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Playground songs, rhymes and chants are forms of literacy

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Posted on Thursday, 26 April 2012
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“I was walking around a school playground and came across a group of girls doing complex handclapping patterns to various rhymes,” says June Countryman, Assistant Professor of Music at UPEI. “And I thought: jackpot!”

Countryman is researching the songs and rhymes kids use in their play, in order to better understand the current state of children’s oral culture, and to see what parents and educators might learn from it.

“I have been given permission to act as a silent observer on the playground during recesses, searching for bits of music and poetry,” says Countryman. “In most cases, I try not to interrupt, because I know kids act differently when they know an adult is watching, and because often their musicking is meant to be private. In the case of these girls and their chanting, I did intervene. It was clear they had a reservoir of rhymes they were drawing upon.”

The girls were happy to oblige. With special permission from their parents and the school, Countryman sat down with the girls, and discovered they knew more than 20 of these rhymes.

“It was amazing; they just pulled out rhyme after rhyme,” explains Countryman. “When we ask where these songs or chants come from, they always have a ready answer. It was either ‘from my friend Moira’, or an older sibling, or ‘just something that was going around the school.’”

It’s been long identified that children pass rhymes and songs down to the next generation of kids. In this way, children today are often mixing the old with their own improvisations and with new pop-culture references.

“I overheard some children the other day singing ‘Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater’, which is a rhyme that was first written down nearly 200 years ago. But these kids were making it their own: changing the words, keeping it alive and relevant.”

Countryman is working with Dr. Martha Gabriel, Associate Professor of Education at UPEI, to explore how these informal musical practices are implicated in the development of children’s reading and writing.

“We hear of cases where recess is dumped in favour of more class time as a way to combat low literacy scores,” says Countryman. “I think we need to realize that, in addition to the physical and social benefits of recess, the unstructured verbal play going on during free time is essential for children to really develop language skills. Children play with sounds. There are elements of music in our speech, from the change in pitch to the phrasing of a sentence. And the rhythmic elements of language are hugely important, and need to be sensed first in the body.”

Countryman has made dozens of school visits to document the types of verbal and musical play happening on playgrounds today.

“That’s the fun part,” she says with a smile. “We will be analyzing our findings, and sharing what we learn about children’s multimodal literacies. School playgrounds are teeming with all sorts of creative play, requiring skills and artistry that can be breath-taking.”

Countryman’s research is funded as part of UPEI’S SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiative AIRS (Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing).