Folklore for Kids: Exploring the Rhymes, Songs, and Games of Childhood

by Sylvia M. Vardell and June M. Jacko

Preschool through elementary school

Inviting children into the world of folklore can start early—on the playground or in the nursery. In fact, many children—and adults—don’t realize that the silly songs, rollicking rhymes, and nonsense games we learn in early childhood are indeed a form of literature. There is a rich lore of stories, traditions, and customs unique to childhood,

with no known author in most cases, passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation. Children often learn the ABCs, numbers, days, and months from rhymes and riddles we share from memory. And they thrill to hear ghost stories and other scary tales told around a campfire or on a trip. Children also play with variations of the same songs, dances, and games as generations did before them.

The oral traditions of childhood—including lullabies, nursery rhymes, playground chants, street rhymes, and more—exist in nearly every culture. However, there is not necessarily a common set of lore familiar to everyone. And sadly, some children seem to get very little exposure to childhood rhymes and songs. Fortunately, many published versions of childhood folklore from around the world are available to share with children today.

This medium helps validate children’s experiences, link oral and written modes of expression, and invite active, even physical participation. Children can collect examples on audio or videotape and explore neighborhood, cultural, and linguistic variations. They can translate their English favorites into other languages represented in their community. Older children may enjoy exploring he historical roots of childhood folklore, discovering the second and third verses of familiar songs, or writing down new and unfamiliar examples. The books below feature rhymes, humor, sayings, stories, songs, and games, and most should be available on library shelves. Whether it’s the action rhyme “I’m a little teapot,” a knock-knock joke or nonsensical tongue twister, hide-and-seek games, or jump-rope jingles, childhood folklore is both fun and meaningful to share with children of all ages.


Cole, Joanna.
Anna Banana: 101 Jump-Rope Rhymes. Illus. by Alan Tiegreen. 1989. 64p. HarperTrophy, paper, $7.99 (0-688-08809-0).

Gr. 2–4. Anna Banana offers the jingles and rhymes traditionally allied with jumping rope. Introductory remarks briefly trace the history of jumping rope—a once male-dominated, competitive game—to its more cooperative, predominately female, rhyme-infused incarnation. Recognizable favorites, such as “Mabel, Mabel, set the table” and “I love coffee, I love tea,” are rendered in bold print, with Tiegreen’s ink sketches interspersed throughout.

Other jump-rope resources include
The Jump Rope Book by Elizabeth Loredo and Martha Cooper (Workman, 1996),
Double Dutch: A Celebration of Jump Rope, Rhyme, and Sisterhood by Veronica Chambers (Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 2002), or
Over in the Pink House: New Jump Rope Rhymes by Rebecca Kai Dotlich (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2004).

Gryski, Camilla.
Let’s Play: Traditional Games of Childhood. Illus. by Dušan Petricic. 1995. 48p. Kids Can, $14.95

(1-55074-497-6); paper, $6.95 (1-55074-817-3).

K–Gr. 3. This nonfiction book provides the history, background, and directions for a variety of traditional children’s games from around the world, including jacks, marbles, hopscotch, clapping games, jump-rope rhymes, tag, and more. Humorous cartoon illustrations add to the appeal and usefulness of this resource. Look for other playtime titles by this author, such as Camilla Gryski’s Favourite String Games (Kids Can, 1995).

Lankford, Mary.
Hopscotch around the World. Illus. by Karen Dugan. 1996. 48p. HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-688-14745-3).

Gr. 3–5. From “Pele” in Aruba to “Texas Hopscotch” in the United States, 19 versions of hopscotch are described in words and diagrams; accompanying illustrations portray children of each country playing the game. Brief introductory remarks highlight the idiosyncratic nuances of the game from country to country. Detailed, numbered directions outline the sequence of each game, offering ambitious readers a chance to attempt the various versions themselves. Also look for Lankford’s Jacks around the World (Morrow, 1996).

Sierra, Judy.
Schoolyard Rhymes: Kids’ Own Rhymes for Rope Skipping, Hand Clapping, Ball Bouncing, and Just Plain Fun. Illus. by Melissa Sweet. July 2005. 40p. Knopf, $15.95 (0-375-82516-9).

Gr. 1–5. This varied collection covers familiar rhymes such as “Miss Mary Mack” and “Miss Susie Had a Baby,” as well as playground taunts such as “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire,” a host of “Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue” variations, and more. Lively, collage-style illustrations complement the energetic ditties.


