Play-filled music

Mary MacKay
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June Countryman’s research into the role playground songs, rhymes and chants play in literacy development is part of UPEI’s AIRS research initiative, a huge international research program examining the human phenomenon of singing as it relates to health, education and well-being.

June Countryman has been getting in tune with the playground chants of the times.

This assistant professor of music at UPEI has been conducting research on school playgrounds, listening for the songs and rhymes kids use when they’re playing and exploring the role these musical expressions play in building language development and literacy skills.

With permission, she has been quietly observing children at play across the Island during recesses, concentrating specifically on the elementary school level where interaction with songs and rhymes is especially prevalent.

“It lessens as children get older, but it doesn’t disappear,” Countryman says.

“There is a lot of pop culture influence, so you see kids playing and hand-clapping and doing dance. It could be an old tune, like Miss Sue from Alabama, that people my age might remember, but it could also be something by Katy Perry or the Black-Eyed Peas. It’s a real mosh pit of old and new, and it is constantly changing.”

As a music educator, one of Countryman’s roles is to prepare and mentor future music teachers.

“As we learn more about how children learn, we are increasingly aware of how important it is to recognize and honour the skills and knowledge they bring to the classroom,” she says.

 “And so in order to teach well and to teach in a student-centred way, you need to know what kids are doing when they’re not with you. So one of my questions is when children don’t have any adults around do they make music on their own? And if they do, what is it like? Because I think then if when they come into our formal classes, if we have a better sense of who they are and what their capabilities are, we teach more sensitively.”

For her study, Countryman is not only interested in what the children are singing and chanting but when they do it as well.

“I’m listening to everything, like, for example, their voice play and what prompts them to sing? What I find is children switch from talking to singing in order to get people’s attention or to influence the play or for pure pleasure. The line between chanting rhythmically and then moving into actual singing is really fluid: children go back and forth between speech and song freely and unpredictably,” she says.

“Aside from at sports games, adults tend not to just burst into song, but you’ll be watching a child game and all of a sudden they are chanting ‘Let’s go, Sasha! Let’s go!’ It’s repeated eight or 10 times and it is absolutely synced, both rhythm and pitch, and you can’t pinpoint how it started. It just bubbles up.”

Children pass rhymes and songs on to the next generation of kids, which fosters the continuation of some very old rhymes, like Eenie Meenie Miney Moe or One Potato, Two Potato.

“You never hear ‘My mom taught me’ or ‘My nan taught me,’ it’s more ‘My older sister taught me’ or ‘I learned it at my last school,’ ” Countryman says.

Sometimes the old is mixed in with new improvisations that even include pop-culture references.

“One of the things I heard just recently was a couple of girls on the swings singing ‘Peter Peter Pumpkin eater had a wife and couldn’t keep her. Go, Peter, go! I call that a remix. So the first bit is a nursery rhyme that is a couple of hundred years old. But they had mixed that with their own chant that accompanied an elaborate chase game. They’re often recomposing,” Countryman says.

“(And) now on occasion they’re sharing an ear bud connecting each to an iPod and they’re doing hand-clapping and dance routines to pre-recorded music. That certainly is new to this generation because kids didn’t have the available technology to be able to do that (before).”

Countryman is working with Martha Gabriel, professor of education at UPEI, who is doing similar work in preschools, exploring how these informal musical practices are implicated in the development of children’s literacy readiness.

The goal is to increase understanding of the multiple modes (rhythmic speech, rhyme, movement, song, gesture) that contribute to confident reading and writing.

Gabriel and Countryman’s research is part of UPEI’s AIRS international research program examining the human phenomenon of singing as it relates to health, education and well-being.

“We hear of places where recess is dumped in favour of more instructional time as a way to combat low literacy scores. Educators realize that, in addition to the physical and social benefits of recess, the unstructured verbal play going on during play time is essential for children to develop fluency with language,” Countryman says.

“Children naturally 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, and repeatedly, in the body.”

To further round out her study, Countryman hopes Guardian readers will email her their reminiscences of what they played at recess: games, skip-rope rhymes, count-outs and so on.

“It would be really fun — and useful — to see what’s continued from generation to generation. Children love the idea that they are skipping or choosing sides with a rhyme or song that their grandparents used.”

 

 

AT A GLANCE

Fast facts

UPEI assistant professor of music June Countryman is conducting research on school playgrounds listening for the songs and rhymes kids use when they’re playing and exploring the role these musical expressions play in building language development and literacy skills.

As part of this study, she is requesting that Guardian readers email to her their reminiscences of what they played at recess: games, skip-rope rhymes, count-outs and so on. For more information, email jcountryman@upei.ca or call 566-0490.

Geographic location: Iceland

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