ANT 191 – Hand Clapping Games and Female Bonding
14 June 2017
Hand-clapping games were a significant playground pastime of mine while growing up in New England. These memories sparked multiple conversations with California-raised peers about their own childhood activities. I became intrigued by the regional differences yet shared common culture of games and rhymes that my friends and I had discovered. Through further research I realized that this childhood oral culture plays an integral role in friendship bonding and has affected me as a child and as an adult. This paper does not aim to trace the path of mutation of a playground rhyming game. Instead it seeks to acknowledge the value these games bring to young girls, explain the cultural transmission in which they are learned, and prove that they are a staple bonding ritual in the lore of childhood play.
I decided to select a few of the games my peers and I discussed and document them through visual recordings. These recordings required some preliminary planning. Conversational interviews with my peers-turned-subjects revealed that we played some of the same playground games even though we grew up on different sides of the country. Further probing uncovered interesting variations within the same games, as well as some games entirely novel to the individuals from the opposite coast. My subjects and I went on to teach each other games we were unfamiliar with and point out the differences and similarities in each. Because of this interweaving of knowledge, my recordings feature myself as well as my subjects since a minimum of two players are requited for most games.
I negotiated with my subjects which songs or games were going to be recorded before actually doing so. While recording, I aimed to capture the essence of the game as a pastime. I neglected to edit out any mistakes, misunderstandings or resulting laughter. These are defining elements to be experienced in the process of recollection, reminiscence and transmission (since we are recalling these, were now in our twenties). In the recordings, one can observe feelings of accomplishment once the rhyme or game has been successfully completed or laughter and harmless shame after failing.
As a performer in my own recordings, I was heavily engaged in and involved with the sound that was being produced. Before the recording began, my attention was focused on camera set-up and placement. However, during the recording I was entirely focused on the act because it involved multisensory engagement and coordination as well as focus.
In addition to the recordings of my adult peers recalling their childhood games, I retrieved an archived clip of my seven-year-old self and best friend engaging in two of our favorite hand-clapping games. Watching this clip years later, I can only vaguely recall the rhymes we were singing. The rules are not stated outright but can be inferred by the viewer. There are few differences between the clip from 2002 and the clips from 2017. We mess up, make mistakes and laugh. A bonus feature of this clip shows my older brother looking on with what looks like bewilderment and a little bit of curiosity, however, it should be noted that he is non-participatory.
A FEMINIZED PASTIME
Easily observable on any playground and documented in childhood ethnographic studies 1-2, it is clear that hand-clapping or rhyming games are a pastime of general female domain. In fact, in these early elementary school years boys and girls are almost exclusively segregated (by their own volition) during playtime. Additionally, the two groups engage in completely different forms of play and methods of friendship bonding. Girls have been observed socializing in cooperative groups that often self-organize to face inward1. Merril-Mirsky, who studied hand-clapping and its relationship to gender roles, points out that girls’ games are generally non-competitive or short in length and then repeated so that many individuals are given the opportunity to win. This inclusivity is striking because boys’ games are observed as placing less value in the support of one another and more value in competitiveness and physical strength2.
Girls spend their playground time occupying a communication-oriented social network with emphasis on physical proximity which is usually manifested through small and large circles. As mentioned above, girls in these circles are observed having an inward focus1. It is in this space that the game exists and takes up space.
ENCOURAGEMENT OF FEMALE BONDING
Grugeon theorizes that hand-clapping games are a non-threatening method that young girls use to mediate the new adjustment to school culture1. The nature of these games requires one or more peers in addition to the individual player. Therefore, by participating, one may feel a sense of comfort and belonging. If one is part of the game she is therefore accepted by the group or partner. Thus, these games can help to form the beginnings of relationships with the added stimulant of laughter, of course.
Since these games must be played with one another, both or all involved must know the rules in order for the game to proceed. This fosters communication through knowledge sharing and teaching. An experienced hand-clapper takes on a teaching role to her pupil for a short period and before long they both know the rules.
In certain cases, further bonding is facilitated by rhymes that are considerably taboo or vulgar.
Miss Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell
Miss Susie went to heaven, the steamboat went to
Hello operator, please give me number 9
If you disconnect me, I’ll chop off your
Behind the fridgerator, there was a piece of glass
Miss Susie sat upon it and broke her big fat
Ask me no more questions, tell me no more lies
The boys are in the bathroom zipping down their
Flies are in the meadow, Bees are in the grass…
This is a rhyme I remember from elementary school. I don’t recall exactly how it ended but I’m sure it went on for some time like this. While it wasn’t outright vulgar, the clever implications gave us a feeling of safe rebellion. The content was intentionally disobedient to the structure we were subjected to within the classroom. Chanting the rhymes was an exploration of more mature content that we were supposed to be ignorant of. Together participants tested the boundaries of the politeness that was expected of them and by flaunting these forbidden topics, it is certain that young adult identities were slowly being molded.
Another attraction that draws children to participate in these games is the difficulty with which they are performed. This difficulty can be manifested by complex clapping sequences. These can be observed in some of the video clips accompanying this paper. Some feature at least thirteen separate clapping steps in one sequence. A sure feeling of accomplishment is achieved with mastery of this rhythm.
