When it comes to ‘life stages’, childhood is the first we actually remember. It’s the time when we learn to communicate, gain our bearings, and try out hundreds of interests to see which ones ‘fit’. But how does it relate to ‘folklore’?
Trying to decide what to include for this ‘folklore of childhood’ post ended up being more difficult than I thought it would be. Was it going to focus on folklore about children, folk customs and practices carried out by children, or folklore associated with childhood?
A lot of the folklore about children largely ended up being practices to keep them safe from harm or to divert illness elsewhere. So it seemed more useful to turn instead to children’s folklore. Here, the adults are often missing from the equation, other than to collect the lore.
It’s possible also useful at this point to note the somewhat slippery and expansive definition of the word ‘folklore’. FolkloreThursday.com defines it as “The traditions, beliefs, customs and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.” Children’s lore is a fascinating example since it passes across generations, yet children do still constitute a community of their own.
It’s also an absolutely massive topic. I’ve tried to keep the focus on the British Isles since it’s what I know. If you’re more interested in the US, then you might want to check out Children’s Folklore: A Source Book. Clearly, I’ve had to cherrypick what I include, but hopefully, this article acts as a springboard into your own research!
So keep reading to learn more about what children’s folklore is, before we look at nursery rhymes, children’s games, and fortune-telling! Hit ‘play’ if you’d rather hear the audio version of this post from the Fabulous Folklore podcast.
What is Children’s Folklore?
The term ‘children’s folklore’ refers to the folklore shared by children. It’s differentiated from folklore about or taught to them. As Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud point out, “echoes of adult traditions can be found in children’s lore, but there is rarely any evidence that these date back more than three or four hundred years at most” (2007: 59). As an umbrella term, it covers things like games, rhymes, jokes, taunts, nicknames and truce terms. Children’s folklore appears to be most active between the ages of six and twelve, and Sylvia Ann Grider suggested that their traditions end with the beginning of adolescence (1980: 160).
It first started to be collected in the 1840s in England by J. O. Halliwell. In Scotland, Edward W. B. Nicholson collected Scottish children’s lore in an 1897 book. Essays written by children about their lore served as the basis for the book, and the young authors of those essays were listed as co-authors. Alice B. Gomme also collected traditional childhood games from England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1890s. Meanwhile, Iona and Peter Opie are perhaps the giants in the field. They also turned directly to children in the 1950s as their primary respondents.
In the US, Dorothy Howard collected childrens’ rhymes directly from children in the 1930s. Aside from the books in the 1890s in England, few scholars troubled themselves with children’s folklore. As Sylvia Ann Grider points out, a common assumption is that if something is not serious, such as being related to food or work, then it must be trivial (1980: 160). Yet given we all pass through childhood, and it’s such a formative part of our lives, then clearly, studying children’s folklore should carry more weight. Besides this, looking at children’s folklore allows folklorists to explore “the shared experiences of the human condition” (Grider 1980: 161).
One of the side points of children’s lore is, surprisingly, urban legends. I always associated the telling of these with sleepovers and older teens. Yet when I looked at children’s lore collected by the Dartmouth Folklore Archive, many of the legends were heard when respondents were in 8th grade—or 13 years old (Alini 2016). Famous examples of shared stories would be Bloody Mary, the Iced Bathtub Organ Removal, and the Man in the Backseat. These legends become a way to encounter threatening situations within a space of shared safety.
In many ways, they’re updates of the old legends about monsters like Jenny Greenteeth. According to the legends, she or the grindylow would drag children into the deepest parts of the rivers if they ventured into the shallows. The stories contained warnings about something dangerous that could happen in a specific situation. Adults passed on these old legends to encourage safe actions. Yet because they’re cautionary tales told by adults, there’s an air of instruction about them.
Meanwhile, many urban legends are passed between children (and yes, adults too). Between children, they take on a slightly different air. When adults tell urban legends, they’re tied up in the idea of danger that could happen to them. Yet when children pass them on, it’s about dangers that lie ahead in adulthood. These monsters feel far closer than Jenny Greenteeth.
