Teaching kids to read between the rhymes



My three-quarters Greek grandchildren must be learning by now that I am a propaganda machine for Australia. An anthropologist friend tells me that it is women who transmit the culture. True: I have been doing my best to do this, emphasising the littlies' Australian quarter, for years now.

Cover illustration from The Real Mother Goose by Blanche Fisher WrightI've had plenty of practice: when my sons were children, an Australian friend came to visit the Peloponnesian village house, and noted the cricket posters, the Aussie Rules football jumpers, the pictures of kangaroos and koalas, the tapes of 'Waltzing Matilda' and other cherished music, the toy boomerangs, and the copies of Blinky Bill and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. 'All that's missing is an embalmed pavlova,' she remarked drily.

My efforts, however, belong in a time warp, an inevitable one given my age and the fact that both my grandmothers were of Anglo-Celt extraction. Added to which my infant teacher mother, whose cultural input was also very considerable, started her training during the war. One blink and I can see them all now, these influential women.

A vivid picture is of my sister and my young self sitting in bed on either side of Nana while she plaited her hair first thing in the morning. 'I'll tell you a story about Jack-a-Nory,' she would begin. Her favourites were chain-rhymed stories such as 'The Old Woman and her Pig', and 'This is the House that Jack Built', both of which I try to communicate to my grandchildren. Way back then my sister and I never realised how we were acquiring tastes for story, shape, rhyme and rhythm, or that we were exercising our young memories, our capacities for recall, as well.

Greeks are always keen to raise consciousness about traditional myths and legends but, in worrying contrast, there is concern in Britain at present about the prospective loss of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and myths, for they are no longer taught in kindergartens and schools, and it would seem that many of today's mothers and grannies do not fill the cultural gap.

This concern has been spotlighted because of the recent death of 94-year-old Iona Opie. She and her husband Peter spent their lives applying scholarship to a topic that most people had taken for granted. It was the Opies who pointed out that 50 generations went into the making of Mother Goose; they also emphasised the importance of nursery rhymes in the world's literature.

Such rhymes are also part of the endless flow of history, and in more ways than one. Not only are they passed down from generation to generation, but historians, not without controversy, now connect them with actual historical events.


"In an oral tradition, as distinct from a literate one, hearing and listening have a different value, and the imagination, a picture-making facility, is of huge significance, as is the psychological aspect of such tales."


'Ring-a ring-a-rosy', for example, refers to the fearful scourge of the Black Death (a tish-oo, a tish-oo, we all fall down), while 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' is thought to recall Henry VIII and the execution of Anne Boleyn ('And down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.')

Nursery rhymes and fairy tales are also important because they are part of an oral tradition, in which the voice is vital and individual. In an oral tradition, as distinct from a literate one, hearing and listening have a different value, and the imagination, a picture-making facility, is of huge significance, as is the psychological aspect of such tales.

Controversial Freudian analyst and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim probably did the most to explain the layers of value in fairy tales, showing how they help children to come to terms with their fears and darker feelings, and encourage them to be aware of danger, but still to hope that all will be well even though there may be many a trial and tribulation to experience beforehand.

Consider, for example, Little Red Riding-hood and Hansel and Gretel.  Fairy tales, myths and legends also show growing children the importance of native wit and resourcefulness, and the need for tenacity and persistence.

Of course these rhymes and tales are readily available via the internet and in books. But it doesn't need psychologists and researchers to explain the unique and comforting quality of parental and grandparental laps and voices, and the valuable teaching and learning processes that are part of the experience. Such interludes linger long in the memory and psyche: I can vouch for that.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, literature, classics, nursery rhymes, fairy tales



