Children's Folklore

Children's Folklore: A Source Book

Brian Sutton-Smith
Jay Mechling
Thomas W. Johnson
Felicia R. McMahon
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Children's Folklore
    Book Description:

    A collection of orginal essays by scholars from a variety of fields-- includng American studies, folklore, anthropology, pyschology, sociology, and education---Children's Folklore: A Source Book moves beyond traditional social-science views of child development. It reveals the complexity and artistry of interactions among children, challenging stereotypes of simple childhood innocence and conventional explanations of development that privilege sober and sensible adult outcomes. Instead, the play and lore of children is shown to be often disruptive, wayward, and irrational.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-357-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-2)
    Brian Sutton-Smith
  5. Introduction: What Is Children’s Folklore?
    (pp. 3-10)
    Brian Sutton-Smith

    Children’s folklore is not easy to define. Folklore itself as a scholarly discipline is in a process of transition. In earlier definitions, attention was given predominantly to traditional stories, dances, proverbs, riddles, poetry, material culture, and customs, passed on orally from generation to generation. The emphasis was upon recording the “survivals” of an earlier way of life, believed to be fading away. Attention, therefore, was on the antique, the anonymous in origin, the collective in composition, and the simple in character (Ben-Amos 1971).

    Today’s definitions, by contrast, place more emphasis on the living character of these customs in peoples, whether...

  6. 1 Who Are the Folklorists of Childhood?
    (pp. 11-18)
    Sylvia Ann Grider

    Most scholars date the serious study of children’s folklore to two nineteenth-century collections of children’s games: The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland: Tunes, Singing-Rhymes and Methods of Playing According to the Variants Extant and Recorded in Different Parts of the Kingdom (1894–98) by Lady Alice Bertha Gomme and Games and Songs of American Children (1883) by William Wells Newell, the first secretary of the American Folklore Society.

    Lady Alice was married to the distinguished British scholar Sir George Laurence Gomme, and together they formed a successful research team. Consistent with Victorian mores, she limited her studies almost...

  7. Section I

    • Overview: History of Children’s Folklore
      (pp. 19-22)
      Brian Sutton-Smith

      This section continues to be centrally concerned with who the children in children’s folklore are. It approaches that question through two reviews of the field of children’s folklore. The first, by Zumwalt, is about the history of the concept of the child; the second, by McDowell, is about the way in which folklore gets transmitted.

      In order to set these chapters in context some further remarks on the history of childhood are needed. In recent scholarship the notion has become widespread that childhood is a modern and invented concept. This brilliant idea, attributed to Philippe Ariès, has had a powerful...

    • 2 The Complexity of Children’s Folklore
      (pp. 23-48)
      Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt

      When I first started work in children’s folklore, I dutifully asked my five, six-, and seven-year-old informants all the prescribed questions: Where did you learn that? Why do you think it’s funny? What do you call it? They would, after the weeks passed, bear this with strained patience. With their heads cocked to one side and their eyes narrowed, they would answer, “I didn’t learn it from anybody. I made it up!” “Can’t you see why it’s funny? It’s funny, that’s all!” I would persist and get the answers I needed for my collection.

      Now, years later, as I look...

    • 3 The Transmission of Children’s Folklore
      (pp. 49-62)
      John H. McDowell

      The transmission of children’s folklore naturally falls within the broader question of the transmission of folklore in general. Every conceptualization of folklore must contain a theory, whether explicit or implicit, regarding the transmission of folklore, since folklore is universally recognized as an inherently social phenomenon. While these issues have not always received the attention they deserve, folkloristic theories of transmission nonetheless abound in the literature. To gain a grasp on these theories, I suggest the following two categories: theories viewing folklore transmission as a superorganic, mechanical process; and theories emphasizing its serendipitous and emergent character. Folklore transmission viewed as a...

  8. Section II

    • Overview: Methods in Children’s Folklore
      (pp. 63-74)
      Brian Sutton-Smith

      In this section we begin our study of methods in children’s folklore by presenting two studies of children at play. The first is by Ann Richman Beresin, who conducted extensive video fieldwork in a multiethnic urban playground. The second, by Linda A. Hughes, is her report on several years of study of a group of elementary-school girls playing the game of foursquare. Both are unique insofar as these kinds of methods with children have seldom been used, and yet they are also relatively “modern” investigations in their attempt to capture as fully as possible the ongoing performance of being a...

