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Nursery Rhymes and "Tot Lit"

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #70, 2006.

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Melissa Morgan


In the preschool stage, most kids are still learning to speak competently, by listening to and imitating older folk. Tots love to sing and play games: "Ring Around the Rosey," "The Eensy Weensy Spider," and "London Bridge Is Falling Down." Combine nursery rhymes with finger plays, singing, sign language, and books, and you will gently lead small children into enjoying early tot literature.

What do I mean by "Tot Lit?" I don't mean literature for your tot to read, as most small children won't be good readers - or even aware of written words - yet. I mean quality literature for you to read to your tot.

Nursery Rhymes

Nursery rhymes can introduce little kids to literature. They are called "nursery" rhymes because many kids can learn them while still in the crib. Nursery rhymes are reinforced by natural rhythm and song, which makes them fun to hear and say. Look for books with simple songs that you find familiar, such as "There's a Hole in the Bucket" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb." You can sing the songs all day long and look at the pictures together during quiet times.

Finding (Almost) Free Books

How can you inexpensively grow your preschooler's home library? We adopted several old literature sets, including "The Bookshelf for Boys and Girls" (The University Society, 1958) and Collier's Junior Classics (Crowell-Collier Publishing, 1962) from garage sales and library sales for less than a dollar a book. These old books have been much read, worn, torn and loved in our family.

Most literature sets devote the first volume to preschoolers. This will include nursery rhymes and classic stories such as "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," and "The Three Little Pigs." The Bookshelf, Volume 1, even included a section titled, "Little Prayers and Graces." The other volumes in our literature sets offer progressively more challenging and advanced stories according to interest, such as adventure, sports, or animals. These books literally span developmental levels from preschool to high school.

You can also find inexpensive interactive books. When we visit garage sales and thrift shops, we find vast selections to choose from. Check out the last day of a book fair, when prices are marked down, or find out when your library is having their discarded book sale. Without spending much money, we've acquired books that come in shapes, touchy-feely books with many different textures, books with flaps to lift and peek inside, re-stackable stickers, and furry bunnies to feel and ponies to pat.

One of our favorites is Richard Scarry's Egg in the Hole book. I've seen kids of all ages absorbed in chasing the path of the egg with their finger to find the furry chick. We've found books that cluck and moo, and even books that talk! These novelties are expensive new in stores, but often under a dollar secondhand. We won't buy them if the battery needs replacing, as there are plenty to find that still work well and will save us buying a new battery.

Preschoolers love repetition. Children have been created to enjoy hearing and seeing the same things over and over; that is how they learn best. So you don't necessarily need to buy a lot of books. Just stick with books that (1) your child loves and (2) won't drive you crazy to read and reread aloud!

Best Beginners' Books

Look for quality and durability in tot lit, as opposed to quantity. The ideal beginning book is sturdy, with only a few words per page, and large, bold text with good contrast. When our kids were very little, we liked board books and books that were safe (no chokable parts or parts that look like they could be harmful if chewed). However, under supervised conditions, we also used books with fragile pages. If a child started to tear a page, we simply said "No," and took it away. You can probably imagine the tears, but our children quickly learned to respect books and be careful with them.

Talk to Your Librarian

Take advantage of a valuable free service: your local children's librarian will gladly help you choose books that interest both you and your tot. You may want to renew any books that you both especially enjoy. Check to see if your library offers special privileges for educators, such as forgiving fines or longer borrowing times. Many libraries will extend these perks to homeschoolers, too.

When and How to Read

Little kids vary greatly in their ability to sit still and listen to a story. It helps if you tire them out first, so most parents pick bedtime or naptime for books. Car rides and doctor's appointments also allow ample time for literature. Our children carted backpacks of books around from the time they were toddlers. Maybe carrying the books themselves tired them out enough that they could sit and listen!

You don't need to "read" books in the traditional way. Let your child participate, and take turns. You could point to a word or object on the page and wait for your child to respond. After that, it is your turn to point or read. You want to stay at or a little beyond your child's ability to talk. Books such as Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop contain simple words and rhymes that little kids can repeat and say on their own

As your child develops and grows, you don't need to limit yourself to wordless books or books with only a few words on a page. You can adapt anything to interest your child, even material written for adults, if you take turns and interact. If it isn't fun, we don't do it.

Make a Book

Your child will probably love making his or her own book with the help of an adult or older sibling. We used to make a page a day, writing a short phrase from a nursery rhyme or familiar poem on each page. Alternately, you could print pictures and text from the Internet. Simply do a web search for the name of the rhyme. (Be sure to surround it with quotation marks, so you don't end up with a list of sites that pertain just to the individual words!) When we completed the rhyme, we drew a simple picture for each page, and let our little one color it. Our children never noticed that our art is not perfect. We punched holes in the pages and helped our child lace the book together and tie it in a bow. Your child made a book!

More Ideas

Nowadays, it is hard to know which came first: the movie, the toy, or the preschool book version.You can easily find whole collections of your little one's favorite licensed character. Our youngest enjoyed Little People toys and we found several Play Books, including Spotty Can't Sleep, based on these toys. We enjoyed using the toy dog included with the book to act out the words.

Look for familiar books (such as the Little Golden Book series) that you enjoyed as a child and that are still popular and easy to find today. The Poky Little Puppy, The Little Engine that Could, and Little Golden Book Bible stories bring back fond childhood memories for me. How about you? Most small children are closely attuned to their parent's emotions. Your children may not be able to read or even say the words, but they'll feel your feeling about the book. If they sense that you are enjoying tot lit, they will too.


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