All Day Songs: Teaching “Old” Songs with New Tricks

By Lisa D. Heintz, M.Ed

cartoon children dancing

What are your earliest musical memories?

Chances are good that your earliest musical recollections involve singing nursery songs, singing with (or perhaps being sung to by) friends or family, and having fun while enjoying music in various ways and places--dancing, clapping, playing musical games, hearing songs on the radio, in the grocery store, in the elevator, on the street...


Over the last few generations, sharing music has gone from a familiar family-and-neighbor participatory event (all playing instruments and singing together) to a much more individualized activity. Two generations ago, the song repertoire was much smaller and limited to folk, traditional, or religious music (typically from countries of family origin) and easily passed on from adult to child through frequent repetition. Everyone had a shared list of songs (30-60) they knew and could sing or perform together.


Because of this shift away from a traditional song base, a shared repertoire of even 30 songs that today’s children all know might be hard to create! In many ways this reflects the beauty and luxury of living in a time in which music is so easily accessible and versatile, but in other ways it creates a shortage for children’s social-emotional experiences, which will create a deficit for their children and future generations.


What are the “traditional” or “folk” songs that used to provide the common song repertoire?


Traditional/folk songs (or tunes, if they are wordless), are songs that reflect the people (folk), beliefs, and customs of an ethnic or social group that are not only rooted in the past (tradition), but also perpetuated into the present and future primarily through oral communication--songs, storytelling, music, and religious songs (hymns, spirituals).


Why is a common song repertoire important?


You and your class will be limited to singing whatever songs you know well, particularly at the start of the year. While you will likely develop a broader repertoire as the year progresses, you will find that using your shared song list at the beginning helps children acclimate to school, work toward a shared goal (singing the song), develop social-emotional skills, and feel part of a community much more quickly.


  1. Many folk songs offer the thrill of nonsense, surprise and FUN! Think of “Pop! Goes the Weasel,” “Humpty Dumpty” or “On Top of Spaghetti.”

  2. Research has found that “shared music-making at the age of 2–3 years correlates positively with increased school readiness, pro-social skills, and literacy and numeracy outcomes at age 4–5.” (Barrett, 2012).

  3. Traditional songs lend themselves to easy learning, thus creating a “no-fail” way for children to feel successful in a group (or individual) effort.

  4. Research also indicates that rhyming ability predicts later reading achievement. Songs in early childhood generally emphasize rhythm and rhyme, both of which enhance prosody and phonological awareness, and provide a pathway to reading and writing.

  5. Folk songs connect the generations. Very few experiences can be equally known and enjoyed together by multiple generations.

  6. Many folk songs rely on simplicity and repetition - hallmarks of early literacy!

    1. My Bonnie lies over the ocean,
    2. My Bonnie lies over the sea,
    3. My Bonnie lies over the ocean,
    4. Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me.

  7. Folk songs are immediately engaging and usually involve simple dance or movements, which promotes fine/gross motor development. The simplicity of folk songs lends itself to the inclusion of ASL signs for particular words as well.

  8. Traditional songs can help children learn about the cultures of people around the world.

  9. Folk songs help expand vocabulary.

  10. Bilingual folk songs promote second language learning, which is especially helpful for English Language Learners.

  11. A shared repertoire of songs enables children to develop phonetic and reading skills through language play and sound manipulation (phonemic awareness), as well as develop prosody (rhythm, tone and inflection), and auditory skills.

  12. Folk songs and rhymes are the earliest form of “first stories” that tell a tiny tale. This leads young children to recite and recall the Who, What, Why, Where, When, How and plot of a song’s simple story line.

  13. Folk songs and nursery rhymes are an early form of poetry, often providing examples of literary devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, personification, metaphor, simile, and figurative language.

  14. Illustrated folk songs (song picture books) like It’s Raining, It’s Pouring open the door to beginning--and engaged--reading, and are plentiful.

What traditional songs should be part of my classroom repertoire?


There are hundreds of traditional songs dating back to the 17th century, so choosing a class repertoire can seem daunting! Since you are the Song Leader, at least early in the year, the best place to begin is with the songs you already know. Download this free list of songs in the Public Domain and highlight the songs you know by heart immediately. Also note those that you recognize even if you are not certain you recall all the words or melody (tune).


If you need to re-familiarize yourself with some of the songs, search online (see Resources) to listen to those melodies until you can sing them on your own. Once you have established a list of 6-10 songs you are comfortable with singing, you are ready to dig deeper!


Should I limit my repertoire to traditional or folk tunes?


Always work to expand your musical repertoire! But here are a few reasons to begin with traditional/folk songs:


  1. You are likely familiar with many of these types of songs from your own childhood, making them easily accessible to you.

  2. Your students’ parents are likely familiar with many of these same songs as well, which means they can join in the fun of singing along with their children at home, and encourage language play and development, too!

  3. While today’s young children come to school knowing far fewer traditional/folk songs than prior generations, they are still the usual starting point when parents begin singing to/with their children. Research on home music experiences indicates that parent-child bonding over music experiences is more beneficial for long-term learning than shared reading!

