading: the so-called storytelling voice or sing-song intonation used when chanting rhymes. Children learn articulation, enunciation, pronunciation, intonation, modulation, and pitch when listening to someone reading aloud. This informal listening becomes a practical skill when children learn to recite nursery rhymes and even later read aloud themselves.

However, linguistic intelligence doesn’t only cover the spoken word: equally important is the child’s development of skills that will allow them to read and write fluently when they are older. These skills are also based on listening skills, specifically phonological awareness, which is the ability to hear, distinguish between and manipulate the sound structures within language. Children learn to speak without needing to differentiate the individual sounds (phonemes) within words of a language. However, the ability to read and count depends on decoding the unique sounds or phonemes represented by letters and numbers. Phonemic awareness is an aspect of phonological awareness and is the ability to listen for and differentiate between different sounds in words. Developing phonemic awareness is essential for both linguistic and logical-mathematical development. Nursery rhymes help develop phonological and specifically phonemic awareness because their repetitive rhythms and rhymes help children develop an ear for sound patterns and sequences.

Another area of linguistic intelligence where nursery rhymes play a role is in the development of vocabulary. Children experience a ‘vocabulary eruption’ between 18 months and two years, fed by nursery rhymes and repetitive language. The short sentences of nursery rhymes are also good examples of sentence structure for children to mimic as they begin speaking in two and three-word sentences.

In fact, the role of nursery rhymes in early literacy is so crucial that Mem Fox in her book “Reading Magic” wrote that literacy experts show that knowing six to eight nursery rhymes by the age of four is a predictor of reading and spelling achievement by the age of eight.” Mem learned this information by attending a Literacy conference in South Africa in the early 1990’s and therefore as there is no actual evidenced research it has been suggested that 6-8 rhymes may not be the magic number, but overall knowing some nursery rhymes is a good predictor of reading and spelling achievement further on!

Best nursery rhymes for linguistic intelligence

  • Hey diddle diddle: Choose nursery rhymes with strong rhyming words to help children to recognize and distinguish between phonemes: diddle/fiddle; moon/spoon.
  • Jack and Jill: This rhyme has a strong rhythm and rhyming words to focus attention on phonemes and word and syllable emphasis.
  • Little Miss Muffet: This rhyme has lots of dramatic potential for children to act out and use props. There are rhyming words galore and new and unusual words (tuffet, curds and whey) to add to vocabulary.
  • Bingo: The song is devised to make sure that children listen and fill in the missing letters as the song progresses.

What is logical-mathematical intelligence?

Logical-mathematical intelligence is the ability to analyze, investigate and solve abstract and concrete problems logically, mathematically, and scientifically. Examples of people with logical-mathematical intelligence are Albert Einstein and Katherine Johnson.

How do nursery rhymes develop logical-mathematical intelligence?

Logical-mathematical intelligence is based on the ability to recognize and later analyze patterns and codes. As we know that listening to sounds develops children’s brains, it makes sense that listening skills form the basis of this kind of intelligence as well. Recent studies have found that children who have good phonological and phonemic awareness develop early number skills, rather than children who have only been exposed to activities on numbers and counting (useful though these are). Nursery rhymes also introduce abstract concepts of size, shape, and position, which develop logical-mathematical thinking.

The singing of Nursery Rhymes also develops logical-mathematical intelligence through their pattern and repetition. Mathematical reasoning is based on searching for and analyzing patterns. It is known that learning an instrument can help increase your understanding of mathematical concepts because you are learning about musical patterns and repetitive phrases, that are similar yet different, and this knowledge can be expanded upon and used when solving logical and mathematical problems. Nursery rhymes offer a similar awareness but at the preschool level – they are an introduction to pattern and repetition.

Best nursery rhymes for logical-mathematical intelligence

  • Three blind mice: This famous rhyme includes counting, but it also repetitive and offers a sequence of events and characters form patterns.
  • As I was going to St Ives: This is an ancient riddle-style nursery rhyme that requires children to listen very carefully to work out the sequence of events.
  • 12345 Once I caught a fish alive: This rhyme with hand actions teaches one-to-one counting on fingers as well as counting to 10.
  • 5 Little Ducks: In this rhyme, we learn about subtraction and counting back from 5. There is also much repetition in this rhyme as you repeat it again and again as each duck goes missing over the hills and far away!

What is bodily-kinesthetic intelligence?

Kinesthetic intelligence, or “body intelligence”, is our ability to know what’s happening with our body without looking at it. We need this skill in order to play sports or do other types of physical activities. People with high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence might be athletes with excellent coordination or are good at manipulating their bodies to solve problems or achieve goals. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence also refers to those who have excellent fine motor skills such as patisserie chefs and wood crafters, making products using a combination of body and mind. Examples of people with high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence are Misty Copeland and Abby Wambach.

How do nursery rhymes develop bodily-kinesthetic intelligence?

Nursery rhymes help to develop bodily-kinesthetic intelligence when singing and reading are combined with movement. The rhyming words and repetitive movements that accompany the music are great for developing kinesthetic intelligence and gross motor skills. Gross motor skills refer to those movements that involve large muscle groups and whole limbs of the body, such as running, jumping, kicking a ball. These physical activities require coordination between both sides of the brain!

