Since April is National Poetry Month, I thought I’d share a fun lesson about the dark meanings of nursery rhymes. Secondary students LOVE hearing these stories! They are an interesting way to introduce nursery rhymes to older students who would probably find them “babyish” without the back stories.
THEORIES BEHIND THE DARK MEANINGS OF NURSERY RHYMES
These theories are so interesting, even for adults! When using this lesson with students, be sure to emphasize that these are just theories. Some have more merit than others, but they are fun to talk about and will help students remember the nursery rhymes.
Some students will love this so much that they research other dark meanings of nursery rhyme on their own!
BEST FOR OLDER STUDENTS
I did lesson similar to this one when I taught seventh grade ELA, so it should be fine for most secondary libraries.
I’ve taught the dark meanings of nursery rhymes numerous times over the years, but I created this version specifically to share with you.
While this isn’t my exact lesson, I’ve taught all these nursery rhymes with students as young as seventh grade, so they should be fine for most secondary students.
Elementary librarians, this lesson may be okay for some 4th or 5th graders, but please review it with content in mind before you use it.
The theories behind “Jack and Jill” and “Ring Around the Rosie” are gruesome.
“Hey Diddle Diddle” mentions pubs and ale (the “little dog” laughs because he is drunk).
You are welcome to make any changes to the text that you need to suit your library. All sources are referenced in the content notes at the bottom of each slide, as are the sources for the artwork.
IDEAS FOR EXTENSION ACTIVITIES
The most obvious extension activity is for students to research a nursery rhyme of their choice. They would then report the meanings of the rhymes to the class. Some great nursery rhymes for this activity include:
- “Three Blind Mice” (about Mary I, a.k.a. “Bloody Mary”)
- “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” (also about Mary I)
- “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” (exercising female prisoners)
- “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (either medieval wool taxes or the West African slave trade)
- “Rockabye Baby” (multiple theories, including possible royal heir not really being the heir)
- “Old Mother Hubbard” (refusal to give King Henry VIII an annulment of marriage)
- “Dr. Foster Went to Gloucester” (humiliation of King Edward I)
For world history classes, ask students to research historical events behind nursery rhymes like “Jack and Jill” (French Revolution and Reign of Terror) or “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” (Mary I of England).
FOR ELEMENTARY LIBRARY CLASSES
For younger students, I also have a Nursery Rhymes Trivia Game that is great for helping students read, learn, and review 25 different nursery rhymes. No prior knowledge is needed for the game.
Also for younger students, I’ve got a Nursery Rhymes Library Lesson Storytime that spans 1-2 library lessons. It’s got a scavenger hunt activity and separate list of Recommended Reads to go with it!
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE DARK MEANINGS OF NURSERY RHYMES
- “The Dark Side of Nursery Rhymes” by BBC Culture (10 Jun 2015)
- “Origins of Hey Diddle Diddle” by ClassicFM
- “Origins of Jack and Jill” by ClassicFM
- “Origins of Humpty Dumpty” by ClassicFM
- “More Nursery Rhymes” by Historic UK
- “The Real Origins of Popular Nursery Rhymes” by Alanah Reid (17 Dec 2019)
*PLEASE NOTE: The presentation above is original work. Even though it is free and editable for librarians and teachers to use with their classes, it is still my intellectual property. You are welcome to share links to this article on social media or blog posts, but please do not publish or redistribute this work without written permission from the author.
CITE THIS ARTICLE (MLA9):
Collazo, Leigh R`. “Dark Meanings of Nursery Rhymes : A Library Lesson for Older Students.” MrsReaderPants, 11 Apr. 2022, https://www.readerpants.net/2022/04/dark-meanings-of-nursery-rhymes.html.