They've been around for generations, and parents have been sharing them with young children for most of that time. The characters and stories are ingrained in our culture; nearly everyone recognizes them by name and can tell the details of each. And perhaps most importantly, they help children learn about language and develop pre-reading skills. They are traditional nursery rhymes, and nearly every family has at least one book of them in their library. Mother Goose is an indispensable part of childhood for lots of reasons. Many nursery rhymes date back hundreds of years. Their language and structure harken back to times long gone by. Peopled by dames and damsels, princes and princesses, and tinkers and cobblers, the rhymes open doors to the past. The rhymes have value on lots of fronts, helping children learn about culture, reading and language, humor and social skills, and even values and consequences of actions.
These rhymes are deeply ingrained in our culture. Many pieces of literature reference nursery rhymes. Comparisons are made to nursery rhyme characters, like the Crooked Man or Old Mother Hubbard. We all know how silly Simple Simon is. The Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe has been chasing her many children and Jack Sprat has been on his diet for a very long time. When someone mentions Jack and Jill, everyone knows the story. By sharing these rhymes with your baby, you will be enabling him or her to better understand these references and to "fit in" more easily by understanding what is going on around them when others reference the rhymes.
Nursery rhymes nurture social skills, too. Many of baby's first games are based on the rhymes. Baby will love the clapping rhymes, like Pease Porridge Hot and Pat-A-Cake, long before he or she learns to talk. Bouncing baby on your knee to the rhymes "Ride a Cockhorse" and "This is the Way The Ladies Ride" will quickly become a favorite game, too. Many of the rhymes are quite humorous. By sharing them with baby, you will be teaching what is funny. The silly situations that Simple Simon gets into, the ludicrous pictures of Little Jack Horner and the House That Jack Built, and the contrast of Jack Sprat and his wife are great examples of humor. Baby will model his or her idea of humor based on what you present as funny.
The rhymes build imagination and pretending skills. Children will first connect the rhymes with the pictures in whatever book you are reading from, but will gradually come to visualize on their own. You will find your little one pretending more and more as he or she grows up. This is an important part of developing the brain in order to accomplish later academic learning. The rhymes provide fodder for storylines and scenarios involving kings and queens, and dragons and horses.
Some of the rhymes teach values, as well. "Tom, Tom the Piper's Son" shows the consequences of taking off with someone else's property. "Wee Willie Winkie" sets a reasonable bedtime for baby. "Little Boy Blue" laments the results of falling asleep instead of tending to the job of watching the sheep. These lessons are hiding all through these pieces of traditional literature.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, nursery rhymes will build language and pre-reading skills. In order to learn to read efficiently when the time comes, babies need to master several large areas of knowledge. Readers need a wide vocabulary. One way to build a child's knowledge of words is to read, read, read. The nursery rhymes are the beginning of a long list of literature that your child should be exposed to in order to build the necessary vocabulary skills to learn to read when the time is right. Not only will your youngster be exposed to words like "cobbler," "contrary," and "rye," but he or she will also develop skills for tackling unknown words no matter where they are found. The little one will learn to check for clues in the pictures for new vocabulary and even to use the context clues (the other words and sentences that can help you decipher the meaning of new words).
Nursery rhymes help children to develop a skill called phonemic awareness, as well. Phonemic awareness is the understanding of how sounds make up words and how these can be separated and blended. The rhyming words will help your child to hear similarities between words that will later become skill with working with word families (reading words that have similar endings, like happy and sappy). The built-in rhythms of the rhymes will help your child develop an intuitive understanding of syllabication, which is the basis for meter in poetry.
Memorization of the nursery rhymes, which will happen almost automatically with repetition, is another important skill that you will be helping your baby learn when you read the rhymes regularly. The ability to intentionally learn material like that is learned and must be practiced. It's important to find ways to help your child learn and recite material like this because it will help him or her develop memory skills that will be needed later in school.
So you can see that it is very important to share these treasures with your baby as often as you can. A baby who has learned the rhymes will have lots of advantages over one who has never heard them, including better understanding of our culture and society, development of social skills and humor, and building reading readiness skills. He or she will eventually benefit from the story-telling and memory skills that are exercised by the rhymes, and more. Far from being a sillly waste of time, nursery rhymes are foundational to your baby's development.