Archive for February, 2013

A treat for families in York Literature Festival!


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Well, it’s Live Arts Week once more, and as ever their chosen theme got me thinking: ‘Playtime’.  I decided to use it to satisfy my curiosity as to the health of children’s oral culture of singing, dancing and rhyming. ‘The Farmer Wants a Wife’ is only sung in nursery schools these days and The Dusty Bluebells are surely gathering dust.  This can lead people to think that kids these days are so absorbed in their Nintendos and social networks that they have no natural joy left in word and movement.

I did a bit of prep – as well as dragging out of my memory the words and movements of lots of my own childhood rhymes (the different permutations of Eeny Meeny Miny Mo, the skipping games about the lady on the hill, the bramble bushes, the belles of Belfast City and elsewhere), I spent some time on a wonderful website by the British Library. Their ‘Playtimes’ collection of films and recordings of children’s games throughout the 20th century is a wonderful and evocative resource.    

So off I bussed to Rufforth Primary, a very small and very friendly school in the deep dark woods (or rather, fields) beyond the ringroad.  The head teacher had been concerned that maybe this theme I had chosen (‘Singing Stories, Playing Stories’) might be a tad babyish for the Year 5s and 6s. So we started with a bit of maths: what counting-out rhymes did the children use to decide who would be ‘it’?  Let’s make a graph of who uses which!

I had expected two or three – but the children came up with 9 different rhymes or games they used to settle this critical question – and they could have continued had time allowed.

We moved onto ‘courtship games’ – the circle songs that used to be used by teenagers as a subtle way of confessing whom they fancied and getting to ‘first base’ with them! – but which later became seen as children’s songs.  The children were intrigued by this, but more than that I was amazed how quickly they learnt ‘The Wind’ – a Scottish courtship song consisting of nine verses and no less than three different tunes! 

I taught them some more, we talked a bit about how they change over time like all folk culture, and what they say about the children who sang them. The exuberance bordered on raucousness at times – but then it was time for them to share their own such games.

It was like opening the floodgates.  A couple of Year 6s got up to perform the very funkiy ‘Tell me how you bungalow’ to rapturous applause and a very complicated rhythm which all the children seemed to know.  Another pair of girls got up to do ‘Concentration’ – a clapping game which certainly qualifies as mental gymnastics.  Yet another pair performed a very long clapping story they had made up themselves, which got too lewd for the teachers and had to be discontinued. There were still lots of hands stretched up to tearing point when the clock put an end to the session.

We wrote it all down on a flipchart paper.  Both teachers and pupils were surprised at the length of the list, and we wondered if perhaps in 50 years’ time, their grandchildren might be sitting in this hall wondering what children used to play in ‘the olden days’, and somebody might find this tattered old sheet of paper in a storeroom and bring it out.  And perhaps some of the same rhymes and story-songs might still be around, evolved a little but still part of a hundreds-of-years-old tradition that is very much alive and kicking.

Here is ‘The Wind’ in full, in case you’re interested:

The Wind (Scotland, dates back at least to 1875)

(one child stands in the centre of the ring)

The wind, the wind, the wind blows high,

The snow comes tumbling from the sky,

________ ___________ says (s)he’ll die

For the want of the Golden City

 (Repeat 1st verse)


(S)he is handsome, (s)he is pretty,

(S)he is the girl/boy of the golden city,

(S)he is handsome, one two three,

Come and tell me who shall be


(child whispers initials of the one they like best)

X is his/her first name, his first name, his first name,

X is his first name, E I O sir.

Y is his/her second name, his second name, his second name,

Y is his second name, E I O sir.

___________ ___________ is his/her name…..E I O sir.


(if guessed right)

Now it’s time to hide your face….E I O sir.

Now it’s time to show your face….E I O sir.

Now it’s time to choose the one….E I O sir.

(child in centre chooses another to be in the centre)


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The days are lengthening (this weekend is Candlemas/Imbolc!) and this means the York Literature Festival must be approaching.  The programme this year is pretty stupendous – Will Self, Tracey Chevalier, Carol Ann Duffy and the like – but nestled in among all that is a smaller but hopefully also delectable treat for families.  Anneliese Emmans Dean and I are getting together once more with a brand new show for families: Flying High – poems and stories of birds and bees.

The basic recipe is tried and tested: poetry, storytelling, music, wildlife photography, bringing the generations together through lots of audience participation, and cake.  We have had full and happy houses for our previous just-before-bedtime shows ‘Raucous Rhymes and Wonder Tales’ and ‘Stomping Through The Seasons’.

AED and Cath

However we are particularly excited at this one:

Come fly high with garden birds and mythical birds, rhyming birds and ancient birds.  From the mighty Anzu bird of sumerian myth, to noisy sparrows in our hedge (with a smattering of bees buzzing by) – this show celebrates them in stories, poems, interactivity and song.  With storyteller Catherine Heinemeyer and Carnegie Medal-nominated poet Anneliese Emmans Dean, the duo who brought you the sell-out York Literature Festival family shows Raucous Rhymes and Wonder Tales and Stomping Through the Seasons.  A soaring treat for everyone aged 5 upwards.  With refreshments on the house!

All tickets £5.00

Venue: Jacob’s Well. Trinity Lane, Micklegate, York

Book here.

Just to give you a sneak preview, an image of the Anzu bird of Sumerian myth, who will be figuring rather highly (that lovely lady in the middle is the goddess Inana)…

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