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Two girls playing a hand clapping game in a classroom
Children's rhymes and games, Blue Ridge Elementary School, Ararat, Virginia. Patrick Mullen, 1978

“Heaps of Fun”: Games, Rhymes, and Riddles in the Library’s Collections

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We thank Mara Gregory and the editorial team for Minerva’s Kaleidoscope for allowing us to republish this blog post.

This post was written by Mara Gregory, a spring 2023 Teaching With Primary Sources intern and recent graduate of Simmons University.

School’s out for the summer! As warm days and long sunlit hours bring back memories of past summer breaks, the Library’s collections are a rich source for exploring children’s leisure activities over the years.

Although many Library of Congress primary sources feature adult experiences, I have spent my time as a Teaching with Primary Sources intern looking for children’s voices in the digital collections. My search led me to a fascinating array of recordings in collections such as the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection and Southern Mosaic. These sources offer brief glimpses into children’s lives in different times and places, filled with giggles, songs, whispers, and musings. They evoke memories while also surprising me, raising questions, and highlighting children’s contributions to history and cultural heritage.

You might start with this 1968 recording from the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection, in which a 12-year-old describes playing hopscotch, jump-rope, hide-and-seek, and follow-the-leader. Listen from the beginning, up until about 4:20.

Next, listen to snippets from a 1978 recording of a group of fourth graders demonstrating their favorite games, rhymes and songs for the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project. Between minutes 4:20 and 8:40, you can hear children playing hand clapping games and singing counting songs. Between minutes 17:30 and 19:40, children sing “One Two, Buckle My Shoe,” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and “B-I-N-G-O.” There are many other examples of games and rhymes throughout this recording, though I would advise adults to listen before sharing the full audio with children, as some verses contain rude or offensive language.

Three children (one toddler, one elementary student, and one older child) playing hopscotch on an outside sidewalk.
Playing hopscotch, New York, New York. Photo by Marjory Collins, circa 1942. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-And-White Negatives, Prints and Photographs Division.

 

Finally, delve into this entertaining group interview with 5- to 9-year-olds from 1967, also part of the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection. At the beginning of the recording, an adult interviewer asks the children several questions about books, television, hobbies, and travel. However, around 18:30, the adult inexplicably disappears from the conversation, and the kids continue on their own. I love the way this recording gives a sense of children’s agency as they take turns asking questions and talking, particularly between 21:15 to 26:45 when they tell jokes and riddles. Again—as a precaution, adults may want to listen for humor that may be off-color for their families.

Reflection questions:

  • Do you recognize any of the games, rhymes, or riddles you heard? How are they similar to or different from ones you know? Do you know any alternate versions?
  • Why do you think these interviews were made? What other questions would you like to ask the speakers to better understand these games and their importance?
  • What are some of your favorite games, rhymes, or riddles? What do you like about them? How did you learn them? Have you and your friends ever changed the words or rules, or made up your own games?

Adults and children can compare their responses and discuss regional, cultural, or generational differences. Perhaps, like me, you might be struck by the enduring nature of some of these play traditions, passed from friend to friend and generation to generation. A search in the Library’s collections reveals that games like hopscotch and hide-and-seek, for example, have a history stretching beyond living memory. In this delightful page from “The Junior Journal” section of the Minneapolis Journal, published April 4, 1903, children write in to the editor with their favorite summer games. One eighth-grader describes a joyous day of playing hide-and-seek on a farm with her friends and family.

The Minneapolis journal. (Minneapolis, Minn.), 04 April 1903. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

 

Going even further back in history, A Little Pretty Pocket-book, printed in 1787, includes rhyming instructions and associated moral lessons for various games. The page below describes “Hop-Scotch” along with a “Rule of Life” that children should take away from the game.

Hop-Scotch,” from A little pretty pocket-book. Printed by Isaiah Thomas, 1787. Miniature Book Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

 

As you explore these older records of children’s pastimes, you might reflect on the various reasons that children play—for amusement, of course, but also to practice skills and engage in social interactions that prepare them for adulthood. What do you think of the “Rules of Life” in A Little Pretty Pocket-book? How might children’s takeaways from games differ from adult expectations? What did you learn from your childhood games?

Family Activities

I hope the resources shared here might inspire connection, conversation, and joy for adults and children alike. Here are a few additional activity ideas to fill these long summer days:

A family group sits around a table with a white, lacy tablecloth. There are four adults and two teenagers in the center. The women wear dresses and heels, while the men wear button-up short-sleeve dress shirts.
Family group playing cards, Hightstown Project, New Jersey. Photo by Carl Mydans, 1936. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-And-White Negatives, Prints and Photographs Division.

Further resources:

The audio recordings shared in this post are drawn from collections of the American Folklife Center. The American Folklife Center and the professional fieldworkers who carry out these projects feel a strong ethical responsibility to the people they have visited and who have consented to have their lives documented for the historical record. The Center asks that researchers approach the materials in these collections with respect for the culture and sensibilities of the people whose lives, ideas, and creativity are documented. Many of the children whose voices are recorded are unidentified. If you recognize yourself or someone you know in these recordings, the American Folklife Center invites you to reach out to [email protected] to share your knowledge.

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