  4. Traditional/folk songs are part of our cultural heritage and continuing to teach/use them perpetuates the oral tradition into the future.

  5. Traditional/folk songs are typically simple and use fewer words which makes them easier to learn and adapt.

  6. When you know a traditional song, you “own” it for life and it’s “portable!” You won’t need to rely on recorded versions or online sites to provide music--you can make your own!

  7. Once you all know the lyrics to a standard folk song, adapting the lyrics to fit another situation or theme becomes simple.

  8. Always use your own due diligence to determine if a song you wish to share on the internet (blog, website) or sell (e.g., TPT or related sites) is clearly part of the Public Domain to avoid a breach of copyright. (See Resources).


Does it matter which songs I select?


Not all traditional songs are equally appropriate for early childhood. While many adults diminish or ignore the lyric content of songs that children hear, as educators we know that we are responsible for carefully selecting content that is age-appropriate and sends positive messages for all students.


It is important to review the lyrics of any song you include in your singing repertoire as well as any music you may provide as informal or background music. Be mindful that all songs you curate are:

  1. Free of gender bias, stereotypes, racial slurs (even if replaced with appropriate lyrics, as the tune may spark a negative reaction from older listeners/family)

  2. Reflect current understanding of race, ethnicity, age, gender identity

  3. Varied in genre (music style)

    1. Choose folk songs from cultures, genres or languages other than your own (jazz, country, classical, Latinx, etc.)

  4. Varied in tone (key/mood)

    1. Songs that are in both major keys (“happy” sounding)

    2. Songs in minor keys (somber, sad or spooky sounding) e.g.

      1. Try “Ghost of John” or “Ants Go Marching” for a traditional tune in a minor key

      2. For minor key songs from other lands/languages, try folks songs “Hava Nagila” (Israel - language: Hebrew) and “Che Che Koolay” (Ghana - language: Twi)

  5. Written for children or have child-appropriate language and themes

    1. Try the folk songs on Putumayo's American Playground


Resources for folk/traditional songs for the classroom


No music background? No worries! Although some of these sources were created with teaching music/piano lessons in mind, they are free and viable resources for learning traditional songs whether you have a musical background or not!


Curating your Song List:


The Public Domain Information Project is considered the most current collection of verified PD music available in the U.S. (PD laws differ in other countries). Locate a song alphabetically, then click the music staff icon left of the title to find online recordings of the song. If you can’t find a song you believe to be “old” and in the PD there is likely a legal reason for its exclusion. 

Note: Recorded versions of songs (e.g. those readily available online) are not in the PD; only the original lyrics and original melody. Links to recorded versions are provided for your reference only and should not be downloaded, reposted or otherwise used/adapted without first paying appropriate licensing and/or royalties to the copyright holder. is an outstanding free collection of folk/traditional music from all around the world that includes lyrics and written melody. Owner Beth Thompson has organized all of the songs into easy-to-locate categories such as Songs in Minor Keys, Nursery Rhymes, American (Cowboy, regional, Native Indian), Themes (insects, animals, silly songs, etc), as well as types of music (call & response, songs for movement, partner songs, chants, etc). 


Complete List of Camp Songs - a great collection of songs and chants familiar to camp-goers, most of which are in the PD. by Mayron Cole provides free midi music files of traditional classics that may be downloaded and used in your classroom. MIDI files are simplified sound files that take much less digital storage than typical MP3s.

Look for Pre Level One Folk Song Favorites or Level One Folk Song Favorites.


A bonus feature is that the songs may be sped up or slowed down by clicking Playback > Speed and then selecting your preference before saving (downloading) the file. This is a great benefit because so many recorded songs are played too quickly for young learners. You may wish to return to this site to change the speed settings as students learn the song and can handle it at a faster pace. Lyric sheets are also available for download.


KIDiddles offers both lyrics and MIDI listening/downloadable files of a wide array of folk/camp songs, most of which are in the PD.

NIEHS list of children’s songs also offers both lyrics and MIDI listening/downloadable files of a wide array of folk/camp songs, most of which are in the PD. provides the history of most of the common folk songs.

Creating your own “piggyback” songs based on familiar tunes: is a free tool that generates synonyms and related words to your chosen word/topic. This is helpful for brainstorming alternate ways to express your concept when creating new lyrics. is a wonderful source of word inspiration when rewriting song lyrics. You can identify rhyming words that are arranged by the number of syllables, as well as synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, homophones, and “near” rhymes for those extra-tricky words.


If you're a teacher looking for professional development involving early childhood music, check out our webinar series with Lisa!


When Everyone Sings Everyone Learns: A Music Mini Series!

Everyone Sings Mini Music Webinar

Lisa Heintz, M.Ed., is an educator with over 25 years of experience supporting learners from toddlers to adults, and owner of Little Songbird: Songs for Learning, a site that provides quality children’s music and book recommendations for PreK-grade 3 educators. She stays “green and growing” by volunteering in community and school projects that focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as with the Children’s Music Network. She is fascinated by birds of all sorts, loves cats, and is the proud mom of a son who is a shining example of what intentional teaching and parenting can do for children with disabilities. Connect with Lisa at

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