    • 4 Double Dutch and Double Cameras: Studying the Transmission of Culture in an Urban School Yard
      (pp. 75-92)
      Ann Richman Beresin

      It can be said that within the children’s game lies an entire cosmos. For Jean Piaget, the study of marbles uncovered the wrestlings of the moral judgments of the child. For Brian Sutton-Smith, the flexibility of children’s games revealed play itself as a process of invention and reversal. For John McDowell, the riddle texts unfolded an array of themes reflecting that of the children’s lives as a whole. (Piaget 1965; Sutton-Smith 1976b; McDowell 1979). This paper will examine the complex world of double dutch jump rope as practiced and performed by third- through fifth-grade girls in an urban, public, working-class,...

    • 5 Children’s Games and Gaming
      (pp. 93-120)
      Linda A. Hughes

      Most studies of children’s folk culture are based on collecting and analyzing items of folklore like rhymes, jokes, riddles, and games. Few describe or analyze the ways children use their folklore, or how its form and function vary across social contexts (J. Evans 1986; Factor 1988). In this chapter, I explore some important conceptual and methodological issues involved in shifting the focus from collecting children’s folk games to describing how children play them, and contrast the very different images of children that can emerge from these two types of studies. I will focus first on developing a model of game...

    • 6 Methodological Problems of Collecting Folklore from Children
      (pp. 121-140)
      Gary Alan Fine

      Most chapters in this Source book cover some aspect of childlore, providing a descriptive account of the range and content of that genre. This chapter has a different goal. I wish to describe techniques for effectively collecting children’s lore of all types. While no absolute methodological rules exist, there are guidelines with general validity.

      Because of social, cognitive, and physiological differences between children and adults, the techniques of collecting from children are not necessarily identical to the techniques of collecting from adult informants. Unfortunately, the major methodological guides to folklore collecting either do not discuss collecting from children (Ives 1974;...

  9. Section III

    • Overview: Children’s Folklore Concerns
      (pp. 141-144)
      Brian Sutton-Smith

      Children’s folklore concerns are much more extensive than have been dealt with in folklore research. Indeed most of the chapters that follow in this central section of the Sourcebook are about some form of speech play, whether rhymes, songs, riddles, teases, or tales. This focus on speech play has its source in the predominant influence of the “ethnography of speaking” in folklore research during the past twenty years. Increasingly in those years folklorists have become interested in the social basis of human communication in how individuals actually communicate at particular times and places and in particular groups. Within folklore the...

    • 7 Songs, Poems, And Rhymes
      (pp. 145-160)
      C. W. Sullivan III

      Poetry and song came early in the development of Western civilization. Much of what we have left to us of the earliest literary works—Beowulf or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—were probably recited in chanted or sung versions long before they were written down, their forms and places fixed forever in literary history. Moreover, many of the narratives that came later, whether they appeared first in oral or written form, were poetic rather than prose. So, too, poetry and song come early in the lives of children. Before they begin to attend school and even before they begin to associate...

    • 8 Riddles
      (pp. 161-192)
      Danielle M. Roemer

      In this chapter, I survey four areas relevant to the study of children’s verbal and nonverbal riddling. The first of these sections involves situational and interactional contexts. The second considers common rhetorical strategies of English-language riddles. The third takes up developmental concerns, reviewing the literature on children’s acquisition of productive competence. The concluding section treats some of the interactional functions of children’s riddling. Because of the bias in the literature, the discussion throughout the chapter necessarily emphasizes verbal riddling.

      Riddles are a type of solicitational routine (Bauman 1977b, 24). As such, they are characterized by a speech act that elicits...