Cerf, Bennett.
Riddles and More Riddles! Illus. by Debbie Palen. 1960; reissued 1999. 48p. Random, $8.99


Preschool–Gr. 2. Young children enjoy the question-and-answer format of riddles, and as they mature, discover the puns and wordplay involved in solving riddles. This reissue provides large print and helpful cartoon images for each riddle. For more riddles from folklore, check out Alvin Schwartz’s
Ten Copycats in a Boat, and Other Riddles (HarperCollins, 1980) or Joanna Cole’s
Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? And Other Riddles Old and New (HarperCollins, 1994).

Schwartz, Alvin. Busy Buzzing Bumblebees and Other Tongue Twisters. Illus. by Paul Meisel. 1982; reissued 1992. 64p. HarperTrophy, paper, $4.99 (0-06-444036-2).

Preschool–Gr. 2. This illustrated I Can Read collection of nearly 50 tongue twisters from American folklore includes classics (“Peter Piper”) as well as less-familiar examples, including one that is supposed to cure hiccups. For more examples of tongue twisters drawn from folk sources, see
Six Sick Sheep: 101 Tongue Twisters by Joanna Cole (HarperCollins, 1993), and for a bilingual collection,
Grandmother’s Nursery Rhymes/Las Nanas de Abuelita: Lullabies, Tongue Twisters, and Riddles from South America/Canciones de Cuna, Trabalenguas y Adivinanzas de Suramerica by Nelly Palacio Jaramillo (Holt, 1994).

Schwartz, Alvin.
I Saw You in the Bathtub and Other Folk Rhymes. Illus. by Syd Hoff. 1989. 64p. HarperTrophy, paper, $3.99 (0-06-444151-2).

Preschool–Gr. 2. This I Can Read collection includes 40 nonsense rhymes, taunts, and chants accompanied by Hoff’s classic cartoons, as well as helpful source endnotes that reveal how far these rhymes go back in American culture. Pair this with other Schwartz I Can Read books:
There Is a Carrot in My Ear and Other Noodle Tales (HarperCollins, 1982) and
All of Our Noses Are Here and Other Noodle Tales (HarperCollins, 1985). Older readers will enjoy other humorous Schwartz collections—
Flapdoodle: Pure Nonsense from American Folklore (HarperCollins, 1980) and
Whoppers: Tall Tales and Other Lies (HarperCollins, 1975).


Foreman, Michael.
Michael Foreman’s Playtime Rhymes. 2002. 112p. Candlewick, $18.99 (0-7636-1812-8).

Preschool–Gr. 2. This colorful and inviting collection of familiar childhood rhymes such as “Rock-a-bye baby” and “Ten in the bed” is extensive and very visual, and includes a final section with directions for participating in, and moving to, the recitation of the rhymes. Two other comprehensive collections of participation rhymes are
Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes and Other Action Rhymes by Zita Newcome (Candlewick, 2000) and
Wiggle Waggle Fun: Stories and Rhymes for the Very Very Young by Margaret Mayo (Knopf, 2002).

Orozco, José-Luis.
Diez Deditos: Ten Little Fingers and Other Play Rhymes and Action Songs from Latin America. Illus. by Elisa Kleven. 1997. 64p. Dutton, $19.99 (0-525-45736-4); Puffin, paper, $7.99 (0-14-230087-X).

Preschool–Gr. 3. Thirty-four bilingual (English-Spanish) selections include musical scores, song lyrics, and diagrams illustrating finger, hand, and/or body movements appropriate o each song. Awash with vivid color, the illustrations portray traditional children’s finger rhymes and action songs from Spanish-speaking countries. Brief explanatory notes precede each song and often capture Orozco’s intensely personal recollections of his own childhood. Pair this book with Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy’s
¡Pio Peep! Traditional Spanish Nursery Rhymes (HarperCollins, 2003). For rhymes from other countries (in native languages as well as English) look for
Street Rhymes around the World (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 1992) and
Sleep Rhymes around the World (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 1994), both edited

by Jane Yolen.

Zemach, Margot.
Some from the Moon, Some from the Sun: Poems and Songs for Everyone. 2001. 48p. Farrar, $17 (0-374-39960-3).

K–Gr. 6. This lovely work is a perfect pairing of 27 familiar children’s rhymes and Zemach’s award-winning watercolor illustrations. The book concludes with a glimpse into her artistic process, with bits of autobiography, family photos, and childhood artwork sure to inspire children’s own creative efforts.


