Why do we focus on traditional nursery rhymes and songs?

There’s been a misguided minor backlash against traditional kids’ tunes in recent years. BBC radio 4’ s Today programme conducted an interview with an academic and child development “expert” not so long ago who said the old songs no longer had relevance and that they were essentially nonsensical and misleading about the real world “The cow jumped over the moon, etc.” He seemed to be arguing that this would result in children growing up as inefficient work units for the shining technological future of Great Britain PLC. Well the human spirit has always shone through such sterile visions and imagination. Frivolity and surrealism is very much at the core of the culture of the United Kingdom from the poetry of Edward Lear to the sketches of Monty Python, the children’s books of Spike Milligan, the films about Harry Potter and the stand-up comedy of Eddie Izzard. Warnings were made in different generations about the TV shows such as The Flowerpot Men and Teletubbies because they spoke in gobbledygook. Well my family and I watched those programmes in our respective generations and we’re pretty eloquent.

National kids’ music franchise Monkey Music is tremendously successful and, although I have never attended a session, I’m sure very well put together, but the concern I have heard time and again from parents is that they don’t make live music, but play recordings of their own songs which no-one knows. For copyrighting and trademarking purposes this makes sense but the cross-generational recognisability of traditional tunes and words that go back in some cases hundreds of years sit so deeply in our national psyche that they provide a firmer foundation for a shared experience. You may have noticed that the CBeebies have been singing their own “Happy Birthday” song for the past few years. That’s because they didn’t want to pay royalties for the use of the internationally familiar “Happy Birthday To You”. I think the programmes suffered for this, denying themselves the ability to make an instant connection with every child and adult watching who has had an experience of a real birthday party. (Incidentally after a recent legal case “Happy Birthday To You” is no longer in copyright and a court ordered royalties to be repaid!) It’s horses for courses of course, many may prefer the novelty of learning something new.

Don’t be fooled into thinking these songs require no effort though, when I started singing to kids I recklessly thought I knew the songs but soon found that I would so often get lost after the first verse or so and faced quite a learning curve to get to know the words for all the 100 plus numbers we do. The old ways are not without challenges of their own.

Lastly I might be so bold as to suggest that for the many parents and carers who attend a Little Acorns baby music class, traditional songs and rhymes are a good way to familiarise themselves with the English language and some of the timeless memes of British culture.