5 Ways to be ‘diversity-aware’ when using nursery rhymes
There is a lot of ‘noise’ around singing nursery rhymes with young children these days. One side of the argument says you shouldn’t still be singing them because they have ‘dark and sinister meanings’ whilst the other side of the argument states that nursery-rhymes-with-music significantly aid a child’s social, mental and intellectual development and their spatial reasoning. So where do you stand on this? Or are you firmly on the fence, not knowing which way to go?
In this article, I outline 5 particular points that I use when assessing whether or not to share a particular nursery rhyme, ditty or song with young children. I came up with these 5 suggestions during an ‘on-the-spot’ interview that I did during a teachers’ workshop a couple of weeks ago. This list is not exhaustive and nor is it the only way to approach singing nursery rhymes from a ‘diversity-aware’ perspective. These are just some of the things I personally think about when preparing to sing with young children.
As part of our Musicbuds’ Diversity-Awareness course, our students have the opportunity to think about a number of ‘Diversity Dilemmas’ that they may experience in their work as teachers, musicians, parents, carers or counsellors of 3 – 7 year olds. The screenshot below highlights just a few of the thoughts and comments from our participants.
5 suggestions for becoming more diversity-aware when sharing nursery rhymes
These 5 ideas require us to think carefully about the songs that we have chosen to share with our children. Obviously both the nursery rhymes and the suggestions will need some ‘tweaking’ in places to make them resonant and appropriate for our own individual social settings.
1. INTENTION: Ask yourself how and why you have chosen to use this particular nursery rhyme in the way that you have. Do your actions have integrity, or is this a ‘spur-of-the-moment’ decision, where you don’t know what the meaning of the song is, but you think it doesn’t really matter anyway? If somebody challenged you about the meaning of the song and/or why you are sharing it with your young learners, could you justify why you have chosen this particular song in terms of its value to diversity, equity and inclusion and the children’s learning?
2. LANGUAGE: There are so many reasons to pay attention to the types of language we use – not just in nursery rhymes but whenever we are interacting with young children. However, for the purposes of this list I’m just going to focus on two main areas: the outdated use of language and the frequent occurrence of gendered language.
Children do like to discover and play with new words, nonsense words, and vocal sounds. If we were to offer them nursery rhymes in their most traditional forms, using language from many centuries ago, many of the nursery rhymes would be beyond the children’s understanding – because the language and meanings would not connect with the lives they are actually living now. (This is not to say that language always has to make sense to very young learners, but that is a discussion for another time).
And so, with a little simple advance thought, it is quite easy to update much of the difficult language. For example;
‘Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey’.
Lots of us today don’t know what curds and whey actually are. But this is simple to remedy. Rather than using ‘curds and whey’, we could substitute ‘eating her fruit today’. It still scans within the rhyming structure of the nursery rhyme (there are 6 syllables in this replacement line, just as there are in the original rhyme) and it actually opens up the nursery rhyme so that the children can decide each time you sing the nursery rhyme what ‘Miss Muffet’ will be eating today.
As you may have noticed, ‘Miss Muffet’ is female (and unmarried) and she is sitting on an outdated ‘tuffet’. So we have some more work to do. How about using the children’s names from the group that you are sharing the rhyme with? Take my name for example:
‘Lovely young Clare
Sat on a chair
Eating her fruit today.
There came a big spider, that sat down beside her
And frightened young Clare away!’
In order to foster a respectful and accepting environment for everyone, we should also start to think about replacing gender pronouns and titles (such as the ‘Miss’ above) with other less explicit terms. It also doesn’t really matter to the children whether we substitute a nonsense rhyme or a meaningful rhyme to scan with a child’s name. In fact, that adds another element of fun to the song. E.g.: ‘Clare/chair, Scarlet/starlet (??), Hassan/divan, Jonah/Flampona (??).
One of our course participants has provided a great suggestion; instead of singing ‘five little men in a flying saucer’, it’s simple to make it ‘five astronauts in a flying saucer’. That opens up the possibility to all the girls in the group (on a subconscious level) that they could also be included in a flying saucer journey. The meter of the rhythm fits perfectly and it allows the meaning of this song to be inclusive rather than exclusively male.
And this moves us a seamlessly to the next point in the list.
3. REPRESENTATION: As another of our course members has noted; “Many of the nursery rhymes we use with the children are Euro-centric in content…” That means that the characters within the nursery rhymes will mainly be represented by white people and traditional contexts. We can begin to address these issues by taking some time to think about the pictures and visual prompts we use so that we are ensuring that we make every effort to represent a diverse society to the children.
Again, this can be fairly simple to achieve. We could do this by taking a regular audit of the resource materials we use and perhaps change them around frequently. For example, we could use fruits and vegetables from different countries rather than always using the ones we are fully familiar with. We could use different items of clothing (rather than just western ones), and we could employ a variety of modes of transport (from all around the world) as examples in the rhymes (E.g. we could replace ‘the wheels on the bus’ with ‘the wheels on the tuk-tuk’ etc.). In this way, we could reflect the demographics of the children in our groups and demonstrate to them by our actions, that we value them all equally through the efforts we make to include them in our sessions. This leads us to:
4. VIBRANCY: I believe that nursery rhymes should never be delivered in a static way. They always need to include movement, actions and expression. Even the simplest rhymes benefit from being brought to life through a connection to the person who delivers them. Every delivery needs to be fresh and sincere. This again is straightforward to do. We just need to think about the content and the delivery of the rhyme before presenting it to the children. Where are we going to breathe? Where are we going to change the intonation of our voices? Where are we going to over emphasise our expressions and gestures to draw the children in? How are we going to build anticipation? and release?
5. ENTHUSIASM: This follows on from the previous point about vibrancy, but it also includes the importance of energy, excitement and expression in the delivery of every nursery rhyme we ever offer to our children. At some point in our lives we have probably all experienced a ‘flat’ interpretation of a song or nursery rhyme. This leaves us, and all those receiving such a delivery, with feelings of dissatisfaction, a lack of engagement, and, ultimately, boredom.
Nursery rhymes should never suffer from an impoverished presentation. Each time we deliver a nursery rhyme we need to treat it as being what it really is – a unique opportunity for us to connect, engage, enthuse and entertain our children. It’s only by doing so that we make each and every delivery an authentic experience that will speak (or in the case of nursery rhymes – ‘sing’!), to our children in the most valuable and memorable ways.
We have created a free 5-day resource to celebrate Nursery Rhyme Week 2021. The materials include nursery rhyme facts, a daily nursery rhyme/children’s song from a different country each day, and teaching tips and background information for you to use. You can access this great resource here .
They present almost exclusively a white, Euro-centric group of characters (Little Miss Muffet, Jack and Jill, Mary had a little lamb etc) so any children of colour or mixed-race are automatically not represented.
Dr Clare Seymour
Clare has spent much of her professional career (over 30 years) in international settings. Part of her Doctoral research involved exploring the often hidden aspects of institutional racism. As a result she has a longstanding interest in, and passion for, promoting positive Diversity.
In addition to school music-teaching, Clare also has over 10 years’ experience working as an international music examiner – an understanding and respect for Diversity is so crucially important in every aspect of her practice.