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Playground Chants Tell Tales of Life and Learning

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Three sailors went to sea, sea, sea

To see what they could see, see, see

But all that they could see, see, see

Was the bottom of the deep blue sea,

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sea , sea.

Anyone who has lingered on a San Fernando Valley playground--as a child or adult--has probably heard the singsong voices and rhythmic clapping of children as they recite familiar rhymes and chants. But they are more than child’s play. Many of these chants, a mainstay of playground entertainment, have been passed down for generations and reflect the traumas and social trends that shape the lives of the children and their families.

Consider the classic “Ring Around the Rosy” or “Eeny Meeny Minie Mo.” Judith Haupt of Topanga Canyon, who is working on a doctoral thesis on children’s beliefs for the Folklore and Mythology Studies Program at UCLA, said “Ring” recalls the plague era in Europe. “The streets smelled bad and people would carry posies in their pockets to mask it.” In the book “Folklore in America,” authors Tristram Coffin and Hennig Cohen write that “Eeny Meeny Minie Mo” retains elements of “Cymric shepherd counts, Latin, and American pre-Civil War political matter.”

Rhyming and chanting, Haupt said, is a form of folk speech. “It shows children’s innate ability to rhyme, produce metered language and play verbal games.”

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On a recent weekday at Coldwater Canyon Avenue Elementary School in North Hollywood, a cluster of third-grade girls clapped and recited the “Three Sailors” chant with the variation referring to a favorite institution:

Three sailors went to diz, diz, diz

To see what they could knee, knee, knee

But all that they could land, land, land,

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Was the bottom of the deep blue Disneyland.

Where did those lines originate? “I think probably people in Mission Viejo made it up, because that’s closer to Disneyland,” said 8-year-old Julie Miller of North Hollywood. “And, then, on one ride? The haunted house? It makes you feel like you’re getting dizzy, then it makes you feel like you’re on somebody’s knee, and then it makes you feel like you’re on land--so it might have been from that.”

A Favorite Chant

Jessica Maldonado, another 8-year-old from North Hollywood, clapped to the beat of a favorite chant with an opening line in Spanish.

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Uno, dos, seisa

I meet, I went, I met my boyfriend at the candy store

He got me ice cream

He bought me cake

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He brought me home with a belly ache

Mama, Mama, I feel sick

Call the doctor, quick, quick, quick

Doctor, doctor, will I die?

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Count to five and you’ll be alive

One, two, three, four, five.

“I learned that one from my aunt,” Jessica said. “She taught it to me in Spanish, and then I translated it into English. Now, I hardly remember it in Spanish.”

At Carpenter Avenue School in Studio City, three sixth-graders recited a variation of the same chant, with an opening line in Spanish.

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“I learned the uno dos seisa chant when I was 4 years old,” said Melissa Schwartz, 11.

“From ‘The Cosby show’!” chimed Rebecca Hekmatrean, also 11.

Said Melissa: “When ‘The Cosby Show’ first came out, my parents thought it would be interesting for me to watch. There was one episode where two little girls got up and did this chant, and I just started doing it.”

Older Version

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In fact, the chant is a variation of a much older, more morbid chant recorded in the book “A Treasury of American Folklore.”

Mother, Mother, I am sick;

Send for the doctor, quick, quick, quick

Doctor, doctor, shall I die?

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Yes, my darling, do not cry

How many coaches shall I have?

One, two, three . . .

Haupt said the texts of chants “may demonstrate continuity, but the meaning may change for the individual children, and they change for the same child at different times, depending on what they’re going through.”

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The morbidity of some of the chants may seem incongruous with playground antics, but Christine Goldberg, a researcher for a UCLA project titled “The Encyclopedia of American Popular Beliefs and Superstitions,” said it is natural. “Kids need to be socialized as to what is supposed to bother them. They haven’t yet learned it. Maybe they think that it’s cool to talk about things that you couldn’t talk about in front of adults.”

She added: “The chants themselves are all rituals where the kids get to be in control. There’s also the social element about knowing it the right way. Do you have to do it the way the biggest girl does it? When do you get to be creative?”

At Coldwater Canyon Elementary a circle of third-graders clapped together for a chant that incorporated references to pop culture--and risque innuendoes.

Mailman, mailman, do your duty

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Here comes Miss American beauty

She can do the pompon,

She can do the twist

Most of all she can kiss, kiss, kiss

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K-I-S-S, KISS!

“Many of the chants are obscene or scatological because children are paying attention to everything in human life,” Haupt said. “Sometimes what gets published are only what we consider to be ‘appropriate children chants,’ and that has nothing to do with reality.”

Commercial Influences

Commercials and popular products creep into children’s rhymes. At Coldwater Canyon, Jessica had turned a Dr. Pepper ad into a hand-clapping rhyme. And at Carpenter Avenue, Melissa chanted:

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Coca-Cola went to town

RC shot him down.

Seven Up picked him up

Brought him to, Mountain Dew

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Brought him to, Mountain Dew

Why do girls play these chanting, hand-clapping games and not boys? “It seems as if the boys like baseball, soccer and dodge ball. They don’t like this sissy stuff,” said Elaine Kleiger, principal of Beth Meier School in Studio City.

Kiyo Fukumoto, principal of Anatola Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys, said: “If the boys play hand-clapping games at all, it’s usually part of a class, and they’re participating in a group activity. I think the boys shy away from it because the girls are just better at it. They seem to be more coordinated. Also, girls are more willing to play a game where they have to touch hands.”

At the Carpenter Avenue School, Melissa said, “It seems like boys are always getting into fights, or they chase girls, and even if we don’t consider it (hand-clapping chants) sissy, a lot of boys do, and they’d be embarrassed to play hand-clapping games.” She added: “Girls have very high self-esteem. I never get embarrassed.”

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