The very first poems that reach our human ears are often lullabyes, the soft, repetitive, calming songs parents sing to soothe their babies to sleep. Two classics in our library are “Rock-a-bye Baby” (1805) and “Hush, Little Baby,” also known as “The Mockingbird Song” (American traditional, probably 18th century).
Clapping SongsSome nursery rhymes are actually songs, meant to be accompanied by hand-clapping between parent and child that marks out the rhythm of the poem. The original of these is, of course, “Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker’s Man.”
Finger and Toe GamesSome nursery rhymes are accompanied by a tactile sequence of motions, making a game with the baby’s toes as in “This Little Piggy” (1760) or teaching finger dexterity to a toddler as in “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” (1910).
Counting SongsThese nursery rhymes teach children how to count by using rhymes as the mnemonics for the names of the numbers—like “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” (1805) and the song “This Old Man” (1906).
RiddlesMany traditional nursery rhymes come from old riddles, describing their answer in puns and metaphors—as, for instance, “Humpty Dumpty” (1810), whose subject is, of course, an egg.
Like riddles, fables deal in puns and metaphors, but instead of describing a subject meant to be guessed by the hearer, fables are narratives, telling stories that often teach a moral (like Aesop’s original fables) or use animals to represent people. Even a rhyme as brief as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” (1910) might be considered a fable teaching the virtue of perseverance.