children's folklore

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This, or child-lore, is the generic term used to refer to children's own folklore, as distinguished from folklore-about-children or folklore taught to children by adults (e.g. nursery rhymes). Children as a social group clearly have a very wide range of cultural traits and material, which mirror the adult world, but the fact that much of their learning is done through informal channels, and that they have genres, such as games and rhymes, which are lacking in the adult world, makes them a particularly rewarding area of research for the folklorist. Early folklorists took it as read that children preserve in their games and rhymes the serious practices of previous adult generations, and were thus quick to see survivals of bride-capture, funeral customs, or foundation sacrifice. It is true that 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 the most, and the notion of survival from ancient times has long been discredited.

The first English scholar to take a real interest in children's lore was J. O. Halliwell, whose The Nursery Rhymes of England (1842) and The Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales of England (1849) presented hundreds of children's rhymes, songs, narratives, and other verbal lore to an adult audience for the first time and provided the basis for most subsequent discussion in that area. Alice Bertha Gomme's Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (1894/98) did a similar thing for games, on a more systematic basis, collecting a huge mass of material. Individual studies continued to appear, but it was not until the post-war work of Iona and Peter Opie that other genres were brought into the folklorist's net. The Opies published a string of books which immediately became standard works, including The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951, new edition 1997), Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969), The People of the Playground (1993), and Children's Games with Things (1997). Lore and Language, in particular, widened the horizons of child-lore researchers to include superstitions, calendar customs, nicknames, taunts, jokes, riddles, truce terms, and so on.

It is a recurrent characteristic of the adult view of children's lore that it is always believed to be on the verge of extinction. This is partly because adults confuse change with decline, but also because they seem to lose the ability to recognize play unless it is highly structured and overtly rule bound.


Brian Sutton-Smith, The Folkgames of Children (1972);Brian Sutton-Smith et al., Children's Folklore: A Source Book (1995) (includes Rosemary L. Zumwalt, ‘The Complexity of Children's Folklore’ (pp. 23–48);Andy Sluckin, Growing Up in the Playground: The Social Development of Children (1981);Sandra McCosh, Children's Humour (1976).

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