Four-year-olds: Cute? Sure. Endearing? Definitely. Possessors of superior cognitive skills? Not so much. Except, it turns out, when it comes to memorizing rhymes. That’s the surprising result of a study summed up in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest by Christian Jarrett. As Jarrett explains, “A small study in Developmental Science has put pre-literate four-year-olds’ memory abilities to the test, finding that they outperformed their parents, and a comparison group of young adults, in their ability to recall a previously unfamiliar short rhyme: ‘The Radish-nosed King.’”
A group of researchers led by Ildikó Király at Central European University had a group of 13 parents of 4-year-olds read the book to their children every every night for a week and a half. The parents, as well as an outside group of university students, were told they’d be tested on their knowledge of the book, while the kids weren’t.
On the day after the last reading of the poem, the researchers asked the parents, children and the young adults to recall as much of the poem as they could, verbatim. On average, the children remembered nearly twice as many correct words as the adults, and made far fewer errors. The researchers also tested all the participants on the story events in the poem, and here there was no difference between the groups.
Also, there was a further detail: the researchers had inserted one extra line at the beginning or end of the poem, consisting of a list of nonsense and irrelevant (non-rhyming) words, supposedly shouted by the king when he’s angry. This was to test the participants’ memory for non-verse content, and here again the children and adults’ performance was matched, which argues against the idea that the children’s superior memory for the verse itself was due to the adults not paying attention (if so, they should have underperformed on the random word list too).
In other words, the adults got shellacked by the little ones. The researchers, writes Jarrett, think that kids get deeply attuned to these sorts of rhymes since so much culture is transmitted to them that way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, adults are less transfixed by rhymes. Whatever the reason for this surprising result, I would definitely watch a rhyme-centered Are You Smarter Than a 4-Year-Old?