Michael Rosen on clapping games
Clapping games continue to resonate across modern-day playgrounds. Although they have an earlier history, these games found real popularity in the 1960s, travelling to England from America and filling playgrounds across the country. They can be employed in a number of situations: to pass time while waiting in line, to play with a large circle of friends, or to keep your hands warm on a cold day. Enticingly, they offer the chance to demonstrate to your peers your ability to memorise and enact dazzlingly complicated rhythms and rhymes. The songs vary in complexity, from basic songs such as ‘A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea’ to hybrid pastiches drawing upon established clapping songs, pop songs, TV shows and actions. The result is a fantastically varied genre of play in a constant state of transition.
Introduction by Michael Rosen.
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Clapping games are the big recent success story of the playground and have exploded in popularity since the 1960s. The earliest clapping game in Europe, still well known today, was probably the adult and child game, ‘Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake’, which was first documented, according to the Opie’s, in 1698. Child with child clapping games aren’t documented till the 1820s, when they were noted in France. References to them in Britain don’t crop up till the late 19th century. Even then evidence of clapping is patchy up to World War I and almost non-existent from then until the 1960s, when clapping games really took off among children, mainly girls.
While the ‘Pat-a-cake’ style clapping is still popular, there’s a growing repertoire of clapping moves and more complicated routines of body percussion, some involving 12 or more beats before repeating. Many of the most popular ones are sung to the same tune, the one used for ‘A Sailor went to Sea, Sea, Sea’ and ‘I Went to a Chinese Restaurant’. Some come from counting out rhymes, like ‘Eenie-Meanie Dessi-Meanie’, or previously did duty for ball bouncing or skipping, like ‘My Boyfriend Gave Me an Apple’. Some come from pop songs, such as ‘That’s the Way I Like It’ by KC and the Sunshine Band, 1975. Others were already circulating as rhymes and were picked up in pop songs, which in turn made them even more popular, like the ‘Clapping Song’, recorded by Shirley Ellis in 1965, and began, “3, 6, 9, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line.” Like this song, many found in the UK have come over from America, especially from African American traditions and popular music.
The content of the words is often humorous and off the wall. Nonsense words, which are just fun to say, are common, and there are sometimes mild sexual innuendos, like, “When Suzie was a teenager, a teenager she was, and she went, ooh, ah, I’ve lost my bra, left my knickers in my boyfriend’s car.” And, “My name’s Britney Spears, I’m a movie star, I’ve got the curly whirly knickers and the see-through bra.” Part of the appeal of clapping games is often the challenge of chanting or singing while performing these difficult rhythms and synchronising movements with other people, especially at the extraordinary speeds many children achieve. Some clapping routines are seen as easier and others harder. ‘A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea’ is often seen as a beginner’s rhyme, though even here there are variations in how hard the accompanying clapping pattern can be. For instance, whether the clapping echoes the triple repetition of the line endings, “sea, sea, sea, chop, chop, chop, knee, knee, knee.” Other games, like ‘High Lo Jack-a-Low’, or ‘Double Double This This’, may be seen as harder.
These games are a link with the past, with the cultures of their parents and grandparents, though this is unlikely to be of particular interest to the children who play them, who often claim they’ve just made them up.
View an animation exploring the tradition of clapping games on the British Library website. - video
Filmed in London in 2010 this footage shows the clapping games 'jelly belly custard'. - video
This film shows a group of Year 6 children in a Sheffield school playground doing a well-known clapping game - video