On the way back from Fairfield to the Chicago train station, we stopped at an Iowa truckstop restaurant called Gramma’s Kitchen. One of the puzzles on the children’s menu was this: “How many words can you make out of the letters in GRAMMA’S KITCHEN?” I glanced idly at it and thought, gram . . . ram . . . am . . . mask . . . ask . . . skit . . . kit . . . it . . . itch . . . hen . . . and then I was hooked. I grabbed a crayon and spent the rest of the meal covering the page with words.
Suddenly, a whole new vista of puzzling is open to me! I can take any phrase and amuse myself for 40 minutes or so finding all the words in it. It makes me feel so clever! It’s probably good for my brain, too. Research studies have found a correlation between language-related hobbies (like doing crossword puzzles or writing poetry) and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. [Oh, go look them up. I don’t have to provide links to everything!] In general, “exercising” your brain by doing stuff with it helps to form and maintain connections between neurons, which might prove useful someday.
I’ve explained how making up rhymes saved my sanity as a new mother. Daniel and I retained the habit of singing phrases to the tune of “When You’re Happy and You Know It” or “The Farmer in the Dell” or “London Bridge is Falling Down” or other songs that we notice fit the rhythm of a phrase, and Nicholas quickly picked up on this. One day last fall, we walked into the lobby of his preschool and were assailed by dueling stenches: the decaying jack-o’-lanterns, and the lollipop-like chemical air-freshener that had been sprayed on them. I explained, “They made a smell to cover up the smell, but that just made it worse!” Nicholas immediately sang:
Oh, they made a smell to cover up the smell,
But I think it isn’t working very well!
and then, in the proud tradition of his forebears, he paused to seek lyrics to the “when you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it” part, couldn’t think of any, and filled in, “Doopty doopty doopty doopty…” It was very funny, but it also led me to realize that this lame in-joke between my geeky life-partner and me had been teaching our child to recognize rhythmic patterns in language! This surely will be useful to him in later life as he goes out into the world to…umm…write sonnets, or something.
Well, maybe he’ll impress future job interviewers with his bagel songs. Experience with rhymes helps kids learn to read, because they quickly pick up on the fact that words with similar spellings have similar sounds. (Sometimes. English is tricky that way!) Nicholas began to recognize this a few months ago and to point out “matching” words in familiar books. He now asks us to “save some words for me!”–follow the text with a finger while reading and pause for him to say an occasional word. Of course, he’s much more likely to be accurate when he’s heard the story so many times that he’s practically memorized it. But I’ve found that, even when reading a book for the first time, he can guess the word from context if it’s forming a rhyme. We also like to play a game in which one of us says a word, and the other thinks of a word that rhymes with it.
There’s a game my mom used to play with me, which Nicholas will be ready to play pretty soon: Word Star. Draw a five-pointed star, and in the center write the ending letters of a word, for example, ar. Now write a letter or letters in each point that will form a word when combined with the ending:
What about d? No, dar is not a word.
e+ar=ear. Hey, that’s funny! Ear doesn’t rhyme with star, bar, and car, but they are spelled the same way!
f+ar=far, and our star is filled. What should we put in the next one?
My cousins Sarah and Simmy, for some reason they never explained, decided to learn to sing “The Red River Valley” with the words one syllable ahead of the tune. Think about it for a minute. (You have to know “The Red River Valley”, or this just won’t work at all.) Like this:
True from this valley they say you are go.
Ing we will miss your bright eyes and sweet,
Smile for they say you are taking the sun…
etc. Really demonstrates how tunes aren’t connected to songs just by somebody deciding to sing them and getting enough people to sing along that everyone decides it sounds normal, but by the tune being structured the same way as the words. Break that apart, and it sounds like nonsense, even though the words are still in order. What particularly boggles me about this game is how difficult it is to do the same thing with another song. After 20 years*, I still haven’t found any song I can slide off its tune like that and still manage to sing all the way through; I just bog down, feeling like my brain is caught in alien machinery. I don’t know if this means that there’s something unique about “The Red River Valley” or that I’m just a staggeringly unmusical person who isn’t up to such challenges.
*No, no, I haven’t been working constantly at it for 20 years! I only think of it once in a while. Like every time I hear “The Red River Valley”. Which is not very often.
One morning, in the era when Nicholas demanded nightly readings of The Cat in the Hat, we were having trouble getting out of the house on time, and for some reason I thought it would be fun to say everything in the rhythm of The Cat in the Hat. It was fun! Suddenly, instead of plodding toward the bus stop like we do every day, we seemed to be setting off on some sort of zany adventure. Just from speaking in a pattern of daDAdadaDAdadaDAdadaDA and rhyming every line!