A playground song is a song sung by children, usually on a playground or other children's gathering place. Most such songs are traditional in nature and are passed—with constantly evolving regional variations—down the generations. They have been studied for over a century, with H.C Bolton publishing a paper on "The counting out rhymes of children" in New York City in 1888.
Playground songs are distinct from nursery rhymes in that they are sung by groups of children together in spontaneous play, rather than by parents or teachers to children. Playground songs lack the characters common in nursery rhymes (e.g. "Mary", "Georgie Porgie", "Jack & Jill", and "Humpty Dumpty") and often involve counting games or role playing. They are distinct from skipping or hopscotch rhymes which have a rhythm and logic of their own. Occasionally the songs are used as a base for modern pop songs, "Circle Circle Dot Dot", commonly sung in American playgrounds, has been recorded as a rap song.
Common British playground songs using the counting template include "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe", "Five Currant Buns", "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, once I caught a fish alive", "This Old Man" ("Knick-Knack Paddywhack"), "One Man Went to Mow", "Ten In The Bed And The Little One Said" and "Ten Green Bottles". Other types of British playground songs involve animals and role playing by the singers and include "Horsey, Horsey, Don't You Stop" and "Five little ducks went swimming one day".
Some of the most popular playground songs include actions to be done with the words. Among the most famous of these is "I'm a Little Teapot". A term from the song is now commonly used in cricket to describe a disgruntled bowler's stance when a catch has been dropped. A 'teapot' involves standing with one hand on your hip in disappointment, a 'double teapot' involves both hands on hips and a disapproving glare . "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" sees pairs of children rowing an imaginary boat made by their bodies as they sit facing each other, while "If You're Happy And You Know It" is another favourite and "See Saw Margery Daw" is sung by a pair of children sharing a seesaw in the playground. Rounds are still sung, which commonly involve children singing a song in four parts, each one in turn starting the song a line after another has started singing. A common round is "London's Burning". The children sing the song out of synch with their fellows with the aim of finishing the song without collapsing into confused laughter.
If a playground song does have a character, it is usually a child present at the time of the song's performance or the child singing the song. The extreme awkwardness of relations between young boys and young girls is a common motif such as in the American song "K-I-S-S-I-N-G". Playground songs also feature contemporary children's characters or child actors such as Popeye or Shirley Temple.
Playground songs can be parodies of popular songs such as "On Top of Old Smoky" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the USA with suitably altered lyrics. The new lyrics are frequently highly derisive towards figures of authority such as teachers or involve ribald lyrical variations. Zero-tolerance rules in some schools now prevent this, although they are sometimes ignored by teachers who view the songs as harmless and clever .
"K-I-S-S-I-N-G" or "Kay Eye Ess Ess Eye En Gee" is the name of a playground song, jump-rope rhyme, or taunt. It really only achieves its desired effect—embarrassment—when sung among children to a couple that is in puppy love. The embarrassment is derived from the prospect of romantic contact between a boy and a girl, usually an uncomfortable topic for children.
The song is learned by oral tradition:
[Name] and [Name]
sitting in a tree,
First comes love,
then comes marriage,
then comes baby
in a baby carriage!
- "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren".
- Heitzig, Lenya and Rose, Penny (2009). Live Relationally, p.196. ISBN 978-1-4347-6748-6.
- A variant can be found in Mansour, David (2005). From Abba to Zoom: A Pop Culture Encyclopedia Of The Late 20th Century. Andrews McMeel. p. 263.
- Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1959)
- Bronner, Simon J. American Children's Folklore (august house, 1988)
- Brian Sutton-Smith, Jay Mechling, Thomas W. Johnson, Felicia McMahon (ed.) Children's Folklore: A SourceBook (Routledge, 2012)
- BBC Page with lyrics of British Playground Songs
- Miss Lucy’s Playground Songs