Tag Archives: Children’s folklore

Leave the Kids Alone!

According to today’s Wall street Journal, in many schools, those in charge of the school day realize that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to do away with recess.

They’ve decided kids need to let off steam. (Who knew?) They concede that “recess can even improve emotional and social development in children.” And indeed it can, if children are allowed to play on their own without direction or interference. But that’s not exactly what these educators have in mind. They’re educators, after all, so they’re determined to educate. The result: “organized recess” complete with coaches. Sounds like gym class to us!

Fortunately there are other experts who value unstructured play. Debbie Rhea , professor of kinesiology at Texas Christian has developed a program based on a Finnish model which is in 16 schools in Oklahoma and Texas. It provides for four 15-minute recess periods per day, ethics and character teaching, less standardized testing, and restructuring of the school day. More power to her!

  • Forty years ago we wrote a book, One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children. We discovered that children’s folklore—the traditional games, jokes, stories, songs, superstitions, and pranks that have been passed down from one generation of children to the next without the benefit or sometimes even the knowledge of adults serves important functions in the lives of children. This folklore flourishes only when children are left alone to practice it as they play.

One Potato, Two Potato is still in print, available from Amazon. However, used copies are also available from alibris.com for around $1.50 plus postage.







Filed under Childhood learning, Folklore

Remember Hopscotch? Cooties? Miss Mary Mack? “I’m Rubber; You’re Glue”?

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Years ago, before the personal computer had become part of all of our lives, Herb and I wrote a book about the folklore of children: the rhymes, games, customs, superstitions and jokes that children pass on to each other without the mediation or often even the knowledge of adults.

The thesis of that book is that this body of children’s knowledge, while it may seem trivial, is critically important in helping children in a number of developmental tasks. We interviewed hundreds of ten-year olds who eagerly told us—and showed us—their traditional past times. But whenever we talked to their teachers or parents, often we were told, “Oh kids don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” That’s why we originally subtitled the book The Secret Education of American Children.

Now that was a long time ago, and although the book is still in print (and to our amazement has been translated into Chinese) we have moved on to other interests so we don’t really know the state of children’s folklore today. After all, it requires face to face interaction. And today children are spending more and more time in the virtual world playing with their “devices” rather than “going out to play,”.  So maybe children really don’t do this sort of thing much anymore. Still, not long ago we observed two girls on a crosstown bus happily engaged in a rapid rendition of “Miss Mary Mack,” a traditional clapping rhyme with deep roots. Watch to the very end of this 32- second video and you’ll get some idea of why this particular past time has endured.

Seen on the terrace in the park

Seen on the terrace in the park

And then there’s this—observed on the terrace of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park. This doesn’t look exactly like the hopscotch of my childhood or that of the children we interviewed for our book. But that’s not surprising. Like any oral tradition, children’s folklore undergoes a sea change as it’s passed along from one generation to another. And new folklore emerges as children make up formulaic solutions to counteract boredom, solve disputes, conquer fear or cement new friendships.

Do you know any ten-year olds? If so, ask them if they “do this sort of thing anymore.” I’d love to know!

oil by HerbKnapp

Oil by HerbKnapp


Filed under Books, Education, Folklore

Imagine That!

Once upon a time, refrigerator-sized radios streamed fairy tales into our ears.

Once upon a time, refrigerator-sized radios streamed fairy tales into our ears.

Before the Mickey Mouse Club— before the Flintstones and Batman and Captain Kangaroo, there was the Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, and the Green Hornet. The serial adventures of the 30s and 40s had kids glued to the radio from the time they got home from school  until dinnertime. But best of all was a Saturday morning show called Let’s Pretend, a 30-minute dramatization of a different fairy tale each week.

These programs were not a feeble prelude to children’s televised fare of later years. In one respect at least, I think they may have been even better because they demanded that we cultivate the power of our imaginations. That’s me in the picture at the age of 8 or 9; the book on my lap is a prop introduced by my father,the photographer. He probably thought I should look like I was doing something. But listening to these stories was doing something, something intense. We didn’t need the help of illustrations to create imaginary worlds of enchantment in great detail. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the subterranean kingdom I envisioned as a little girl where the trees had leaves of silver and gold and twelve beautiful princesses (with curly hair, I might add) danced all night in a glittering palace with their handsome partners.