Tran, Ngoc-Dung.
To Swim in Our Own Pond: Ta Vé Ta Tám Ao Ta: A Book of Vietnamese Proverbs. Illus. by Xuan-Quang Dang. 1998. 32p. Shen’s, $16.95 (1-885008-08-2).

K–Gr. 8. This collection matches Vietnamese sayings with their English translations and their Western equivalents. Filled with landscape-like paintings and author’s notes on Vietnamese proverbs and language, this picture book can lead to a discussion of the wit and wisdom learned from our elders. For a look at Latino, Korean, or African sayings, see these additional selections:
My First Book of Proverbs/Mi Primer Libro de Dichos by Ralfka Gonzalez and Ana Ruiz (Children’s Book Press, 2002);
The Night Has Ears: African Proverbs by Ashley Bryan (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 1999).


Delacre, Lulu.
Arrorró Mi Niño: Latino Lullabies and Gentle Games. 2004. 32p. Lee & Low, $16.95 (1-58430-159-7).

Preschool–Gr. 1. Delacre has compiled nursery rhymes, songs, and finger plays from many Latin American cultures. Similar books include Delacre’s
Arroz con Leche: Popular Songs and Rhymes from Latin America (Scholastic, 1989) and two collections by José-Luis Orozco:
De Colores and Other Latin American Folk Songs for Children (Dutton, 1994) and
Fiestas: A Year of Latin American Songs of Celebration (Dutton, 2002).

Fox, Dan.
A Treasury of Children’s Songs: Forty Favorites to Sing and Play. 2003. 96p. Holt, $19.95 (0-8050-7445-7).

Preschool–Gr. 6. This unique collection of traditional songs includes musical notation, song lyrics, and brief background information about each song’s origin. In addition, each is accompanied by a work of art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, extending the book’s appeal. Many childhood songs are also available in audiobook

form, such as Michael Rosen’s
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, which includes the story, music, games, and activities

(Candlewick, 2002).

Frazee, Marla.
Hush, Little Baby: A Folk Song with Pictures. 1999. 40p. Harcourt, $16 (0-15-201429-2); Voyager,

paper, $6 (0-15-204761-1).

Preschool–Gr. 3. Adoring parents nestle their angelic baby in a rocking cradle, while a scowling older sister looks on. Big sister’s “unintentional” action—a not-so-gentle shove to the sleeping baby’s cradle—unleashes the family’s scramble to quiet the little one. Paired with oversize text, the rustic, folksy illustrations give freshness to this traditional Appalachian lullaby. To experience another—very different—perspective on this classic song, pair with Sylvia Long’s
Hush Little Baby (Chronicle, 1997).

Hort, Lenny.
The Seals on the Bus. Illus. by G. Brian Karas. 2000. 32p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050-5952-0); Owlet, paper, $6.95 (0-8050-7263-2).

Preschool–Gr. 1. Seals errp, tigers roar, vipers hiss, and people cry for help, as this noisy bus travels “all around the town.” Mixed-media illustrations create a backdrop to this fractured version of the classic original. Pair this with more traditional renderings of
The Wheels on the Bus from Paul O. Zelinsky (Dutton, 1990) and Raffi (Crown, 1998).

Lessac, Frané.
Camp Granada: Sing-Along Camp Songs. 2003. 48p. Holt, $18.95 (0-8050-6683-7).

K–Gr. 6. Thirty-four songs aptly capture the camp experience. From the revelry of “Rise and Shine,” to the whimsy of “Little Bunny Foo Foo,” to the haunting strains of “Taps,” Lessac offers terse descriptions, simple instructions, and multiple verses of traditional American camping tunes. Bold gouache illustrations depict a multicultural smattering of children and counselors, engaging in recognizable camp events.


Schwartz, Alvin.
Scary Stories Box Set. Illus. by Stephen Gammell. 1992. HarperTrophy, paper, $17.97 (0-06-


Gr. 4–up. Schwartz offers readers a variety of ghostly stories, from the truly scary to the truly funny, in this three-book set, featuring
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (HarperCollins, 1981),
More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (HarperCollins, 1984), and
Scary Stories 3 (HarperCollins, 1991). (The books are also available individually.) Although often challenged by concerned parents, these stories are widely known and are collected from folk and archival sources. For younger readers, look for Schwartz’s I Can Read selections:
In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (HarperCollins, 1984) and
Ghosts! Ghostly Tales from Folklore (HarperCollins, 1991).