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An interesting and insightful article, Gillian. In many preliterate cultures, or cultures where most people were illiterate, the great sagas were recited. These days that sort of culture, where remnants exist in the West, such as the Celtic Fringe, is regarded as just a quaint bit of folklore, equated with romantic memories of Bonnie Prince Charlie et sim. 'Good to bring in the tourists'. In villages in India the Ramayana and Mahabharata are still recited in the traditional way. The great Quranic reciters of Egypt and the Middle East are on a par there with our rock stars and regarded with awe. What have we in place of this and where are we going? Nursery rhymes and fairy tales were part of our common European culture. I learnt how to pray the Lords Prayer and others from my late mother. Do we pass on our religious heritage in this way nowadays? I do not know. They say you only really regret something valuable when you lose it. I wonder, if I live to be 100, whether any of the broad culture I grew up with will remain and what will replace it.
Edward Fido | 21 November 2017

A most perfect analysis were it not for the mention of Bruno Bettleheim. After all it is his “refrigerator mothers” who actually had Children on their knees imparting nursery rhymes. And n’er a mention some distant icebox Dads.
Gale Quackenbush | 22 November 2017

It is in the telling of fairy-tales that we learn not that dragons exist but that dragons can be beaten (thanks, G K Chesterton). Your grandchildren are very fortunate, Gillian.
Pam | 22 November 2017

Yes, Women do transmit the culture, and so much more. The exquisite magic of imagining pictures from the spoken and written word is now all but lost under imposed Disney and other commercial interpretations. Even Harry Potter couldn't live in the magical mind realm for long before movie deals were struck.
Kevin Wilson | 22 November 2017

Hello Gillian Always read your articles. Yes love the Greek myths too. My children loved nursery rhymes and I am sorry that the children who generally love them are deprived of them. And the pavlova was invented in NZ and was named after the ballerina when she visited NZ.
NoelineChampion | 22 November 2017

Couldn't agree more. The telling of folk and fairy tales, the repetition of rhymes, the necessary engaging of the imagination - they're essential to a certain kind of cognitive development, as well as cultural traditioning. I offered to tell my three-year-old great niece a story recently. She ran to get one of her large collection of books, and was clearly puzzled when I didn't need to use it. Thereafter she sat entranced, her gaze fixed on my face, while I told a story of which she understood about one word in three. At the end she heaved a sigh of pleasure and said it was such fun, and could I tell another one. Reading largely replaced the ability to memorise whole sagas and psalms just by repetition and listening. Now it seems to be replacing the ability even to tell quite short stories. Interesting to see how children are clinging to story books even in the presence of the entrancing electronic screens - and, when they're given the chance, to listening without any device, even a book. Nothing replaces the human voice, important as it is to the passing on of culture as well as love.
Joan Seymour | 22 November 2017

I am just now looking at my copy of Cinderella Dressed in Yella (not recommended for children) compiled and edited by Ian Turner (and his lengthy afterword interpretive essay making a number of references to the Opies), June Factor and Wendy Lowenstein - Heinemann Educational Australia - my 2nd edition from 1978 - the Play Rhymes of Australian Children Rhymes for Games and Rhymes of the Playground. Totally approve your interest in such things with your grand-children in Greece. One day they will recall you as you do your own grand-mothers! It was having read Cinderella Dressed in Yella which alerted me to my need for some proper similar cultural underpinnings in my efforts to learn Japanese - including children's songs at least - including though some rhymes - aspects of which fit this discussion.
Jim KABLE | 22 November 2017

Oh, that old rivalry about the pavlova. Anna Pavlova back in 1926 visited both New Zealand and then Australia - and a variation - traced back to the Habsburgs and their fixation on all things Spanish including the Spanische Windtorte - which went to North America with German immigrants - a meringue-based dessert called "Schaum/Charm Torte (foam cake) or Baiser torte (nowadays Kiss Cake). Researchers NZ Dr Andrew Paul Wood and Australian Annabelle Utrecht further say that it was the invention of the Dover egg-beater in the early 20th century which made it so much easier to make - no longer 45 minutes of hand-beaten egg whites. The two researchers add in summing up that the Pavolova as we know it is forever linked to NZ/ Australia who have it their own. And wrapped around it the tutu of Anna Pavlova - topping it with Chinese gooseberry (aka cleverly marketed "Kiwi" Fruit) or passion fruit and strawberries the two sides of the Tasman.
Jim Kable | 22 November 2017

