Clapping games

Clapping games have been a popular form of children's play for generations, Julia Bishop examines their continued popularity in 21st century.

Musical elements, such as melody, rhythm, meter and timbre, abound in children’s play. In some cases, these help to regulate the game but are secondary to its overall goal, such as the rhythmic chanting of counting out, or the song accompanying ball-bouncing or skipping. In other cases, though, a musical performance is the aim of the game, such as a song and dance routine, or a hand-clapping game. It is this very performance aspect, with its accompanying physical, musical and verbal challenges, which makes such games appealing, and it seems that their popularity has been increasing from the mid-20th century on.

Clapping games are often played in pairs, although formations involving more players also take place. They are generally done on the spot, have a well-defined beginning and end, and emphasise rhythm, beat and coordination. The performers are very focused on their partners, striving to synchronise their movements with each other and with the song that accompanies the game. This makes clapping games an example of ‘participatory performance’ in which social interaction with other participants is as at least as important as the music being produced (Turino 2008). In this way, the performance is more for the players than for an outside audience.  

This film shows a group of Year 6 children in a Sheffield school playground doing a well-known clapping game

This can be seen in the film of ‘My Mummy Sent Me Shopping’ where the girls’ backs are turned towards the onlookers. The ring formation also keeps the players focused on each other whilst keeping others out, although one boy tries to break into the game, eventually managing it. A similar thing can be seen in ‘A Sailor Went to Sea’, below.

Two girls, in 2010, play the clapping game 'a sailor went to sea'

‘A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea’ also illustrates the multimodal nature of clapping games, and the many ways in which they combine, for example, words, music, gesture, touch, and gaze. In the UK ‘A Sailor Went to Sea’ is often one of the first games to be learnt. It can be clapped very simply using a ‘pat-a-cake’ style of clapping in which the thrice-repeated ‘sea, sea, sea’ coincides with three upright-handed claps with a partner (as in a ‘High 10’ gesture). Having mastered this, the challenge can be extended by replacing the patting with a gesture in which the hand taps three times against the player’s own forehead (in the manner of a salute). Further stanzas can also be added in which the variations in wording suggest further movements. The break in the clapping required for the gesture each time is clearly audible in the example recorded by Iona Opie, in which the children substitute ‘China’, ‘chop, chop, chop’ and Africa for ‘sea, sea, sea’.

This recording was made by Iona Opie in Birmingham in 1972

As one child explains just at the end of this example, the game can culminate in a stanza in which all the substitutions are brought together in the breaks between clapping, together with their associated gestures. For example:

A sailor went to sea (salute), chop (karate chop in crook of arm), knee (hands on knee caps), China (bowing head with praying hands gesture)
To see what he could sea, chop, knee, China…etc.

In the 2010 film, the girls improvise still more gestures, sometimes in friendly competition, perhaps to extend the performance for the camera.

It is no coincidence that handclapping play has blossomed in parallel with the development of electronic media and the commercial popular culture associated with it. Many a clapping game has its roots in a popular song, or even several, as in the case of ‘Under the Bram Bush’.

This recording was made by Iona Opie in Liss, Hampshire, in 1974.

The interaction between popular culture and children’s clapping games often works in both directions, though. The tunes, words and movements of games may be drawn on by producers of popular culture whose productions in turn become a resource for children in their play. This crossover can be repeated many times resulting in what researchers, with the benefit of hindsight, view as ‘cycles of appropriation and re-appropriation’ (Marsh 2008). A good example of this is ‘Cups’ (also known as ‘The Cup Song’ or ‘Cup Game’) which featured in the film Pitch Perfect (2012) but had a long history as a song and game prior to this. Another well-known example is ‘Down Down Baby’

This clapping game was filmed in July 2010 in a London school playground

The 21st century has seen the advent of video-sharing websites and their immense popularity. YouTube, which began in 2005, is now one of the most-visited English-language websites. As it has grown, it has provided unprecedented access to commercial popular culture, past and present. Even more importantly, it allows users to upload their own video content. Within the very first year, this included clapping games and it has done so ever since. Now it is possible to find films there from all over the world in a kind of unofficial international archive of clapping games (not to mention the many other kinds of children’s games content).

Clapping play films on YouTube feature children and young people taking part in, performing, demonstrating and teaching the games. The films have sometimes been uploaded by parents and relatives, proud of their children’s talents. Many more seem to be peer-to-peer productions, produced by and for young people. They display their skills and capture the fun while in many cases demonstrating an obvious desire to pass on the game to others for their enjoyment as well.

View an animation exploring the tradition of clapping games on the British Library website.

One of the reasons that YouTube provides such a conducive home for these kinds of films is that there are many parallels between the way children pick up clapping games in offline contexts and the way they learn from films. Studies of learning and transmission in clapping games show that players often learn from watching performances by others outside their immediate group of friends. Their viewpoint is similar to that of the camera in the YouTube films, looking on from the side. The movements are often the first thing to be learnt, followed by the words and music. Practising takes place with one’s friends, so that going wrong becomes part of the fun. Maintaining the whole performance from start to finish without a slip is the goal, so children often practise from the beginning again if they go wrong.

YouTube films cannot provide the kind of physical contact that is essential to playing clapping games and there is no evidence it is endangering their performance in the material world. Instead, they are providing another source from which whole games or particular components can be learnt and practised in face-to-face performances. In this way, then, cycles of appropriation and re-appropriation have become cycles of digital curation and physical re-creation.

Banner credit: Shestock/Getty Images

  • Julia Bishop
  • Dr Julia Bishop is interested in cultural traditions of all kinds, but has specialised in traditional song and children's folklore. She is currently editing James T. R. Ritchie's book of Edinburgh schoolchildren's lore, language and games, The Bumbee (Playtime) Bell, for publication and, with a team of five colleagues, is preparing a critical edition of the James Madison Carpenter Collection of Traditional Song and Drama.

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