counting out

An introduction to counting out games

Counting out is just one way children choose who’s going to be it or on or picking up, in other words helping to choose teams.

Counting out is part of a class of choosing games, which are widely known among people of all ages, the most famous of which may be ‘Eenie-Meanie-Minie-Mo’, or ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’.

An example of a popular counting out game

One of the most popular counting out rhymes is ‘Black Shoe, Black Shoe, Change Your Black Shoe’, which involves counting out on feet, as the rhyme suggests. Another is ‘Coconut, Coconut, Coconut, Crack’, or ‘Banana, Banana, Banana, Split’, which involves counting out first on clasped hands, then fists. Another is 'Ip-dip-do, the cat’s got flu, the monkey’s got chicken pox and out goes you,' which is played by pointing at each child one by one. These rhymes take longer because they rely on elimination and so have to be finished before the identity of the 'it' is known.

Footage of a popular counting out game

Children often substitute nonsense words, or words that fit the rhyme and rhythm, either because they’re not sure of the words or thanks to sheer inventiveness. They might, for instance, substitute other words in the same rhythmic mould for ‘Coconut Crack’, like “camp, camp, camp, rock.” Or they might add words on or take some out or change words and actions. Being ‘it’ is often less popular than that of being chased, so counting out is needed as a fair way of choosing someone, though they do sometimes just volunteer. Fairness is always relative, however, and part of the culture of all games also involves cheating, so we sometimes see that children intentionally change the way they do the counting out to manipulate the outcome.

An animation about the development of 'counting out' rhymes

Although we may not see counting out rhymes in the playground now as often as the Opie’s did, many children, particularly older ones, know several. They inherit these from a long tradition, which was well documented throughout the 19th century in Britain and still flourishes in playgrounds today.

In this film Michael Rosen introduces the history of counting out games.

Banner credit: © Raymond Townsend

Article: © Michael Rosen

  • Michael Rosen
  • Michael Rosen is Professor of Children's Literature at Goldsmiths University. From 2007-2009 he was Children's Laureate.