Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


21. Children’s rhymes and folklore


Andy Arleo


The classification of children’s folklore


The boundaries of children’s folklore have considerably expanded since the nineteenth century and each new generation of scholars has attempted to redefine and recategorise the field. It should be noted that, although children’s folklore and children’s play are closely linked, the two concepts are somewhat different. Children’s play may be solitary whereas children’s folklore is usually construed as a social phenomenon involving interaction between several children. Furthermore, while play comprises individual spontaneous inventions that are not passed on to other children, the term folklore implies some form of transmission. Third, the study of play covers areas like adult-organised sports and commercial games, such as Monopoly, categories that are usually not studied by children’s folklorists. Finally, while play begins at a very early age, children’s folklore is mainly associated with primary school.

Bishop and Curtis (2001) provide an up-to-date discussion of the classification of children’s play traditions, a phrase which corresponds quite closely to children’s folklore as defined above. One of the most obvious ways to classify children’s folklore is to list the items in alphabetical order according to their names, as in a dictionary. One problem that arises with this approach is that games and other forms of folklore usually have many different local names, making it difficult to recover specific items unless a detailed crossreference system is devised. Furthermore, this method is essentially arbitrary as it fails to create coherent categories that might give insight into how children’s folklore is actually used. One of the first attempts to classify items of children’s folklore according to their category of use was Games and Songs of American Children, first published in 1883 (Newell 1883/1963). In addition to thematic categories like ‘love games’ or ‘bird and beast’, Newell included ‘the pleasures of motion’, ‘guessing-games’, ‘games of chase’, ‘ball and similar sports’ and ‘counting-out rhymes’, thus anticipating a functionalist approach.

Classification schemes often stem from practical research concerns, such as organising archives or arranging materials for publication. Iona and Peter Opie, the pioneers of modern childlore studies, organised their material into four books published over nearly four decades. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) deals mostly with language: satirical and nonsense rhymes, puns, tongue twisters, riddles, parodies, nicknames, truce terms and so on. Their second book, Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969), describes games that six- to twelve-year-old children play on their own without adult supervision. The games are arranged in twelve categories according to the way they are played, such as starting a game, chasing games, catching games, seeking games, hunting games and racing games. The Singing Game (1985) includes both singing games in chains (‘Thread the Needle’) and circles (‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’), different types of dances or dance routines, and also handclapping games. The fourth book, Children’s Games with Things (1997), is organised according to the play object used. It contains chapters on marbles, fivestones (also known as jacks or knucklebones), hopscotch, ball-bouncing, skipping and tops, as well as other categories.

A more recent classification of children’s play traditions, proposed by Bishop and Curtis (2001), sets up three main categories: play with high verbal content, play with high imaginative content and play with high physical content. The classification moves from the purely verbal, such as jeers or riddles, to the highly physical, such as playing with balls or collecting things. There are subdivisions in each category. For example, within play with high verbal content are genres that are not accompanied by singing or by movements, such as jokes and riddles, as well as singing games, which involve singing and body movements, like handclapping or ball-bouncing. A particular play activity may involve more than one category. For example, when children, usually girls, skip (or jump) rope they often sing or chant a skipping rhyme. The rhyme would be in the first category, high verbal content, whereas the actual movements would be classified in the third category, high physical content.

The second main category, imaginative, which involves role-playing and make-belief transformation, has two subcategories: role enactment and acting games. In role enactment the general roles are defined by the overall idea of the game, but the plot and dialogue and specific characters are improvised. This would include games like ‘School’, where one child plays the role of the teacher and the other(s) the pupil(s). In acting games the characters and plot are fixed by the game, but the dialogue is improvised: for example, a group of children used the plot and characters of an Australian soap opera to construct an imaginative acting game called ‘Neighbours’. In other acting games, such as a series of games played by Punjabi-speaking girls and called by them ‘Grandma games’, the dialogue is mostly set and there is little room for improvisation.

The third main category has four major subdivisions: games without playthings, games with playthings, making things and collecting things. The games are then split into individual, group and team. The group games are classified according to the ‘It’ role: in chasing games like ‘Tig’ (also known as ‘Tag’), ‘It’ has relatively low power over the other players and so is considered a ‘low-power It’; in other games, like ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’, ‘It’ has more control over the other players’ movements, and is therefore termed a ‘high-power It’.