Additionally, children are intrigued by the delightfulness of speaking multi-syllable rhyming words. They may not yet know the meaning of these works or perhaps just don’t encounter in everyday conversation2. For example, Merrill-Mirsky cites a rhyme observed on the playground where the words education, liberation are repeated.
Other rhymes incorporate non-lexical words into their rhymes like this one from my childhood:
Quack diddly oso, quack quack quack
Came saaailorica, rica rica rica
Galore, galore, galore galore galore
Ga-LORE 1, 2, 3, 4
This particular game was funny because no one really knew if they were saying the words right or what the words actually were (this is my best guess). However, after doing research, I have found several different variations. The fluidity can be illustrated by the following beginning lines of six different versions.
Quack diddly omar…
Quack diddly o-ko…
Quackadilly oh my…
Kwaka dilla oma…
Stella Stella nova…
Stella Ella ola… 4
These versions are able to arise because of the non-lexical text that makes up the rhyme. Its meaning is nonsense and therefore easily mutated, like a game of telephone. Further ethnographic and archival research would have to be done in order to trace the temporal and geographic variations of this single rhyme. Regardless, Grugeon explains that this oral tradition is a meaningful preliterate linguistic activity. I would go further to say that it helps children explore language and syllable construction as well as pronunciation.
CULTURAL TRANSMISSION AND APRENTICESHIP
The process of passing on knowledge and rules of certain games, termed apprenticeship by Grugeon1, carries heavy importance in this ethnographic examination. First of all, it is important to make the distinction between nursery rhymes and playground games, which often incorporate rude or taboo content and messages. Although some games can be traced back to nursery rhymes or have evolved from them, they embody completely different values to school children.
As pointed out by Opie and Opie, nursery rhymes are generally passed on from an adult figure, be it a parent or teacher, to a child. They are adult-transmitted and adult-approved. The schoolyard rhyme or game is transmitted from child to child. It is practiced outside the realm of the adult world. Existence and practice are largely unregulated by adults. Adults may not even be aware of certain games or just choose not to pay attention3. Because of this, children have perhaps their first opportunity to engage in rituals independent from the adult world that their world is modeled after.
It is evident that children occupy their own subculture within society. It mirrors the culture of adulthood but differs greatly in language, rules and rituals. Children don’t acquire their own capital as they are fully supported by their parents or guardians. However, they manage to generate value in other ways. For example, the embodied cultural practices of learned games and the perfections of skills that accompany these games.
The apprenticeship by which games are passed on from one girl to another further strengthen the bond mentioned earlier. The complexity of the games is apparent when one attempts to explain the rules to another individual. I noticed this myself while preparing my peers for the video recordings. Most have a rhythm that must be maintained throughout the act. Whether it is simple or complex, it must be practiced and there is certainly a right way to do it. Learning is done mostly through practice, trial and error. Although, as exemplified in the clips, a mistake does not necessarily shatter the enjoyment of the ritual. Completing a game without messing up does, however, bring satisfaction to those involved and seems to be what is ultimately strived for.
As understood by many anthropologists, it is essentially impossible to step outside of one’s own culture and analyze it from a neutral position. This paper doesn’t aim to interpret the formative implications that these games had on myself as those theories would be strewn with bias.
Despite this, I am interested in what others have theorized about this childhood culture. Citing several examples, Merrill-Mirsky hypothesizes that these rhymes and games allow children to engage in “role-modeling”, meaning that they are able to rehearse and experiment with adult roles. This experimentation will thus form an identity of self that the child will embody throughout life2. A similar theory is argued by Grugeon, stating that “the playground is an important context for the acquisition of social identity”.
At a certain age, my friends and I stopped playing these games and moved on to different forms of entertainment, more complicated games or increased social interaction with boys. We were rapidly approaching the age where all you want is to be seen as older. Therefore, anything tied to the girly childhood was cut loose and seemingly forgotten and outgrown.
Now I observe people of my general age so often looking for pieces of nostalgia. These longings are expressed through Facebook posts, memes and tweets, among other platforms. As we simultaneously face the new-found worlds of adulthood and technologically mediated communication, we long for these times where we were a care-free child enjoying quality time with friends and uninterrupted by constant notifications. In childhood, we were the last generation to grow up without relatively omnipresent technology. We were unaware of what anybody else was doing at this exact moment and never had to worry about if they were having more fun.
Every once in a while, my adult friends and I will recall these various games and rhymes and I cannot express the amount of joy it brings. Some of these friends I have known since the we were 6 or 7 and we can recall the exact games we played with each other on the playground. I believe this is a testament to the powerful bond that our play helped us construct. This traditional lore was spread by word of mouth, outside of technological interference. It connected me with friends when I was a child and continues to connect me to my adult friends. We revel in this shared, common culture and the recollection continues to draw us together in friendship.
- Grugeon, Elizabeth. “Gender implications of children’s playground culture.” Gender and ethnicity in schools: Ethnographic accounts(1993): 11-33.
- Merrill-Mirsky, Carol. “Girls’ Handclapping Games in Three Los Angeles Schools.” Yearbook for Traditional Music18 (1986): 47-59.
- Opie, Iona Archibald, and Peter Opie. The lore and language of schoolchildren. New York Review of Books, 2000.
- “What was this childhood playground game?” What was this childhood playground game? – song kids. Accessed June 14, 2017. http://ask.metafilter.com/297484/What-was-this-childhood-playground-game.