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"Verbal Play and Language Acquisition"

Eric Miller (February 2003)

This essay asks and begins to answer the question, "How might verbal play assist in the child's language acquisition process?"  In preparing to answer this question, I will first explore definitions of play, and of the language acquisition process.  I will then discuss some issues relating to play and phonetics (sounds), semantics (words), and syntax (sentence formation) in the experience of the growing child, and I will present and comment upon some examples of verbal play.

The examples of children's verbal play herein do not come from a single culture, nor are they based on original fieldwork.  Rather, they are drawn primarily from published texts of verbal play of children in the USA and the United Kingdom (all of these examples were performed and are presented in English).  A purpose of researching and composing this essay has been to acquaint myself with practices and issues I may encounter in the course of my upcoming doctoral fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, south India.  Two oral-language related fields the current study may contribute to are 1) the study of adult verbal arts, and 2) the development of play-based methods of teaching additional languages (to children and adults).


Anything can be done in a playful manner, as play is a "communication style" (Beresin 1993, p. 252), "an orientation, a mode of experience" (Garvey 28).  Scholars of play posit that three conditions an activity must satisfy to be considered play are 1) it must occur in a circumscribed place, 2) it must occur in a limited time, 3) and it must be done for its own sake, that is, for fun (Huizinga). Nonetheless, play may serve as a model of the past, and a model for the future.  Two types of play are games (which is rule-centric) and art (which is process-, aesthetics-, and feeling-centric).  Children are masters of play, and are formidable authorities on the subject.

Many theories have been put forth regarding the purposes and functions of play.  These include the ideas that play is a way to release excess energy, to escape pressures, to develop self, identity, and imagination, and to assert power.  Many scholars posit that children's play is inextricably related to their intellectual and physical development and progress.  For example, Brian Sutton-Smith's theory of children's play as "adaptive potentiation_ claims that a primary function of play is to give the child practice in mental flexibility (Sutton-Smith).  In other words, play can get the child in the habit of breaking habits, which can lead to progress in the individual and in the species.  However, it is very difficult to prove play-causes-progress hypotheses, and one should never take such things for granted.  In fact, one purpose of play may be related to the way play rejects 'serious' goals, or all goals whatsoever. 

Along these lines, the uses and functions of play that this paper focuses on include the following:  A child plays to experiment with linguistic and cultural routines.  Play provides an opportunity to pick apart received structures, and to reframe, reformulate, and reorganize the material into new categories and combinations.  In play, a child can transport learned material into the realm of her imagination, where she can be free and able to re-shape and re-express it.  Here she can digest the material, and make it her own.  A child plays to escape adult rules, and to assert her own control over the material.  In play, a child can establish that other ways of doing things are possible, and play can provide an opportunity to create and experiment with some of those ways.  Afterwards, the child can return to society's rules, and perhaps create compromises between the self's (and the group's) ways, and the larger society's ways, or add to society's ways. 

Play provides an opportunity to work through feelings about what one been presented to one, and about how it has been presented.  Children play to discover and express their hidden thoughts and feelings.  In the course of play, a child may transgress societal rules without, or with less of, the normal danger of punishment. 

In play, children bond, and so create collective, shared realities.  Play can assist in the development of coordination (mind-body, eye-hand, etc.); but children also play sometimes to make themselves dizzy.  Children play to experiment with applying general patterns to new circumstances, and play provides an opportunity to experience situations from numerous points of view.  Children play for the aesthetic pleasure of making rhythm, rhyme, and other forms of repetition and pattern; and of making openings and endings, which give experience form and closure.  These are just a few of the innumerable aspects of play.

The Language Acquisition Process

The language acquisition process is often considered to involve three successive stages: the afore-mentioned phonetics, semantics, and syntax (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Sherzer).  Related to syntax (sentence structure) is accidence, a language's rules for the forms words take when they are combined to make phrases and sentences.  Together, phonetics, syntax, and accidence constitute a language's grammar (Oxford English Dictionary Online). 

The following schedule varies greatly from child to child (Garvey; Farb):  Infants may begin to coo and babble shortly after birth.  At six months, reduplicative babbling is common.  At eight months, "children use intonation patterns similar to those changes in pitch heard in adult exclamations and questions" (Farb 10).  At 12 months, single-syllable words are sometimes uttered.  At 18 months, a child's vocabulary is often between three and 50 words, and the child may be able to utter simple stock phrases, such as "Thank you."  It is approximately at this time that the "naming explosion" or "word spurt" may begin.  The naming explosion tends to occur at the same time as the onset of productive syntax. 