Sierra, Judy.
Nursery Tales around the World. Illus. by Stefano Vitale. 1996. 128p. Clarion, $20 (0-395-67894-3).

Preschool–Gr. 3. In this compilation of 18 stories from around the world, many motifs will be familiar to young listeners and readers, such as “runaway foods” and “chain” or “catch” tales. The folk-art illustrations are an inviting complement to these engaging tales of early childhood. For more read-aloud folk stories, check out
Juba This and Juba That: Stories to Tell, Songs to Sing, Rhymes to Chant, Riddles to Guess, and More, edited by Virginia A. Tashjian (Little, Brown, 1995).

Related Articles from Past Issues

Listed below are articles from past issues of
Book Links about childhood rhymes, songs, and games.

• “I Hear America Singing: Incorporating Music into the Curriculum,” June/July 2003, p.12

• “Our Global Village: Books about Children in the World’s Communities,” January 2004, p.24

Professional Resources

For teachers and librarians who would like additional help in selecting appropriate childhood folklore to share with students, books such as
Counting-Out Rhymes: A Dictionary by Roger D. Abrahams (University of Texas, 1980),

American Children’s Folklore by Simon J. Bronner (August House, 1988), and
The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford University, 2001) will prove useful.

Audio Connections

The following titles in this bibliography are also available in an audio format.

Arroz con Leche: Popular Songs and Rhymes from Latin America. By Lulu Delacre. Read by Jennifer and Carl Shaylen. 1991. Scholastic/Lectorum. 1 cassette (16 min.), $4.95 (0-590-60035-4).

Ghosts! Ghostly Tales from Folklore Book and Tape. By Alvin Schwartz. Read by Doug Pries. 1995. HarperFestival. 1 cassette (15 min.), $8.99 (0-694-70026-6).

• In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories Book and Tape. By Alvin Schwartz. 1994. HarperFestival.

1 cassette (15 min.), $8.99 (1-55994-233-9).

Scary Stories Audio Collection. By Alvin Schwartz. Read by George S. Irving. 2001. HarperAudio. 3 cassettes (3½ hrs.), $20 (0-694-52615-0); 3 CDs, $22 (0-694-52612-6).

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. By Michael Rosen. Performed by Brian Blessed and Imelda Staunton. 2004. Candlewick Audio. 1 CD (1 hr.), $7.99 (0-7636-2429-2).

Childhood Folklore Forms

Children (and adults) may be interested to see the variety of forms that childhood folklore can take, and how different our individual experiences with each version may be. See how many different examples you can find in your library and in your community—and in different languages, too.


• Circle Games (“Ring around the rosie”)

• Hide and Seek (“Sardines”)

• Jump-Rope Jingles (“Cinderella dressed in yellow”)

• Guessing Games (“I spy”)

• Ball Bouncing (“A my name is Alice”)

• String Games (“Cat’s cradle”)

• Chasing Games (“Duck, duck, goose”)

• Party Games (“Pin the tail on the donkey”)


• Nonsense Rhymes (“One bright day in the middle of the


• Jokes and Riddles (“Knock knock”)

• Tongue Twisters (“She sells seashells”)


• Action Rhymes (“I’m a little teapot”)

• Counting Out Rhymes (“This little pig”)

• Finger Plays (“Itsy bitsy spider”)

• Tickling Rhymes (“Round and round the garden”)

• Hand-Clapping Rhymes (“Pat-a-cake”)

• Teases, Taunts, and Insults (“Liar, liar, pants on fire”)

• Spelling Rhymes (“I before E except after C”)

• Love Rhymes (“Roses are red”)


• Proverbs (“A stitch in time”)

• Wishes and Warnings (“See a penny, pick it up”)

• Flower Oracles (“He loves me, he loves me not”)

• Autograph Sayings (“You ought to cry, you ought to



• Nonsense Songs (“There was a farmer had a dog, Bingo

was his name”)

• Chants (“Ice cream, you scream”)

• Carols (“Jingle bells”)

• Song Parodies (“I’ve been working on my homework”)


• Nursery Stories (“Goldilocks and the three bears”)

• “Catch” Stories (“The yellow ribbon”)

• Ghost Stories and Camp Stories (“The teeny tiny woman”)

Sylvia M. Vardell and
June M. Jacko are professors at Texas Woman’s University.