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Performing Arts

Children's Traditional Hand-clapping Games


Girls playing hand-clapping games, Essendan Primary School, 1982
Source: Australian Children's Folklore Collection, Museum of Victoria. Photographer: Brenda Alexander

Although music as such is not an element in children's traditional hand-clapping routines, rhythm is certainly a key aspect of the chants or rhymes which accompany the complex hand movements. These routines are normally performed by two girls between 7 and 12 years of age, at primary school.

Reasons for selection

Children's Traditional Hand-Clapping Games are passed on from one generation to another in the school playground. However, there are many competing demands on children's free time, such as computer and electronic games, and today there are reduced opportunities for hand-clapping games to be performed. They may therefore be considered to be endangered.

Area where performed

All around Australia

Essential elements of the performing art

Rhythm, Chanting

Detailed explanation

Children's traditional hand-clapping games, like many other aspects of children's folklore, are one of Australia's most ancient and continuous traditions. Many games have European origins, and are documented as early as the times of ancient Rome, or in the famous sixteenth-century painting of children's games by the Flemish painter, Peter Brueghel. Other games such as string figures, seem to be almost universal. String games are also played by traditional Australian Aborigines.

Some well-known hand-clapping games include the long, life-cycle saga When Suzy was a baby. Australian children have also performed for several generations rhymes such as Mary Mack dressed in black and My mother said:
My mother said
I never should
Play with the gypsies
In the wood...

Hand-clapping games are usually identified with girls, and there is no evidence of their having been played by boys in the past. In this respect they are unlike skipping, which was a common boys' game in the nineteenth century, but is now mostly played by girls. The age-group for hand-clapping games extends from about 7 to 12 years of age. In earlier generations children's traditional games were played on the street and in the home neighbourhood, as indicated by the title of Iona and Peter Opie's classic British study, Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969). Today's children do not play on the street, in Australia at least, largely due to increased traffic, so the school playground is now the main home of children's traditional lore. This places a heavy responsibility on the primary school, to nature children's playground culture and to ensure that children have enough free time to play. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

Publication and textual documentation

1981 Playground Game Characteristics of Brisbane Primary School Children.
Australian Government Publishing Service.

1988 Captain Cook Chased a Chook.
Penguin Australia.

Audio documentation

Australian Children's Folklore Collection at Museum of Victoria.
National Library of Australia, Oral History Section

Visual documentation

Museum of Victoria, Melbourne (Australian Children's Folklore Collection)has some video tapes.

Institution/organisation involved in preservation and promotion

The Museum of Victoria in Melbourne now houses (since 1999)the Australian Children's Folklore Collection which is one of the world's largest collection of children's traditional games, rhymes and chants.

Data provider

Dr. Gwenda Davey AM
Honorary Research Associate
National Centre for Australian Studies
Monash University, Melbourne
Address: Clayton, Victoria, 3168, Melbourne, Australia

(Revised in July 2004)
Dr. Gwenda Beed Davey AM
Honorary Research Fellow
Centre of Cultural Heritage in Asia and the Pacific, Faculty of Arts, Deakin University
Address: 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria, 3125, Australia.
Tel : (61-3)9852 4498