At 24 months, a child may be able to name most of the physical objects she comes into contact with on a daily basis, and two- and three-word utterances are common.  For many children, 36 months marks the end of the naming explosion period: now the child's vocabulary may be 1,000 words.  At 48 months, typically the child has mastered most of the syntactical structures of the language.  By this time, the development of the child's cognitive architecture -- involving such distinctions as those, for example, between the name of a dog, the abstract category, dog, and the abstract category, animal -- is also well underway.

Numerous theories have been created to account for how children learn language.  Among these theories are B. F. Skinner's theory of Behaviorism, Noam Chomsky's theory of a Universal Grammar, and Jean Piaget's theory of Genetic Epistemology.  To briefly summarize these theories:

Skinner's theory of Behaviorism posits that all learning results from environmental conditioning, from positive and negative feedback (rewards and punishments).  These reinforcements inculcate habits in the learner.  Behaviorism states that all learning results from memorization of what has been presented from without.

Chomsky's theory of a Universal Grammar refutes Skinner's claim, instead positing that humans are born with "innate behavior patterns, and tendencies to learn in specific ways" (Chomsky 57).  People are born with a "grammatical sense" (Chomsky 56), a "built-in structure of an information-processing (hypothesis-forming) system [which] enables them to arrive at the grammar of a language from the available data at the time" (Chomsky 58).  According to this theory, there are fundamental internal processes at work in each human, quite independent of feedback from the environment.  "The fact that all normal children acquire essentially comparable grammars of great complexity with remarkable rapidity suggests that human beings are somehow specially designed to do this, with data-handling ability of an unknown character and complexity" (Chomsky 57).

Piaget's theory of Genetic Epistemology has in common with Chomsky's theory the belief that the child carries within her the stages of development, and requires only a supportive and stimulating environment in order to bloom.  Piaget believed that people pass through a series of four stages of cognitive development, each one successively more abstract.  According to Piaget_s theory, "there are four primary cognitive structures (i.e., developmental stages): sensori-motor, pre-operations, concrete operations, and formal operations.  In the sensori-motor stage (0-2 years), intelligence takes the form of motor actions.  Intelligence in the pre-operations stage (3-7 years) is intuitive in nature.  The cognitive structure during the concrete operational stage (8-11 years) is logical, but depends on concrete referents.  In the final stage, formal operations (12-15 years), thinking involves abstractions" (Kearsley 1).  At each stage along the way, children should be communicated with in the mode of their present stage of development, but should also be challenged to adopt the approach of the upcoming stage.  Piaget was primarily concerned with the child_s cognitive development, which he ascertained through experiments, interviews, and other methods, in addition to observation of language behavior.

While considering theories of language learning and development, another theory that should be mentioned is Edward Sapir's and Benjamin Whorf's Sapir-Whorf theory of language.  According to this theory, "Language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but rather is itself the shaper of ideas...  We dissect nature along the lines laid down by our native language" (as cited in Farb 180).  That is, a language guides its users into perceiving, thinking about, and expressing reality in well-worn channels; the development from within, as described by Chomsky and Piaget is shaped, through behavioral conditioning, so as to place blinders on the practitioners of a language.  Languages create these constraints simply through the limited options they offer, in terms of such elements as words (or lack of them), gender and tense forms, and the ways that words combine and interact.

In the material that follows, by progressively discussing issues related to phonetics, semantics, and syntax, and by associating this progression with the growth of the child, I do not mean to imply that the youngest children are learning only phonetics, and that the oldest are learning only syntax: on the contrary, children of all ages may learn, and play with, all three elements of language simultaneously.  At the same time, as children grow, they do tend to experience a development towards increasing degrees of abstraction and complexity: to some extent at least, one becomes acquainted with the sounds of a language before learning how the sounds combine to make words and take on meaning; and one acquires a vocabulary of some size before combining those words in a syntax.  It should be kept in mind that "while language acquisition studies generally indicate that the child is syntactically competent by about the age of four years, phonological dominance is maintained long after the child is theoretically competent semantically and syntactically"  (Sanches and  Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 105).

Play and Phonetics, Semantics, and Syntax:


"The most primitive level at which verbal play is conducted is that of phonation, i.e., the actual process of emitting sounds...  During the child's pre-linguistic period, aesthetic features such as intonation and stress provide raw material for early language play" (Garvey 30).