It turns out nursery rhymes can help us learn these difficult tasks even better because when you repeat something over and over again, like dancing around or clapping to the music, your brain starts to remember how to coordinate the movements better each time!

When performing gross motor skills that involve coordination between hands and feet (e.g., marching), children naturally try to synchronize their movements while singing, but this coordination takes time and practice and are great precursors to learning more complicated gross motor skills as well as fine motor skills when more intricate hand movements are used in the action of a song.

If your child is still a baby you can help them learn to become bodily aware by gently helping them to move their own bodies, help them roll and clap and bounce to nursery rhymes.

Best nursery rhymes for bodily-kinesthetic intelligence

Several action songs are fun for children, including those with matching actions and ring or dance songs.

  • Head, shoulders, knees, and toes
  • Ring-a-ring-a-roses
  • 1 2 3 4 5 Once I caught a fish alive
  • Everybody Clap (by The Wiggles)
  • The house that Jack Built
  • The Grand Old Duke of York

What is interpersonal intelligence?

Interpersonal intelligence is the capacity to understand others and ourselves, as well as a social understanding of self. It can be conceptualized in three parts: recognizing emotions from facial expression, understanding mental states such as intention and desire, and constructing an interpretation that reflects how another person perceives themselves. People with interpersonal intelligence are good at understanding what makes others tick – their intentions, motivations, and desires-and can relate to and work well with others. Examples of people with interpersonal intelligence are Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa.

How do nursery rhymes develop interpersonal intelligence?

We know that interpersonal intelligence can be improved by a person’s environment including the people they interact with on a daily basis as well as what happens in those interactions which is why singing and dancing around in a circle with other children and people is so beneficial to develop this intelligence.

Nursery rhymes also offer opportunities for children to develop interpersonal intelligence through encouraging communication. Communication begins at a preverbal stage when singing lullabies to babies to associate communication with love and bonding. Later, nursery rhymes help children develop vocabulary and short sentences to communicate in simple ways. Nursery rhymes also model social routines and social interactions to scaffold communication. Although effective communication is part of linguistic intelligence, the overlap here is essential: children who cannot communicate with others become frustrated and aggressive.

Interpersonal skills can also be laid down through physical interaction, such as hand-holding in a Ring-a-ring-a-roses circle or cooperation of the group such as when deciding which direction everyone is going to move. Communication and cooperation is also needed during group sung nursery rhymes such as Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? Children singing and moving to nursery rhymes also learn about personal space as they move around learning when it is ok to be near or when they need to distance themselves from others

Best nursery rhymes for interpersonal intelligence

  • The farmer’s in the dell; I wrote a letter to my love:  Both of these nursery rhymes combine a song, actions, and a game about human relationships. The games are based on turn-taking as well.
  • Row, row, row your boat: Children cooperate by holding hands and mimicking the boat’s rocking motion.
  • Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? Children sing the song in a sitting circle making rhythmical clapping sounds as they take turns to accuse each other of eating all the cookies and denying the accusation – which is alot of silly fun.
  • Ring-a-ring-a-roses: Children need to hold hands and move in a circle which takes cooperation and social skills.

What is intrapersonal intelligence?

Intrapersonal intelligence is the capacity to understand oneself, one’s emotions, and motivations. Many introverts have a natural tendency toward this type of understanding which makes them more emotionally intelligent than extroverts in general because introversion often comes with spending quality time with one’s own thoughts.

Intrapersonal intelligence is also the ability to understand yourself, your moods, fears, desires, motivations, capabilities, and intentions – and then to use this self-reflection in your own and others’ lives. This kind of intelligence helps you to look at your own goals and to achieve them. Examples of people with intrapersonal intelligence are Maya Angelou and Deepak Chopra.

How do nursery rhymes develop intrapersonal intelligence?

The characters and stories in nursery rhymes often appear ridiculous to adults – cows jumping over the moon, an egg that can’t be put back together, kittens losing their mittens. However, nursery rhymes are filled with opportunities for children to hear stories that mirror their own experiences and are full of imagination and possibility just as they are:

Hey Diddle Diddle,
The Cat and the Fiddle
The Cow Jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed to see such fun
and the dish ran away with the spoon.

This is such a simple rhyme, but if you think about it, the beginning of the rhyme starts off as being silly and fun, and the cow jumping over the moon could sound hilarious to some children, but to others, it might be scary and they would run away from such a scene just like the dish and the spoon. Through nursery rhymes, they can be exposed to situations of humor, loss, pain, fear, and eventual resolution. Through introspection of what they are singing and hearing, children develop sympathy and empathy, as well as the ability to think creatively.

Best nursery rhymes for intrapersonal intelligence

  • About myself
  • Here are my fingers
  • Roses are red
  • When your happy and you know it

What is spacial/spatial intelligence

Spatial intelligence is the ability to think and reason about space or the area we inhabit. It includes a person’s spatial awareness, perception, understanding of both physical objects in their environment as well as abstract representations. Good spatial intelligence means that you can determine where things are spatially relative to each other, manipulate them mentally with your hands or on paper without looking at them. Spatial intelligence is an important skill for our children to develop because it contributes to success in the classroom, sports and spatial tasks that they will eventually take on such as driving a car. Examples of people with spatial intelligence are Frank Lloyd Wright and Amelia Earhart.

