Humour, jokes and rude rhymes

Dr Andrew Burn examines the role of jokes, rude rhymes and humour in children's play.

Humour is an important component of children’s play, and especially their verbal play. It allows children to challenge, undermine and disarm adult power and seriousness, to explore taboo topics such as sex and faeces, and to experiment with dazzling displays of verbal dexterity.

A recording featuring the jokes ‘Tarzan in the Jungle’, ‘Donald Duck’ and ‘Popeye the Sailor Man’.

Scholars of childhood, James, Jenks and Prout, give a good idea of what kind of cultural process this is:

It is culture as contextualised action, not ossified cultural forms (jokes, games and childhood lore) which passes between generations of children in defiance of what children ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to know. (1998: 89)

In this respect, it warns us not to sentimentalise children’s play: scatological humour can appear extreme, unsettling, seeming crude, sexist or homophobic to adult moral codes. The exploration of taboo subjects can be seen, however, as the well-documented aspirational aspect of children’s culture, an attempt to venture into the forbidden world of adulthood and adolescent knowledge and experience. The Opie collection in the National Sound Archive contains examples of rhymes depicting sexual encounters, dog faeces and nudity, heard and faithfully recorded by Iona Opie. While such material is typically not included in the published works, the recordings expand the record, showing the extent of Opie’s coverage and the dispassionate commitment to document all aspects of children’s play. It reveals the well-documented preoccupation of young children with such themes, described in detail in Steve Roud’s extensive account of children’s games, rhymes and traditions (Roud, 2010).

A rather milder example of rude rhymes is the well-known “When Susie Was a Baby”, many versions of which were documented by the Opies, some of them appearing in their book on musical play, The Singing Game (1986). This song imagines the growth of a girl from infancy to old age. It provides opportunities for snappy stereotyping: “When Susie was a granny ... she went ‘knit, knit, knit-knit-knit’ “. It allows for risky experiments with the forbidden fruits of adolescence: “When Susie was a teenager ... She went ‘Ooh-ah, I’ve lost my bra, I’ve left my knickers in my boyfriend’s car’ “. It allows defiant laughter about death, with Susie’s skeleton going rattle-rattle-rattle, her dead self silent, her ghost going ‘Woooh’. And it provides an opportunity for parodic incorporation of popular cultural media references. A version in the audio collection from Salfrod, 1970, contains a line which Iona Opie expresses (perhaps ingenuous) puzzlement at: “When Susie was a saint, a saint Susie was, and she went ‘Da-da-da-da-daaa-daaa-da!’” (00.21.10). When Opie asks what this tune at the end means, they children excitedly explain that it’s The Saint, Simon Templar, from the popular TV series of the time.

Humorous rhymes often accompany specific games genres, such as counting out, clapping or skipping. Rude variations of Popeye the Sailorman, for example, accompanied clapping games in the mid-twentieth century. Their humour, their challenge to adult norms, their rhyme and rhythm, imagery, play on words, and frequent parodic traits are all reasons why they appeal to children and why they are memorable. Linguists make the point that such verbal play has a developmental function in sharpening children’s linguistic skills. Nonsense rhymes in particular seem to provide ways for children to discover sound patterns through verbal play. But the pleasure of the moment seems more important: the opportunity to entertain, make friends laugh, poke fun at authority, venture into forbidden territory – even insult, stereotype and offend. The ambivalent values apparently contained in such play demonstrate what play researcher Brian Sutton-Smith famously called the ‘ambiguity of play’ (1997). Some aspects of this humour and word-play can seem pro-social and developmental – what Sutton-Smith calls the ‘progress rhetoric’ of play. Others can seem positively anti-social, regressive and anarchic, closer to the forms of phantasmagoria and dark play which Sutton-Smith considers.

A group of year 2 girls tell their favourite jokes

An important class of verbal humour is parody of adult genres: Christmas carols, pop songs, advertising jingles, Valentine’s day rhymes, Happy Birthday, football chants, musicals, TV theme songs. The wide variety demonstrates an irreverent, eclectic mix of popular cultural references, where nothing is sacred, and the punchline is all. The sources are equally diverse: other children, adults, comics, books, television, films and the internet.

A group of boys, filmed in 2010 discuss their favourite jokes and where they learnt them

The Opie audio collection, selections of which appear on this website, has a good many rude rhymes in particular, more than have appeared in today’s well-regulated playgrounds, in fact. This may be partly because their collections include games and songs played in the street, in London council estates and parks as well as school playgrounds. The recordings of Iona Opie’s research contain examples from all over the UK. In London, they include interviews with children on a housing estate in Chelsea, and in the playground at Coram’s Fields, for example, which is now forbidden to adults unless they are accompanied by children. In the changed geography of childhood, the street as a place for play has drastically diminished; while playgrounds tend to be more scrupulously overseen by teachers, learning assistants and playworkers. Either children produce fewer rude rhymes in these circumstances; or they keep them more carefully hidden. The Opies recognised the hidden nature of such material:

The dialectal lore flows more quietly but deeper; it is the language of children’s darker doings: playing truant, giving warning, sneaking, swearing, snivelling, tormenting, and fighting. (Opie and Opie, 1959)

Humour, jokes and rude rhymes, then, are interesting for a variety of reasons. They remind us that children’s culture is laced with laughter – difficult to explain, ambiguous, sometimes a form of social bonding, sometimes cruel and excluding, expressive of the pleasure of the moment, difficult to recruit to serious purposes of learning and development. They remind us that children’s culture does not fit neatly in our tidy fields of study: to folklore studies, it looks like folklore; to media studies, it looks like media culture – in fact, it’s a complex mix of the two, and of many other things besides. They remind us of the wit and wisdom of childhood, the collective ability to juggle words, phrases, generic styles, to upset the sobriety of religion, the glamour of celebrity, the prudishness of adult morality. They remind us of Sutton-Smith’s ambiguity of play, and indeed of childhood itself: that children may at one moment seem innocent, inexperienced and vulnerable, yet also be knowing, fascinated by sex, bodily functions and death, and rather less submissive to the regulatory forces of education, the family and adult society than is entirely comfortable for their teachers, parents and providers.

A 9 year old demonstrates one of her favourite jokes


Alison James, Chris Jenks, and Alan Prout, Theorizing Childhood (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998).

Peter Opie and Iona Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959).

Peter Opie and Iona Opie, The Singing Game (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1986).

Steve Roud, The Lore of the Playground: One Hundred Years of Children’s Games, Rhymes and Traditions (London: Random House, 2010).

Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).


Banner Credit: Raymond Townsend

  • Andrew Burn
  • Dr Andrew Burn is Professor of English, Media and Drama at the UCL Institute of Education. His research focuses on play, games, and children’s engagement with popular media such as film, animation and videogames. He was a teacher of English, Drama and Media for many years, and first encountered children’s games by overhearing three 11 year-olds in his class singing favourite clapping game songs from their childhood.