    • 9 Tales and Legends
      (pp. 193-212)
      Elizabeth Tucker

      Children are natural storytellers, and collectors of folklore can get a great deal of enjoyment from recording their tales and legends. On playgrounds, at parties, and around campfires—especially on dark, spooky nights—the stories children tell are amazing in their variety. They range from brief, hastily mumbled renditions to impressively long tales with artistic sound effects: clicks, thumps, screams, and carefully timed pauses. Some children take a lot of pride in their storytelling abilities, while others give little thought to the tales they are telling. But in every case, children’s folktales and legends teach us about the narrators’ personalities,...

    • 10 Teases and Pranks
      (pp. 213-224)
      Marilyn Jorgensen

      Writing about pranks and teases is an especially attractive task, possibly because the study of these two particular forms of expressive activity bring the researcher in such close contact with the child’s delight in playful interaction and immense enthusiasm for living life to its fullest.

      In the case of pranks (which I prefer to think of as tricks with little degree of harm or mischief intended), the perpetrators have fun at the expense of the hurt or embarrassed victims, and the perpetrators of the pranks are likely to have positive recollections of the deceptive behaviors in which they have engaged....

  10. Section IV

    • Overview: Settings and Activities
      (pp. 225-228)
      Brian Sutton-Smith

      There is a striking contrast between the male-centered interest of the following three chapters by Mergen, Bronner, and Mechling, and the focus on females in the work of Zumwalt, Beresin, and Hughes. The latter chapters were microscaled and highly focused; the former are relatively diffuse and wide-ranging, and that difference might not be accidental. In the following three chapters there is a noticeable absence of girls on the streets, playing with material culture and being captured in total institutions. Here gender difference and same-gender sensitivity combine in an uncertain and perhaps stereotypic amalgam. Fortunately, the combination of the two sections...

    • 11 Children’s Lore in School and Playgrounds
      (pp. 229-250)
      Bernard Mergen

      Schools and playgrounds are virtually synonymous with childhood in contemporary America, but their importance to children’s folklore is of relatively recent origin. Only after the middle of the nineteenth century did the majority of children attend school, and those that did rarely went for more than a few years. Planned parks and playgrounds are even more recent. Nevertheless, the years of childhood are brief, and many generations of children have passed through schools and playgrounds in the past century. The interaction between children and the physical environment of schools and playgrounds is the focus of this chapter. The fact that...

    • 12 Material Folk Culture of Children
      (pp. 251-272)
      Simon J. Bronner

      “One of my favorite toys when I was four years old was a piece of stiff wire roughly twelve inches long, bent into the shape of a double letter C. It must have been the piece that holds a thermos bottle firmly in the lid of a metal lunch box. I found it on the beach in southern California and named it ‘gropper,’ because, I think, the lower part of the C looked to me like the legs of a grasshopper. The upper part looked something like the bill of a duck. In the ensuing months I worked with my...

    • 13 Children’s Folklore in Residential Institutions: Summer Camps, Boarding Schools, Hospitals, and Custodial Facilities
      (pp. 273-292)
      Jay Mechling

      Even when they are not literally so, young people in American culture sometimes feel like prisoners in the institutions controlled by adults. Their primary institutional experience during the course of a day is one of being in “the custody of” adults, from parents to teachers to athletic coaches to Scout leaders and beyond. To be sure, there are islands of autonomous children’s culture that offer refuge from adult supervision, islands located behind the locked door of the child’s bedroom, within the dark hideout of the school bathroom, or in the open space of the vacant lot, fields, or woods. But,...

  11. Conclusion

    • The Past in the Present: Theoretical Directions for Children’s Folklore
      (pp. 293-308)
      Felicia R. McMahon and Brian Sutton-Smith

      We believe that with this collection of articles the groundwork has been laid for future studies of children’s folklore. The articles themselves vary between older or newer approaches to the discipline—in that respect they are fairly representative of the field as it currently stands—and they also indicate the areas in which more work needs to be done. In an attempt to advance the field, we begin this final chapter by analyzing past scholarship before preceding with suggestions for future directions. Mechling, for example, is confident that the “interpretive” trend will become the major force in children’s folklore; that...

  12. Glossary: An Aid for Source Book Readers
    (pp. 309-316)
  13. Bibliography of Children’s Folklore
    (pp. 317-370)
    Thomas W. Johnson
  14. Index
    (pp. 371-378)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 379-379)