Of course, children also pass on these silly legends as a means of teasing each other. Look at the legend of the Charterhouse Plague Pit. People claimed that the living had been tossed in among the plague dead. According to Ed Glinert, the boys at the Charterhouse School had heard the legend that their schoolyard lay above this plague pit. Rumour has it that “[p]upils used to tease newcomers by taking them into the square and pressing their ears to the ground to test whether they could hear the anguished cries of those Black Death victims who had been buried alive underneath” (2008: 36). Here, the legend provides an initiation test for the unwary.
Back in 2011, this tale of the Charterhouse plague pit inspired me to write my own story, The Charterhouse Bullies. You can access the story by signing up below—and I’ll also notify you about these folklore posts every week.
Nursery rhymes can sometimes be some of the first ‘stories’ that we learn. They help children to acquire and process language. The simple tunes make them easy to learn, which also helps children use their ear for music. Yet they’re often considered to be works of political satire or encoded with hidden information. Are they? Really? As Simpson and Roud note, “[n]ursery rhymes have suffered the indignity of having more nonsense written about them than any other folklore genre” (2007: 263).
I found one website that claimed people used nursery rhymes for secret codes because they were easy to remember and pass on. The same person also claimed they had to do so in such a covert way because direct dissent was an act of treason. Yet the same website also goes on to say that the link between the rhymes and historical events has largely been forgotten. So it seems a little unlikely that simply having a knowledge of history means you can unravel the secret meaning of a children’s rhyme.
I’ve talked before about the mistake of thinking Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses is about the plague (spoiler: it’s not). Sometimes these covert meanings don’t work when the rhymes appear in different languages. It’s also hard to find evidence of them before the 18th century (2007: 263). Simpson and Roud do concede that it’s possible the rhymes have earlier origins than we’re aware, but they caution against seeking meaning where there is likely to be none.
Elizabeth Galway suggests that nursery rhymes were often intended to help children learn numbers and the alphabet (2017). She does note that a lot of the traditional rhymes were actually shared by adults and children, rather than being written specifically for children. But I still think we should be wary about assuming they were actually vehicles for sedition.
One of the longest-running children’s games would appear to be hide and seek. There are two versions; in one, people seek out an object, and in the other, the seekers look for a hidden person. As Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud point out, no one can definitively prove the game’s age, since the only documentary evidence comes through references to phrases associated with the game. There’s no way to know if these references are specifically about the game. Yet if they are, then one of the first references comes in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost (2007: 176).
According to Alice Gomme, Scottish children called the game ‘Hospy’ after the words called out by the boys once they’d hidden (1894: 211). And yes, only boys could play the game. The seeker was called the Spy, and a Parley spot was chosen. Once the Spy found a boy, he had to run to the Parley, followed by the boy he’d found. If the boy managed to overtake him, the Spy had to carry him on his back to the Parley (1894: 212). This continued until the Spy had captured all of the boys at the Parley.
Aside from hide and seek, we also have marbles. The first definite references to the game appear in 13th-century Germany (Simpson 2007: 225). That said, items that could be used to play marbles have also been found in Egyptian tombs. Over the centuries, they’ve been made from clay, alabaster, marble, metal, and glass. The cat’s eye glass marble is perhaps the type of marble most people will recognise. It’s hard to find a definitive set of rules because they vary from place to place.
Alice Gomme’s compendium of games from 1894 is a great source, which you can find on Archive.org. That said, I thought I’d highlight a couple of the games she mentions.
One is called ‘All in the Well’ and comes from Newcastle. The children made a circle, around 8″ wide, which became the well. They stood a 4″ wooden peg in the middle, with a button on top. Those who wanted to play ‘bought’ a throw with marbles, or buttons. Then they’d throw a short stick at the peg. If they knocked the button out of the ‘well’, they won double what they ‘paid’ for the throw (1894: 2).
The game ‘Noughts and Crosses’, or Tic Tac Toe, was also known as Kit-Cat-Cannio. Gomme suggests that whoever starts has an advantage since they can put their X or O in the middle (1894: 311).
