I just finished a great class with my 3 year-olds in which we sang Wheels on the Bus and played on our make-believe bus. That lesson is always a ton of fun... and Wheels on the Bus never fails. It's one of those kids songs that has like a 97% approval rating.
It got me wondering, what are the characteristics of the song that make it so popular with kids?
1) The tune. Clearly, it all starts and ends with the tune, and Wheels on the Bus is easy to sing and predictable enough that kids can really get into it because they know what is coming next. I think there is a comfort in that.
2) The rhythm. The rhythm of the words to Wheels on the Bus is appealing, even to kids who don't yet speak or understand English. It allows emerging speakers to play with the language even if they don't fully get it. We have a couple of Wheels on the Bus picture books, and I find it almost impossible to read one without singing it. The words just flow like that.
3) Repetion of lyrics. This allows kids to get into the song right away, and it gets them really listening closely. They quickly understand there will be repetion, so they listen closely to the start of each verse so they will know what to sing.
4) Lots of movement and gestures. Every verse can be acted out, allowing children to become a part of the song, not just sing it. It's more than a song, it's an activity.
5) Reassuring theme. There is something about how this song conveys how things work, that there is an order to the world. The wheels go round and round, the babies cry waa waa waa, and the Mommies say shh, shh, shh. The song doesn't say it directly, but it communicates that the sun rises and sets, you go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning, Mommy and/or Daddy goes to work and comes back home, and through all of it, Mommy or Daddy will be there to comfort you when you are sad.
6) Easy to build on. There are so many great activities and crafts and role-plays that this song lends itself too. We love to make a pretend bus with chairs or boxes, make a bus stop, give everyone pretend money, etc. We get to talk about where we are going. We go fast and slow, turn left and right, bounce up and down... And at the end we always get to go home.
Update: Also, check out Madonna's version of Wheels on the Bus here (well, not really Madonna, but another great job by the folks at Mother Goose Rocks...this version was even on the British pop charts for a while).