It was unnaturally quiet in my local library when I visited last Tuesday.
For as long as I have lived in the village, Tuesday morning has been the time when the lobby is crammed with prams and scooters and a circle of eager babies and toddlers gather with their parent or carer in the children’s section to sing nursery rhymes.
It’s likely that this will no longer be the case. There is no sign to say so, but from now on Bounce and Rhyme can no longer be led by a member of the library’s staff. There is the possibility that if a volunteer is found to run the session then it can continue, however when I visited there was no visible sign in the library asking for such a volunteer to come forward. Further, the volunteer can’t be the parent of a child attending the session for health and safety reasons.
As a tribute to Bounce and Rhyme, which appears to be passing away before my eyes with very little comment or protest, and the lovely library staff who have led it over the years, I’d like to pay a small tribute to everything this session has meant to me and my children.
I was seven months pregnant when I moved with my husband from London to a village. I didn’t have a car, and I knew nobody at all. My parents were hundreds of miles away in Lancashire, and my friends were scattered around the country. I was experiencing something completely new and bewildering, and had nobody to compare notes to – to reassure myself, to share my worries, or just talk to another adult. I was isolated and lonely. Since lots of people decide to move house while heavily pregnant with their first child, I’m sure this will be a familiar scenario to lots of us.
I was lucky to meet three other mums with babies of a similar age at a midwife run baby class, and we decided we’d brave the library’s bounce and rhyme session together. When we arrived there was hardly room for us, but we squeezed our way in, were made welcome and given homemade cake and tea afterwards. The session was clearly a thriving village institution, and although the cakes and tea have gone, this has remained the case until very recently.
This first singing session with my little baby gave me the confidence to try other parent and toddler groups in the village. It was the small beginning from where my friendship network grew, and became an essential lifeline. When my marriage ended last year my friends in this community were one of the consistent positive things – for help, support, encouragement and just knowing that things would be ok in the end.
I’m never not thankful to live in the community I’m part of, and very simply, the library was my way in; it was the start of it all.
In a community a consistent, week in, week out, time when parents can meet other parents is important, but why nursery rhymes? The songs we sing to our children can be so familiar, it’s easy to forget how educative they are.
I’m pretty sure my daughter first learned the meaning of ‘up’ and ‘down’ from being lifted up and down during the singing of The Grand Old Duke of York (and the upper body workout we receive while lifting our children up and down is another benefit we get, whether we like it or not!). Counting songs like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, once I caught a fish alive, could be our children’s first encounters with numbers. The repetition of rhymes and songs helps children become familiar with new vocabulary, while the stories and characters described will expand their imaginations.
Nursery rhymes often form simple stories, with a beginning, middle and end; a classic structure which children continue to encounter during their early education until they begin writing stories of their own. They include other literary devices, too: alliteration (goosey, goosey gander), onomatopoeia (baa, baa, black sheep) and rhyme (twinkle, twinkle, little star/how I wonder what you are). Words, rhythm, pattern, language. Nursery rhymes are beginner’s poetry, and a fairly sophisticated introduction at that.
By holding Bounce and Rhyme sessions in a library, several messages have been given. The simplest is just this: children and their carers are welcome in the library. They don’t need to worry about making a noise, or being told off. A library is a place of refuge to many, and this is no less true of children and the people looking after them. Familiarity with the library as a place, the sense of being at home there, will lead to books being read, library cards issued, books being borrowed, and with luck, a lifelong love of reading, learning, knowledge. Once again, the library is the first step on the journey.
Another message the library is sending to its youngest users is that they are important to the library; they are worth their staffs’ time. Nursery rhyme singing at parent and toddler groups will often (although not always) fall to women, but because library staff are diverse and take it in turns to host singing sessions, children may get some inkling that caring and early education roles need not always be fulfilled by women;this can only be a healthy thing if we want the task of caring for children to be more equally balanced between men and women in the future.
Whatever the reasons for the end of Bounce and Rhyme sessions in my local library are (and I should make it clear that the decision hasn’t been made by the staff you see behind the counter in the library), I personally believe we are losing a lot. It’s a sad cut to the timetable of village events, and a sad loss to the community; not only as it exists right now, but to all the future parents and babies who won’t actually know what they’ve missed.