In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist, contends  that unlike any other form of story, the fairy tale meets the psychic needs of children. Before the child can rationally understand what troubles him or figure out what he must do to be a good independent person, he unconsciously identifies with the symbolic elements of the fairy tale and is comforted and instructed.  Separation anxiety, feelings of powerlessness in an adult world, sibling rivalry, fear of growing up—this is the sort of thing the repeated telling of a specific tale can ameliorate.

Even though one might not accept the Freudian concepts underlying Bettelheim’s analysis, it’s hard to argue with the idea that fairy tales are unique in their ability to meet some of the conscious and unconscious requirements of the listeners. How else to account for their ubiquitous appearance in all cultures and their phenomenal staying power. The oldest record of a variant of Cinderella dates back to the ninth century—in China!




Filed under Education, Folklore

Annie’s Back on Broadway! She’s Come a Long Way from Her Indiana Home.


Mary Alice Smith, c. 1863

Here’s how the iconic character of pop culture, now the subject of the Broadway revival of “Annie” started out.

The original Orphan Annie wasn’t exactly an orphan, and actually her name wasn’t even Annie. She was a little girl named Mary Alice Smith, whose mother had died shortly after her birth, and who was sent by her father to live with his mother. When the grandmother became too ill to care for her, she was sent to live with her uncle, John Rittenhouse. This arrangement, however, was not satisfactory as the uncle had a large family, little money, and could ill afford another mouth to feed. So, in November of 1861, the first year of the Civil War when Mary Alice was barely eleven years old, she went to live with the Reuben Riley family. It’s not clear what the relationship between the Riley family and the Rittenhouses was, but a bargain was struck: John Rittenhouse was relieved of the responsibility of Mary Alice, and Mary Alice would help Mrs. Riley with the chores and the care of the Riley children. One of those children was James Whitcomb Riley, who would become one of the most beloved American poets of the 19th century.

James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley

Mary Alice stayed with the Riley family for only about a year before she was bounced about once again, but she left an indelible impression on the poet. Riley remembered Mary Alice as an elfish child, a little enchantress who gathered the children around her and told them scary stories. Such stories are part of the treasure of children’s folklore, passed on to children by children for nobody knows since when. Children love to be scared to death when they know they are really safe. Scary stories serve to help children handle fear by experiencing it in a protected environment. You probably remember such stories from your own childhood. Remember the one about the baby sitter and the killer on the telephone extension? No? How about the couple parked in lovers’ lane who heard on the car radio that a maniac had escaped from the asylum? How about the baby sitter on drugs who baked the baby instead of the turkey? Well, you get the idea. It was this genre of tale that Mary Alice told the Riley children around the fireside after her chores were done.

In 1885, Riley wrote what is perhaps his most well remembered poem. He called it “The Elf Child.” It was so popular it went through two editions. When the third edition was in preparation he decided to retitle the poem “Little Orphant Allie,” but the typographer, misreading Riley’s handwriting and possibly unfamiliar with the nickname “Allie,” set it as ‘Little Orfant Annie.”

This was a time when people of all walks of life read poetry with pleasure, and children of all ages memorized and recited poems in speech contests and festivals. “Little Orfant Annie” was one of the most popular. Like much of Riley’s poetry, it was written in Hoosier dialect.

For most people today, a little of Riley’s poetry goes a long way. But here are the first two verses of “Little Orfant Annie.”

Little Orphant Annie
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An ‘shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an ‘earn her board-an-keep;
An’ all us other children, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun
A-listin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns’ll gits you
Ef you

Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers—
An’ when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’cubby hole, an’press,
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an’roundabout;—
An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you
Ef you

Bpyhpod home of James Whitcomb Riley

Boyhood home of James Whitcomb Riley

If you happen to be in the neighborhood, you can visit James Whitcomb Riley’s boyhood home in Greenfield, Indiana. There you’ll see Mary Alice’s little attic room, the clothespress referred to in the poem and the fireside where the little orphan girl told her tales to the wide-eyed Riley children.



Filed under New York Theater