Playground songs, rhymes and chants are forms of literacy

“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).

Watch: Maritime Quality Milk around the world

Members of UPEI’s Centre for Veterinary Epidemiological Research, or CVER, recently gave brief presentations about their research projects around the world. The UPEI Research Blog will profile each presentation over the next several weeks. Today, a presentation by Dr. Greg Keefe, Professor of Health Management at the AVC, Innovation PEI Industry Research Chair, and Director of Maritime Quality Milk.

 Dr. Keefe’s presentation is titled “MQM International.”

Past presentations include: CVER in Southeast Asia, by Dr. Jeffery Davidson.

Divorce's Enablers

This guest article, written by UPEI's Dr. Ian Dowbiggin, was originally published as a blog post on Psychology Today.

You thought therapy would save your marriage? And all you got was divorce? Well, feel free to blame your therapist. That's because, for a long time, most therapists have been soft on divorce.

Few fields have played a bigger role in the evolution of America's mental health care system than couples therapists. These days, roughly one million American couples a year seek counselling to save their marriages or relationships. Many also attend pre-marital counselling.

One of the big myths spread by historians of marriage is that therapists have been a bunch of judgmental social conservatives trying to save marriages at all costs, and have tended to place the blame for marital failure on women. The trouble is, this interpretation wasn't even true back in the so-called conservative 1950s. Even in the heyday of June Cleaver and Father Knows Best, most of the leading couples therapists pursued the goal of saving people, not marriages. Under the cloak of "value neutrality," the field seemed more interested in preparing couples for divorce than preventing them from splitting. Marriage counselling was chiefly designed to help clients understand their problems, not keep them married.

With all the counter-cultural changes of the 1960s and '70s, the trend toward therapists' acceptance of divorce gathered momentum. Counsellors adopted the arguments of the women's movement as well as the theories of psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Self-actualization and personal autonomy were all the rage.

Soon Americans were expressing thoughts about marriage and divorce that would have shocked their ancestors. Therapists rarely tried to discourage them. The self needed to be esteemed, affirmed, and unfettered, argued numerous therapists. Self-sacrifice to save a marriage was discouraged.

All this was happening while America's divorce rate climbed higher and higher. The rate began to rise in the 1960s and spiked in the 1980s. The country's marriage rate has been falling since the mid-1970s. These data and the ascendancy of couples counselling are hardly coincidental.

Of course, therapists aren't wholly to blame for the divorce epidemic of the last half century. The rise of a consumer culture since the 1950s, which breeds instant gratification through the purchasing of goods and services, has played a big role. People often view marriage, not as an integral social institution, but as just another disposable commodity.

Also, the population has aged over the last century. Many experts tell us that as couples get older together, they're bored with each other. "There's a feeling" among couples, one clinical social worker commented, that "if I don't go now, I'm never going to go."

Still, therapists have taken a leadership role by preaching that Americans should place their cravings for happiness before their committed relationships.

I'm not the first to caution people against seeing a therapist to save your marriage. There's been a growing groundswell of criticism directed against the profession since the 1990s. Consumer Reports and USA Today have warned Americans that when it comes to marriage counselling, buyer beware! The University of Minnesota's William J. Doherty has also expressed concerns about therapists' benign attitudes toward divorce. The only thing I would add to his eloquent voice is that the field's permissive attitudes toward divorce date back as far the days of Leave It to Beaver.

The good news is that such criticisms have stirred the field in the new millennium, and there are plenty of signs of a backlash against the notion that marriage is more than simply a lifestyle option. This is a good thing because you don't have to be a fan of HBO's In Treatment to know that there are a lot of talented Paul Westons out there who can help you save your marriage if they'd just change their tune about divorce.

Dr. Ian Dowbiggin is a Professor of History at UPEI. He's the author of several books, including The Quest for Mental Health: A Tale of Science, Medicine, Scandal, Sorrow, and Mass Society. Read more of Dr. Dowbiggin's writing on his blog at Psychology Today.