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An introduction to skipping games

Skipping games have a long history.

Micheal Rosen introduces the tradition of skipping games.

The earliest references to skipping, from the 16th century, relate to skipping with a hoop rather than a rope. In Britain the earliest reference to rope skipping is to single skipping in the early 18th century. Skipping ropes have been manufactured for children since the 18th century, though of course improvisation plays its part in this history. Washing lines were often used to make a long rope.

The two basic forms of skipping are single skipping with a short rope, and group skipping with a long rope, which were observed by Alison Atlee, enthusiastic chronicler of Victorian childhood. Clearly these basic forms are still to be found today. As with clapping games, part of the appeal here is skill, demonstrated both by the complexity and variety of moves mastered, but also by speed. As the Opie’s memorably said, 'The expert skipper reminds one not of a fluttering butterfly but a machinegun.'

In long rope skipping there are different methods of turning the rope. For example, varying the speed, often regulated by a chant, such as 'salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper,' salt being the slowest and pepper the fastest. And in doing the bumps, in which the rope is whipped round so fast that it passes under the skipper’s feet twice in one jump. So on the letters of, 'Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs F-F-I, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs L-T-Y.' Another method was to swing the rope from side to side rather than turn the rope, as in the initial part of the rhyme, 'Bluebells, cockle shells, evie, ivy, over'.

This footage was filmed in Edinburgh in 1951.

The other kind of skipping game to note is elastics, or French skipping, played with a long continuous loop of elastic, stretched around the legs of the two enders to form a rectangle. Elastics took root in Britain in the 1960s, brought from the USA and ultimately originating from China or Japan. This seems to come and go in intense crazes.

While the Opie’s recorded a wide variety of rhymes accompanying skipping games, the playgrounds researched for this website produced a smaller repertoire. Some were old favourites, such as, 'Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around. Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground,' still found across Britain. And, 'Cinderella dressed in yella,' which has been in circulation at least since the 1960s.

This recording was made by Iona Opie in Hampshire, 1972

Finally, as with any game involving physical objects, children display considerable inventiveness in using skipping ropes for other purposes, building them into pretend play to serve as snakes, reins for a horse or other imaginative transformations.

This film explores the fun and complicated skipping games that children play.

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.

    Born in 1946 in North London he started writing poetry when he was twelve years old, creating satirical poems about people he knew. Now he  is one of the best-known figures in the children’s book world, he is renowned for his work as a poet, performer, broadcaster and scriptwriter. As an author and by selecting other writers’ works for anthologies he has been involved with over 140 books. He visits schools with his one-man show to enthuse children with his passion for books and poetry. You Can’t Catch Me won the Signal Poetry Award in 1982 and such is the enduring appeal of the poems that the book was re-issued in 2006 with Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard as Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Bloomsbury). His classic picture book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books), won the Nestle Smarties Grand Prize in 1989. The English Association awarded Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (Walker Books), an Exceptional Award for the Best Children’s Illustrated Books of 2004, in the 4-11 age range. More information about Michael, his books and what he's doing is available on his website: https://www.michaelrosen.co.uk/