I love finding playful ways to inspire the young reader in my life.

It isn’t always easy to know how to help develop kids’ reading stamina and curiosity about language. The classic song, “Down By The Bay”, by the composer, Raffi, provides an amazing way to do just that.

It is a simple solution that helps to build literacy skills through word play and rhyme. Watch the video below to see how to parlay this classic song into many games for your young reader.

Check out Raffi below, singing the original song. I remember listening to it endlessly on a cassette tape on my own boom box when I was a kid. Now, as a parent and teacher, I think it is a superb template for dramatic and gross-motor play, in addition to being a beautiful support for blossoming reading skills.

Playing with Words Boosts Reader Confidence

Being comfortable with rhyming words is an essential tool for a great reader.

When children make phonetic connections with language they are better able to develop as a reader as their word-recognition and spelling naturally improve.  Since rhyming words have letters in common, children who can identify segments of sound, such as -ight (might/right/fight/light), -ough (cough, rough, etc) will have an advantage in recognizing them on the page.  (Goswami, 1999)

So why not just make flashcards and just drill these sounds? In their book: Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, Edward Miller and Joan Almon make a case for play-based learning.   “Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than non players, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean.”

When you bring pre-reading tools to kids in a playful way, (including music and drama), the likelihood of children embracing and retaining the information is that much greater.  Rather than developing phonemic awareness in any kind of regimented or isolated academic way, work with rhyme through the song Down By the Bay or other rhyming songs.

Playing with Language is What the Brilliant Folks Do

From Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare it is clear that genius wordsmiths had a playful approach to language that included flexibility and invention.  Here is a list of the words that Shakespeare just made up that are now staples of the English language!   I was shocked to see words like “critic”, “luggage” and “remorseless” and many others.

Part of the fun of Down by the Bay is encouraging a kind of invention – if you can’t think of a real word that rhymes, make up a word that rhymes!  The importance is only the rhyme…who knows you may come up with a new secret language in your house or a new inside joke!

Dr. Seuss made up a bunch of words too, and although they aren’t as integrated into English as Shakespeare, they certainly are fun.
inspiring a reader by acting out "down by the bay"

Make sure that your child is uninhibited vocally before they begin to sing – You can read “Freeing the Voice Through Play” to get more gibberish game ideas.

Kids Can Customize this Song

Play this in connection with a theme your child loves:

    • Dinosaurs (T-rex causing a hex, a Stegosaurus singing in a chorus),
    • Fairy tales (fairies eating a berries, dragon pulling a wagon),
    • Outer Space (a planet named Janet, a star shooting really far)
    • You name it!

Get specific with a book or movie that has piqued your child’s interest.  Go through all the characters you can remember and try to find a rhyme for them! This is especially great to play as a car game.

Sing to Get Moving

When you get physical with this song it can be a great springboard into dramatic play.
As you can see in the video, I’m moving across the floor with kids in the Child’s Play NY camp as a combined physical and vocal warm-up that also tickles the brain!  It can be a great way to meld imagination with a gross-motor activity, since when you act out “Wizard making a blizzard” or “Robot running around to get hot” it can be a wonderful work-out!

Here’s When to Play


At a Party

In my course on how to throw a creative birthday party for your kid, I suggest Down by the Bay as a movement/musical game since it gets all the kids engaged listening and moving as one.

On a Playdate and/or at the Table

Sometimes we have dinner playdates, and while my grandmother would have disapproved of singing at the table, I think it can be a great diversion and even encourage some healthy eating.  To see more tips on healthy eating through play, check this out.  

In the Car

While you can’t run around and act out the rhyme, this can be a great car game.  Kids can take turns teasing out a theme/book and all the characters with rhymes.  Alternatively, one person can propose the first word and the other person has to try to rhyme it, taking turns of course.

Tool Tips

  • Use eboo’s rhyming puzzle to generate some ideas for what to rhyme and how to connect the language.
  • Use musical instruments to punctuate the rhythm.
  • Record your song as a voice memo or on Garage Band and remember it for posterity!

Whenever and however you decide to play with ‘Down by the Bay”, I hope it brings a little injection of literary playfulness and musicality into your life!

Goswami, U. (1999), Causal connections in beginning reading: the importance of rhyme. Journal of Research in Reading, 22: 217–240. doi:10.1111/1467-9817.00087

Edward Miller and Joan Almon, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood, 2009.

Certain images and/or photos on this page are the copyrighted property of 123RF.com, its contributors or its licensed partners and are being used with permission under the relevant license. These images and/or photos may not be copied or downloaded without permission from 123RF.com.