How do nursery rhymes develop spatial intelligence?

Singing nursery rhymes and moving to them helps children develop spatial intelligence. These songs help kids understand spatial concepts such as left-right, up-down, near-far easier than if they were just spoken. When children hear and see something, they are more likely to remember it because the two intelligences come together.

Flexibility in thinking about the location and orientation of objects is one aspect of spatial intelligence. It involves imagining how shapes might fit together or identifying which shape would best fit into a given space (Kosslyn, 1995). Nursery rhymes makes use of this spacial ability by asking kids to visualize the dish running away from the scene while it is being chased by the spoon.

In addition to imaginative play, nursery rhymes help children develop their spatial intelligence in other ways. Nursery rhyme songs are rich with words that describe the shapes and movements of objects (Kosslyn, 1995). Singing rhymes like “Old Macdonald had a farm” requires kids to not only think and visualize all the animals in their head but to also think about what other animals might be on a farm. When we do this, we usually don’t just think of the animal in isolation but we add a background to the animal, perhaps on a field or in a pen, and add shape and dimension, and size to the animals we are visualizing in our heads. We may even see different paddocks and pens with different animals!

Having children move their bodies through space and in relation to each other also develops spatial intelligence, as does the learning of sequences of dance steps. Hence, any nursery rhymes that stimulate bodily-kinesthetic intellect will also boost spatial intelligence.

Best nursery rhymes for spatial intelligence

  • Five little monkeys
  • The wheels on the bus
  • Hokey Pokey
  • Old Macdonald

What is naturalist intelligence?

Naturalist intelligence is the ability to understand and interact with nature. People with naturalistic intelligence have a relationship with fauna and flora and are usually good at recognizing, identifying, and classifying plants, animals, and geographic features of our environment. They will have an affinity for the natural world. Examples of people with naturalist intelligence are David Attenborough and Jane Goodall.

How do nursery rhymes stimulate naturalist intelligence?

This type of natural intelligence can be developed in nursery rhymes because they are often about animals, plants, or other things that live in nature. Many of the characters in nursery rhymes are anthropomorphized animals – that is, animals with the characteristics of people. As children learn to empathize with these characters, so they learn to empathize with animals and the world around them.

Nursery rhymes can stimulate naturalist intelligence because they:

– teach children about animals and the environment
– help babies learn language and vocabulary in relation to animals and nature.
– promote the development of empathy with animals and natural objects
– help children develop a curiosity for the world around them.

One nursery rhyme that promotes naturalist intelligence is “Old Mother Hubbard”. In this nursery rhyme, an old woman named Old Mother Hubbard goes to her pantry but she gets there the cupboard is bear and so the poor dog has none which greatly disappoints her. She then goes to the shops to buy her dog all different things to please him.

This nursery rhyme teaches about looking after pets and promotes empathy with our animal friends by showing how Old Mother Hubbard cares immensely for her dog. The song teaches about materials for pets that can be found at a shop like bones, food, and treats and promotes curiosity as children can ask what the different things in the nursery rhyme are and where they live, or what foods they eat.

Best nursery rhymes for naturalist intelligence

  • Mary, Mary, quite contrary
  • Incy wincy spider
  • The ants go marching two by two
  • Two little dickie birds
  • Old Mother Hubbard

So do Nursery Rhymes make kids smarter?

Absolutely! Nursery rhymes definitely make kids smarter by developing their neural networks and building their eight kinds of intelligence, particularly musical, linguistic, logical-mathematical, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

Nursery rhymes help children understand language and meaning. They teach children about the world around them and help develop memory skills. So why not use the resources on this website to help start teaching your child nursery rhymes today?

References

BOOK:
Fox, M. (2001). Reading Magic. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

JOURNALS:
Kosslyn, S.M., Behrmann, M., and Jeannerod, M. The cognitive Neuroscience of Mental Imagery, Carnegie Mellon University, 1995

WEBSITES:
activebabiessmarkids.com.au
BBC – Infants Brains Attuned to baby talk and nursery rhymes
boysandgirlsnursery.com
CNBC -8 types of intelligence
Hostos Community College – Music for the Young Child Text Book
News 24 – Exposing your baby to music really can produce a genius
nurseryworld.co.uk – Nursery Rhymes may help to develop children’s math skills
simplypsychology.org
http://melissa.depperfamily.net/blog/nursery-rhymes-and-reading-skills/

Samantha

Samantha Bellerose has a Bachelor of Education as well as a Diploma in Performing Arts. She is a mom to four children and is passionate about education and learning. Samantha created Nursery Rhyme Central as the go to place for parents, teachers and carers about all things to do with Nursery Rhymes. She is also the Main Author and creator for websites Dance Parent 101 and Move Dance Learn, where she shares her knowledge and expertise for dance and learning through movement.

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