Singing and dancing

Andrew Burn examines the history of children's singing games.

Singing games have a long history. Children’s songs were avidly collected and transcribed by Victorian collectors such as Alice Gomme, who saw them as an authentic and ancient tradition and one in danger of decline in the Industrial Age. Accordingly, there was an impulse to revive such games and songs, introducing them into programmed and educational activities. This impulse survives today, with well-known songs such as ‘A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea’ included in children’s television programmes and DVDs.

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

Like many children’s games, singing games are heavily gendered, the majority being performed by girls. Some involved a courtship or marriage element, and examples of this can be found to this day. Some share features with country dancing, though many of the dance routines have declined in today’s playgrounds.

This song, recorded in the streets of Edinburgh in 1950, is called ‘The London Ball’.

These older, ‘traditional’ songs and routines, which clearly belong to a kind of folklore, still form part of younger children’s repertoires, examples being older singing games such as ‘Ring a ring a roses’ and ‘In and Out the Dusty Bluebells’. Like all folk culture, these songs are subject to evolution and change, although essential elements remain constant. The Opie recordings in the British Library collection, many of which can be found on the Playtimes website, also contain examples of different versions of songs from different parts of the UK. A striking example is three versions of the song ‘Under the Bram Bush’, from Liss, Salford and London, which show variations in the words, different tunes, and different motivations for singing amongst the children. This song also represents a kind of ‘in-between’ category for the Opies. Though it sounds like a folk song, the words are derived from an early 20th century music-hall song, as the Opies note in their ground-breaking book The Singing Game, which used many examples from the recordings in the British Library collection. However, because the song has been absorbed into children’s play and passed down over the years, it has become part of an oral tradition in the same way as older songs. The Opies note other examples in The Singing Game: ‘Keep the Sunny Side Up’, from the 1929 film ‘The Best Things in Life are Free’; or ‘The Tennessee Wig Walk’, a popular song from 1954.

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

The Opies distinguished this process from the songs children drew from their media cultures, which they saw as more transitory: though Iona Opie still found these of enough interest to record them diligently. She recorded children performing songs of the pop stars of the day, from Lena Zavaroni to Abba, and the recordings show children’s close attention to nuanced details of performance. At another point, she agrees to hear a child’s performance of a favourite Bay City Rollers song; and in another recording, asking the children if they know the Bay City Rollers. Similarly, Steve Roud, in his book The Lore of the Playground, notes how children adapt songs from Bucks Fizz and Madonna in the 1980s, and from the Spice Girls in the 1990s.

This recording was made by Iona Opie in the children’s playground of Coram Fields, London, in 1974.

There are also examples in the Opie recordings of songs which retain the basic form passed down across the generations, but with small elements introduced from media cultures. A good example is the widely-recorded song ‘When Susie Was a Baby’ (often used to accompany clapping routines), into which the children have introduced references to the TV series The Saint.

More recently (2009-2011), examples have been recorded of children using songs and dances from High School Musical, Mamma Miaand  by Beyoncé, amongst other sources. Of course, it is not possible to tell how any of these might find their way into more durable traditions. For children, such distinctions of age and durability are largely meaningless, however. Their cultural lives are lived in the moment. Like the children observed by Iona Opie in the 1970s, they are keenly interested in the prominent celebrities of popular music of their time. The differences lie in the more extended media cultures they inhabit. Digital television, mobile devices and YouTube offer more opportunities for replaying and absorbing song and dance routines than were available to the children of the 1970s.

This footage is a good example of pop culture being mimicked in the playground

Girls from years 1 and 2, filmed in 2010, sing and dance to Beyonce's 'Single Ladies'

In relation to dance, the Opies note movements carefully, especially those that appear to be part of a folkloric tradition. Such dances, often related to country dance traditions, are listed in Steve Roud’s The Lore of the Playground, and include the line, circle and arch formations found in games such as ‘The Big Ship Sails’, ‘The Farmer’s in His Den’, and ‘Green Gravel’.

These children, recorded in 1957, are playing the singing games 'The big ship sailed'

This recording was made by Iona Opie in Stepney Green in 1976.

Few examples were found of such dances in the London and Sheffield playgrounds observed from 2009-11. Rather, we found examples of elaborate choreography by the children themselves, building on dance, cheerleading and other routines seen in music video, film and television. While a casual observer might see this simply as a form of imitation, on closer inspection it was clear that the children were often recombining elements from different sources, making their own original routine. One cheerleading routine, for example, combined elements from the popular film High School Musical with dance moves from a Michael Jackson video. Routines learnt from Hannah Montana: The Movie and The Parent Trap and television programmes such as The Wizards of Waverley Place and iCarly were also popular. It was evident that YouTube was an important source of material for the children, operating as a kind of cultural archive.

This group of boys have been inspired by the dance group Diversity

Like other playground games, song and dance routines involve considerable skill with movement, music and words, and can be a way for children to demonstrate expertise and gain standing among their peers. Many researchers and educators see such activities as part of social development and the gradual building of identity; and it is clear that as children grow older, the patterns change, becoming more closely implicated with media cultures, and more eagerly anticipating the excitement of adolescence. However, like adults, children also sing and dance (and play in other ways) for the moment: for the sensual, physical and intellectual pleasure of playing with words and movement in the company of friends, and for the thrill of performance.

This footage was filmed in Tottenham on 30 August 1919 as children celebrated peacetime after the end of the War.

A Year 2 boy performs break dancing moves

Banner credit: Imagno / Getty Images

  • 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.