Nursery rhyme used to promote hygiene among Scots children

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with some nursery children. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with some nursery children. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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It is a centuries old staple of playgrounds the world over which has been translated into dozens of languages.

But as well as being a simple, fun song to sing aloud, one of the world’s most ubiquitous nursery rhymes can be used to help promote hygiene among children.

Frere Jacques, known in English as Brother Jone, is a helpful tool to encourage youngsters to wash their hands, according to researchers.

The simple ditty, which was coined in the 17th century, tells the story of a snoozy Dominican friar who overslept and forgot to get up to ring the Matins bell. However, its basic melody and phrase structures formed the ideal template to create a song designed to help children stay clean, the Canadian researchers found. .

The team, from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, and the city’s Montessori School, developed the song after realising nothing similar was available.

They then tested it out on children to check they understood it and found it fun.

For the song, children follow six steps to the tune of Frere Jacques.

In step one, children replace the lyrics “Are you sleeping?” with “Scrub your palms”. In step two, “Are you sleeping?” is replaced with “Between the fingers”.

In step three, children replace “Brother John, Brother John”, with “Wash the back (one hand), wash the back (other hand)”.

And in step four, the words “Morning bells are ringing” are changed to “Twirl the tips (one hand) around (other hand)”.

For step five, the words “Morning bells are ringing” are replaced with “Scrub them upside down”.

In step six, “Ding, ding, dong; ding, ding, dong” is changed to “Thumb attack (one thumb), thumb attack (other thumb).”

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the researchers said: “Using songs, in particular musical mnemonics based on popular nursery rhymes, may help children learn the process of hand hygiene techniques by making it more fun, thereby increasing attention and the development of memory and motor co-ordination.

“We showed that a musical mnemonic developed for pre-school and school-aged children can teach the World Health Organisation hand hygiene technique effectively, potentially reducing infection transmission, with a duration of approximately 20 seconds.”

Such is the influence of Frere Jacques on global musical culture, it has been used as a political tool in spite, or perhaps because of, its childish simplicity.

As well as being sung by countless protest groups over the years, there was a famous rendition of the song in 1988 when Jacques Delore, the president of the European Commission, was given a standing ovation by British trade union leaders.

A version of the song also appears prominently in Gustav Mahler’s acclaimed First Symphony, which saw the composer transform the original gleeful, upbeat tune into a sombre minor-key funeral march.