As an English teacher in the mid-eighties, I took my Year 7 class to London to see a show. On the coach coming home, I became aware of rhythmic singing and clapping coming from the seat behind me. Looking round, I saw three girls, Rosa, Kate and Olivia, absorbed in singing accompanied by a complex pattern of clapping, a tradition which most women will remember from their own girlhood, but which many men may (like me at the time) never have noticed.
I was so intrigued, I asked them to come to the classroom at lunchtime the next day, and to do it all over again with a tape recorder. Out came clapping games ('I Went to a Chinese Restaurant', 'When Suzie Was a Baby', 'Under the Bram Bushes'), skipping games ('I'm a Little Bumper Car'; 'Cinderella Dressed in Yella'), and many others, including songs their primary school teacher had taught them, and hymns from assemblies.
Poetry, pattern and popular culture in the playground
In trying to make sense of all this, I stumbled across Iona and Peter Opie's The Singing Game (Opie & Opie, 1985), and realised that what I'd found was part of a robust culture of songs, rhymes, chants and games, passed down the generations from child to child. Many English teachers will know of the Opies' work, and especially The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Opie & Opie, 1959). They may know of the insights this vast body of work offers into how children find their way into what is effectively poetic language, and the possibilities this provides for teachers of language and literature to build on in later years. That, at any rate, was what I slowly worked out, by developing a project for Year 7 in which they would recall the games, songs, rhymes they played when they were younger, much as the three girls in the coach had done, and then considered some big questions: what was poetry and song for? Why did these structures (rhythm, rhyme, music, movement) seem so important for it to do its job? What did it allow children to say that they couldn't say in other ways? Why were some boys' and girls' games so different?
These sorts of questions still seem pertinent to me now, and they offer a way out of approaching poetry with younger children as if it's alien territory, the difficult preserve of adults, and middle class adults at that. This playground and street culture is undoubtedly popular culture--parodic, witty, widely-related to popular media, often subversive, even scatological. So it provides a route into the pleasures and functions of patterned language, easy to follow up with the work of performance poets, or oral poetry and narrative.
Researching Playground Games and Songs
However, in a recent project I've been working on with a group of colleagues, I've realised there's rather more to it than that, and this wider set of concerns provides suggestions also about how our approach to language and culture in the classroom may be re-thought in certain ways.
The project is called Children's Playground Games and Songs in the Age of New Media. It is a partnership between the Institute of Education, University of London, the British Library, the University of Sheffield, and the University of East London, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, under a programme called 'Beyond Text' (www.beyondtext.ac.uk). It has five objectives.
1. The Opie archive
The first takes us straight back to the Opies, who deposited their sound archive at the British Library, in the form of analogue tapes containing hundreds of recordings of playground games, songs, rhymes, jokes, chants, as well as interviews mostly conducted by Iona Opie. This part of our project, led by Jonnie Robinson and Laura Jopson at the British Library, has digitised, catalogued and described this archive, so that it will be available to researchers around the world from the British Library website. The archive contains a good deal of material never published before, revealing some new themes: the more extreme scatological and taboo-busting songs and rhymes the Opies collected, the wide range of variations on 'classic' singing and other games; and the wide range of media influences that informed the culture of play. …