As you can imagine, fortune-telling games are popular with children. Iona and Peter Opie report a game called ‘Spooks’, described by a 14-year-old girl (2001 : 341). Listed by the Opies as ‘spirit spelling’, it’s essentially the same practice as a Ouija board. The children used slips of paper with the letters on, and a glass tumbler as a planchette. They also asked questions about the future, rather than trying to open an active dialogue with the dead. Naturally, a game such as this would be open to mischief, with children pushing the tumbler where necessary.
The Opies also describe an 11-year-old who used playing cards as a fortune-telling device. Rather than reading each individual card, she read by suit. Spades meant hard work was on the way while diamonds meant money was coming. Clubs meant forthcoming illness and hearts represented good luck (2001 : 340). Here, the child entered into a divinatory practice stretching back several centuries, though it’s unlikely that she knew the history of her chosen tool.
The Paper Fortune Teller
A ‘Film Star Oracle’ is also included. By the 1990s, we knew them as fortune tellers, and these paper oracles were all the rage at my school. They were like the low-tech version of a Magic 8 ball, another fortune-telling ‘toy’. The Opies don’t date how old they are, but we at least know they were in use in England in the 1950s (2001 : 341–342). Little did we know as 12-year-olds that we were engaging in a long history of fortune-telling. They told us the boys we liked or the jobs we’d have as adults. (Most of which don’t exist anymore and many of the jobs that do didn’t exist then!)
It didn’t really matter that the results were nonsense. We loved the thrill of predicting the future. Here are the folding instructions if you want to make your own.
At our school, the outer flaps bore colours to start the process off. So, if someone chose the ‘blue’, you would then count out four times, opening and closing the fortune teller for each letter. In the Opies’ version, they used the names of film stars on the outside. The inner flaps bore numbers to dictate the number of times you next opened and closed the fortune teller. Then the querent chose a number, and you lifted that flap to reveal their fortune.
Often, we wrote phrases like ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘not likely’, or ‘think again’ on the inside. Again, this is like a Magic 8 ball. It’s also a lot less information to write in a small space. No, we didn’t really think we were predicting the future. But when you’re 11, any semblance of control over uncertainty can seem welcome.
Children’s Folklore: The Site of Shared Humanity?
Being a child is both extremely simple and complex at the same time. Our needs are (hopefully) met by those around us, leaving us (hopefully) free from the cares of adulthood. I appreciate that this is not the case for all children, and that makes me desperately sad. But on the whole, we don’t need to calculate taxes, drive to work, or balance a network of relationships. It’s a time to exploring the limits of our world, make friends, and engage in play.
Yet this world can seem like it’s changing as we explore it. Shared traditions, practices, and rituals are codified as games, sayings, and stories. We pass these among one another in a language that is largely overlooked or dismissed by adults. Look at how many films show youngsters gathering to defeat the forces of darkness that adults will not or cannot see. Both Monster House and The Hole are excellent examples.
So this lore becomes a way to protect the shared childhood community, even when it seems that adults won’t. And yes, some of it can seem a little silly, like telling the future with a homemade Ouija board. But that doesn’t make it any less worthy of study.
Do you recognise any of these practices from your own childhood? What traditions did you and your peers follow? Let me know below!
Alini, Andrew (2016), ‘The Man in the Backseat’, Dartmouth Folklore Archive, https://journeys.dartmouth.edu/folklorearchive/category/dartmouth-college/s16-russian-13/children/.
Galway, Elizabeth (2017), ‘Nursery Rhymes’, Oxford Bibliographies, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199791231/obo-9780199791231-0124.xml.
Glinert, Ed (2008), London’s Dead: A Guided Tour of the Capital’s Dead, London: Collins.
Gomme, Alice Bertha (1894), The traditional games of England, Scotland and Ireland, Vol. 1, London: David Nutt.
Grider, Sylvia Ann (1980), ‘The Study of Children’s Folklore’, Western Folklore, 39:3, pp. 159-169.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Soane, George (1849), New Curiosities of Literature: And Book of the Months, volume 1, London: E. Churton.
Nutty about folklore and want more?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get my 5-step guide to protecting your home using folklore!