Nelly O'Mare Has a Zoo in Her Hair

poem by Laura Motherway , illustrated by Sarah Davis

Learning Intention:

I am learning how to pose and discuss questions about the text so that I can make balanced judgements in consultation with my peers.

Success Criteria:

  • I can understand the narrative expressed in the poem.
  • I can explain how the style of the poem differs from traditional poems written for children.
  • I can consider the reasons why the author has made choices to subvert the genre of a traditional children’s poem.


Essential Knowledge:

More information about the meaning of genre can be found in the English Textual Concepts video Style.

Prior to reading the poem, discuss the genre of didactic children’s poetry. Explain that the purpose of a didactic poem is to instruct or teach readers about morals and skills. A common source of didactic poems for children are Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. Ask students to construct a class list of didactic poems they remember from childhood. Some examples are:

  1. The Alphabet Song (teaches children the alphabet)
  2. Little Boy Blue (teaches children the importance of looking after your belongings)
  3. Little Bo Peep (teaches children to let go of things)
  4. Solomon Grundy (teaches children about the cycle of life)

Introduce students to the content of the poem. Nelly Mae is a little girl who is “as sweet as a pink sugar bun”. However, she does not like having her hair washed. She therefore refuses to ever wash her hair again and it grows dirty and smelly.

Remind students of the genre of didactic poetry. Ask students to predict:

  • The events in the poem (for example, her hair turns into one big knot; she wants to make friends, so she washes and brushes her hair).
  • The message or moral of the poem (for example, follow your parents instructions; take care of your personal appearance).

Read the poem with the class, or if you have a digital subscription listen to the audio recording. Then, using the narrative graphic organiser that is familiar to your class, map out the events in the poem.

Using a T-Chart, construct a list of ways that ‘Nelly O’Mare Has a Zoo in Her Hair’ is similar and different from the traditional genre of didactic children’s poetry (nursery rhymes). Some example answers are below:

Didactic Children's poetry Nelly O'Mare
Is about topics that relate to or are relevant to childhood.


Uses simple language and rhymes.



Includes animals.


Teaches skills, such as taking care of animals or household chores.


Has a strong message for children, usually about obedience?


Bad things happen to children who do not follow adult instructions

Is about a common childhood fear: washing hair.


Also uses simple language and rhymes “sweet as a pink sugar bun.”


Includes animals.


Encourages children to be strong willed and independent.


Encourages children to be kind but does not encourage children to be obedient.


Nelly O’Mare is happy and fortunate at the end of the poem, as a result of her disobedience

After comparing the differences between the two poems, ask students to pose questions about why the poet has written a poem that is so different from a traditional children’s poem. Students should consider stylistic decisions made by the author, such as making Nelly disobedient, her parents not punishing her and her ultimate happy ending. Sample questions include:

  • Do you think it is ok that Nelly did not want to wash her hair?
  • Is it common for children to disobey their parents nowadays?
  • Are traditional nursery rhymes even relevant to us anymore, or is this poem a more realistic version of children?

Assessment for/as learning:

Use the Parking Lot strategy from the Digital Learning Selector to facilitate students posing their questions and then holding a whole class discussion on possible interpretations on the poet’s intentions in composing this poem.