Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


21. Children’s rhymes and folklore


Andy Arleo


Recent trends in the study of children’s folklore


The study of children’s folklore in the last few decades has been characterised by continuity and change. Researchers continue to use fieldwork in order to document the ever-evolving children’s traditions, and to make their findings available in the form of articles, books, dissertations, archives, films, and more recently websites. In perusing the many collections and studies of childlore that have appeared in this period, one notes that the core genres such as counting-out or basic chasing games are still found among schoolchildren (Bronner 1988; Factor 1988; Bishop and Curtis 2001; Delalande 2001). Traditional counting-out rhymes such as ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Mo’ continue to be popular, albeit with new twists and variations. The following variant of this rhyme was collected by Laurie and Winifred Bauer in their survey on New Zealand playground language (Bauer and Bauer 2002):


Eeny meeny miny mangi,

Catch a mangi by the tangi,

If he squeals, steal his wheels,

Eeny meeny miny mangi.


As they point out, the derogatory term nigger found in the traditional rhyme is still reported, but it has often been replaced by something else: tigger, tiger, moa, nickel and tula. This process is itself traditional and in the past the offensive word has been replaced by names of animals or national enemies: tiger, rabbit, black cat, rooster, Hitler, Tojo, Castro, Viet Cong (Abrahams and Rankin 1980: 58-9).

Research on childlore has also been marked by a number of changes linked to broader academic and societal issues, including the evolution of technology and paradigm shifts within folklore studies and other disciplines. Much of the earlier focus on the historical aspects of children’s rhymes has given way to detailed studies of contemporary performance, accompanied by attempts at functional and contextual explanation.

An early seminal study on strategy in counting-out by folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein shows how an ethnographic approach based on fieldwork can overturn adult assumptions as to the nature of childlore (Goldstein 1971). In the past, counting-out was often described as a fairly straightforward impartial procedure used to select the central player (‘It’) in games like ‘Tig’. Goldstein’s study demonstrates that these idealised accounts do not correspond to what children actually do. His fieldwork was in a section of northwest Philadelphia in 1966-7 among sixty-seven children between the ages of four and eleven. Goldstein discovered that a number of manipulative strategies were used to change the outcome of the counting-out process. The most common technique is rhyme extension; when the rhyme ended on a player that the counter did not want to be ‘It’, the counter added on one or more extra phrases. For example, the ‘Eeny Meeny’ rhyme (see above) could be extended by ‘My mother says that you are It’. If the counter was still not satisfied by the outcome an additional phrase could be tacked on: ‘But I say that you are out.’ Another strategy consisted in using specific rhymes with a known number of stresses in order to predict the outcome. One informant had a fixed repertory of four rhymes containing seven, eight, nine and sixteen stresses. Knowing both the number of stresses and the number of players allowed the counter to determine who would be ‘It’. One precocious nine-year-old boy, who had the reputation of being a mathematical genius, utilised another strategy based on calculation: for a particular rhyme (‘One Potato, Two Potato’) he would memorise the ‘first out’ position for two to ten players and then move to a new position according to whom he wished to eliminate. Counters also used less sophisticated ploys, such as skipping over themselves.

A more recent study, spurred by Goldstein’s work and based on a survey of sixty-seven children in Saint-Nazaire, France, found strikingly similar results: 82 per cent of the respondents admitted to ‘cheating’ when counting-out (Arleo 1991: 26-7). The ‘skipping over’ technique was the most popular strategy, but the children also mentioned ‘counting in their heads’, that is calculating the outcome. A popular extension rhyme, shown in italics below, was also cited:


Pouf, pouf.

Ca sera toi le Loup,

mais comme le roi et la reine ne le veulent pas, ga ne sera pas toi.


[Pouf, pouf.

You will be the Wolf,

but as the king and the queen don’t want this (to happen), it won’t be you. ]


The above utterance is made up of three components. First, like a judge with a gavel calling the court to order, the counter usually taps the ground in the middle of the circle twice and says the nonsense syllables ‘Pouf, pouf’ before the actual counting begins. This is followed by a short counting-out rhyme, ‘£a sera toi le Loup’, which could stand on its own. The counter, however, decides to extend the rhyme by using a well-known ‘coda’. It is interesting to note that, as in the example given by Goldstein (‘my mother says that you are It’), responsibility is shifted from the counter to an adult authority figure (in this case the king and the queen), thereby making it more difficult for the other players to challenge the final outcome. As can be seen in this example, counting-out rhymes function very much like performative speech acts, such as ‘I dub thee knight’. The pragmatic meaning of a counting-out rhyme may be stated as ‘the player who is designated on the last syllable of the present utterance is appointed ‘It’ (or, alternatively, is called ‘Out’)’.

Whereas in the past children’s rhymes have often been published as collections of decontextualised items, more recent in-depth ethnographic approaches show how they are actually embedded in a complex ongoing process of play, often involving negotiation between the players. This may be illustrated by Marjorie Harness Goodwin’s sociolinguistic study of the game of jump rope, based on fieldwork in Philadelphia among black working-class preadolescent girls (Goodwin 1985). Goodwin argues that the social interaction occurring during games like jump rope is continuous with that outside the play frame. Specifically, she notes that the ways games are played are ‘open for negotiation’ and that ‘girls demonstrate repeatedly their ability to deal with conflict expeditiously in the course of games’ (316). The following sequence from Goodwin’s research illustrates the fluidity of children’s play, where different versions of a rhyme may blend into each other without a break in the jumping. In the transcription, double obliques indicate the point at which a current speaker’s talk is overlapped with the talk of another, as in lines 2 and 3; while double square brackets indicate that two speakers begin to talk simultaneously, as in lines 3 and 4.



Michele begins her jump.



Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,






Over the candle stick.






Over the candle stick.



All around // alimbo



Do it fast, do it quick



NO! Around the limbo rock,



Hey let’s do the limbo rock.






Hey let’s do the limbo rock.

(Goodwin 1985: 320)


The well-known traditional rhyme is performed in a collaborative manner, with Pam and Priscilla chiming in together in lines 3 and 4, overlapping with Michele. In line 5, Priscilla continues with her version of the next verse. After Pam persists with her version (line 6), Priscilla ‘corrects’ her with an emphatic ‘NO!’ in line 7. The contradictory claims are resolved in lines 8 and 9 with Pam joining Priscilla. In her conclusion, Goodwin remarks that ‘arguments by girls in the midst of play are thus strikingly divergent from the prolonged disputes that occur among boys in similar domains’ (323). Furthermore, in their games and constructive play activity, boys ‘create hierarchical distinctions among themselves’, using ‘aggravated’ or unmodulated types of action, whereas girls use more ‘mitigated’ types of speech actions’ (324). For instance, girls may make mitigated requests when calling for the start of a new rhyme by suggesting, ‘Hey um let’s do “Old Bastard Grandmom”.’ Such speech actions are proposals that include the other players as relevant agents and they are consistent with the egalitarian types of actions found in previous research on girls’ constructive play and task activities.