Gillian thank you. I always read your articles, but this one I agree with so much. My grandchildren have a mother who is dyslexic, so it has fallen to me to read them rhymes. I don't think I have done it enough, but at least they have a smattering and a taste for A.A.milne.
Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 22 November 2017

It is interesting, Gillian, that you raised two themes, not one. They were related but not quite the same. The first was the role of fairy tales and nursery rhymes in culture and the second that of women in transmitting them. Both fairy tales and what we now term nursery rhymes were not originally intended for children but for adults. The original, unbowdlerized Grimm stories were often quite bloody with pretty grim themes. The original Scottish fairy stories were often very dark indeed and dealt with the supernatural in a way which is sometimes hard to stomach. The traditional role of women in the transmission of culture can attract a very narrow critique, especially from those of a 'gender theory' deconstructionist tendency. To them I would raise the woman most prominent in traditional Catholic and Orthodox theology, the Virgin Mary, termed Mother of God (Theotokos). Her role in transmitting traditional Jewish culture, including religion, to Jesus was crucial. This, to me, would make the role of women sacred.
Edward Fido | 22 November 2017

Thanks Gillian for another piece which was a pleasure to read...and, as usual, got me thinking too! You raise the notion of how shifts in culture happen with little fanfare. I suspect it's because we are so busy living in the future and/or living in the moment that reflecting on the past - where we have come from - doesn't get a look-in. And for all our collective ingenuity as human beings, the fact is that the most significant influences on how we go about our lives in this century and the last have happened per chance. Our greatest cultural change has not come about through our institutions of great thinking agreeing and planning where society should be headed. Rather, it has come through the populace embracing the inventions of a few individuals. It's happened out of the blue and, being marketplace driven, it's happened at lightening speed. Last century it was the impact of Henry Ford's car. A love affair between humans and invention which stood unparalleled; unparalleled, that is, until Steve Jobs' smart phone arrived this century. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider how many people would willingly give up their phone or car tomorrow. Not many, I suspect. These two inventions have so vastly changed how we go about our individual lives that our collective lives - our culture, our world - can no longer function without them. Whether this is for better or worse is moot, for there sure ain't no going back! Keep writing Gillian and thank you Eureka Street.
Fiona Douglas | 23 November 2017

In the context of this discussion of the role of oral traditions and storytelling, I think it is both timely and fitting to acknowledge and commemorate the fact that Australia is home to some of the most ancient oral traditions the world has known, which have struggled for survival under the impact of other, more recent traditions, and attitudes which have often been anything but inclusive.
Jena Woodhouse | 23 November 2017

Great article,Gillian. I have a terrible feeling that part of the reason for the disappearance of nursery rhymes and fairy tales is because of fears of underlying racism or xenophobia in some of them. I think that if these are present, they can and should be identified, analyzed and refuted by teachers, parents, etc., but perhaps that's just too hard for busy mothers and overworked teachers!
Juliet | 23 November 2017

Beautifully written, Gillian. Aesop's fables,too, hold a high spot on my list of children's favourites and form a more than useful basis for introducing youth to Animal Farm.
John | 25 November 2017

You are right to highlight this cultural link and all that it entails. I am amazed and saddened by the politically correct brigade who are trying to stop folk tales being told in case they upset tender minds. I think listening is being eroded as we move to a more visual world. I hope we will not lose too much in the process.
maggie | 30 November 2017

I really hope that little children are still having the pleasure of cuddling up with mum or dad to hear nursery rhymes and fairy tales. It's not only great for the children but it's one of the most wonderful and enjoyable parts of being a parent. Thank you Gillian for reminding me of this.
Stephen | 01 December 2017


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