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Folklife & Folk Art Education Resource Guide

Teaching Students about Children's Customs

Children's Customs Background Information

Children have a rich store of folk customs, from jump rope moves to hand claps, from choosing sides in tag to secret initiation rites into clubs. Children use folklore to modify their world, creating an atmosphere more to their liking. Folklorist William A. Wilson addressed this phenomenon when he stated: "In many ways the performance of folklore could be called an exercise in behavior modification. Through the things people make with their words, hands, and actions, they attempt to create a social world more to their own liking." Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction, 232.

As educators you are acutely aware of the folk expressions children use. Some of these expressions are manifested in the things children make, such as the paper creations your students make: fortune tellers, paper airplanes, an origami item, hats, fans, etc. In addition, children have a vast repertoire of verbal parodies, such as this spoof of a McDonald's commercial:

McDonald's is your kind of place;
They serve you rattlesnake,
Hot dogs up your nose,
french fries between your toes,
And don't forget those chocolate shakes
They're from polluted eggs.
McDonald's is your kind of place;
The last time that I was there,
They stole my underwear,
I really didn't care,
They were a dirty pair.
The next time that you go there,
They'll serve my underwear.
McDonald's is your kind of place.

However, much of children's folklore is manifest in their customs. Customs associated with children's play (folk rules and regulations) are often very mysterious to adults, but very reasonable and orderly to children. Often, children spend more time creating the order of a game than actually playing the game itself. For example, once at a family reunion my children and their cousins played "steal the flag," a team game with two flags on bases that each opposing team tries to steal. Prior to the game the children spent time setting up the rules, since the children were from different areas and had different regional rules this took some time. During the activity, periodic "time-outs" were held so that the rules could be modified to fit the group needs, but at no time were adults summoned to moderate problems. The children "worked out" game problems for themselves, creating new rules for this new situation.

Teaching Children about Children's Customs

Tell the children that customs don't only apply to foodways and celebration days, but are present in how close we stand to someone, what home remedies we use for a sore throat, or the games we play. Explain that they--children--have many customs.

Help students understand that they belong to a folk group of children. Some examples of children's folklore are:

jump rope rhymes
hand slap games
recess games
paper folding
parodies of songs - "Deck the Halls with Gasoline"
ghost stories
hand gestures - high five
decorating jack-o-lanterns at Halloween
Tell the children about a game you played as a child.

Ask the children to teach you a game they play.

Ask about: the rules, point system, who is leader, where they learned the game, when they play it, who is allowed to play, etc.

Ask the children what they think they learn or teach when they play games: such as, how to follow rules, have fun, break rules, etc.

Tell the students that Hopi girls play a game called "Bone Dolls," usually with their grandmother or female relatives. The game is sort of like playing house, and through the play the young girls learn about important things like: grinding corn, caring for children, and interacting with family members.


Have the children interview their parents, grandparents, older neighbors, or even you, about a childhood game. Invite some of these tradition bearers to school to teach these games. With your class and visitors, discuss the variation of games from earlier times and today. Have the students use this time to conduct follow up interviews with the tradition bearers to find out about other childhood activities: pranks (knocking over outhouses) parodies, yearbook verses, etc.