Infants tend to associate the sound of the human voice with pleasurable sensations, such as feeding and fondling.  "Repetitive, rhythmic vocalizations especially are associated with pleasurable states in the prelinguistic child.  Infant-caretaker games often include a vocal component.  The caretaker's swelling oooh-aaah sounds, and the tongue-popping and clicking noises that enhance finger-walking, tickling, and jiggling are among the first models of vocal play that the infant encounters_ (Garvey 30).

"In the first year of the infant's life, the communicative force of caregivers' vocalizations derive not from their arbitrary meanings in a linguistic code, but rather from their immediate musical power to arouse, alert, calm, delight, etc." (Fernald 74).  Melodies of caregivers' speech are highly salient to infants:

Although the exaggerated pitch patterns of caregivers' vocalizations may eventually help the child in the second year to identify linguistic units in speech, the human voice becomes meaningful to the infant through caregivers' vocalizations much earlier in the development.  Through this distinctive form of vocal communication, the infant begins to experience emotional communion with others, months before communication with symbols is possible.  (Fernald 74)

Infants in all cultures are initially responsive to similar vocal cues: universal speech patterns, with local variations, are used to praise, encourage, soothe, disapprove, alert, and warn the child (Bloom 9).  Language addressed to children is often characterized by features that render it simpler, more regular, and easier to segment than language addressed to adults.  " 'Motherese,' or 'caregiver talk,' generally involves a slower rate of speech, higher pitch, exaggerated intonation, short, simple sentence patterns, frequent repetition, and paraphrasing" (Lightbrown and Spada 14).  When the caregiver praises the infant, she uses her voice to produce a pleasurable acoustic experience which rewards and encourages the infant.  To arouse and delight the infant, the caregiver tends to use smooth, wide-ranging pitch contours, often with rising intonation.  When her goal is to soothe, she tends to speak with low, falling pitch.  When producing a prohibition, caretakers tend to use narrow pitch contours that are short, harsh, staccato, and loud: this sort of sound seems designed to interrupt and inhibit the child's behavior (Fernald 60). 

As infants and toddlers attempt to speak, they are searching for means to communicate.  Perhaps this cannot be called pure play, as play, by definition, is done solely for fun.  Nonetheless, some of the techniques for communicating that are discussed below may be done in a playful way, and the line between playful and serious activity is certainly not as sharp in children's experience as we adults sometimes imagine it is for us. 

The following five principles of Signal Detection Theory increase the reliability of verbal communication with the very young: 

A) Redundancy of part of a signal, or of the entire signal, enhances detectability. 
B) Conspicuousness by exaggeration of acoustic features increases the contrast between the signal and the irrelevant background information. 
C) A small repertoire of signals reduces the listener's uncertainty and enhances performance.  With fewer and more distinctive categories in which potential signals can be classified, the opportunity for identification errors is minimized. 
D) Alerting components at the beginning of a signal increase detectability and recognition by letting the listener know when to expect the message component of the signal. 
E) Alerting components at the end of a signal alert the listener to ignore subsequent immediate material, and can serve as a request for the listener to indicate that she has received and comprehended the signal just sent.  (Fernald 81)

"The oldest form of teaching is by example, and the oldest form of learning is by imitation" (Beresin 2002).  However, "Children do not imitate everything they hear, but often selectively imitate certain words or structures which they are in the process of learning" (Lightbrown and Spada 111).

Onomatopoeiac  words are composed of sounds that echo and imitate the thing being represented.  For examples, ting-ling-ling, cock-a-doodle-do, cuckoo, sneeze, splash, and mumble.  Children enjoy babbling, and early on realize that reduplicative babbling can add intensity to their expressions.  Many of the first words learned by children, such as mama and papa (in English), feature repetition.  It would seem that the word, babble, is both repetitive and onomatopoeic, as it repeats the "b" sound at the beginning of consecutive syllables. 

The child's verbal development is stimulated by having her communicative efforts responded to, elaborated upon, and corrected by caregivers:

Exposure to impersonal sources of language (such as television or radio) alone is insufficient for the child to learn the structure of a language.  One-to-one interaction gives the child access to language which is adjusted to her level of comprehension.  When the child does not understand, the adult may repeat or paraphrase.  The response of the adult may allow children to find out whether their utterances are understood or not.  Television does not provide such interaction.  Even in children's programs, where simpler language is used and topics are relevant to younger viewers, there is no immediate adjustment for the needs of the individual child at each unique moment.  (Lightbrown and Spada 14)


"In order to understand and produce language, the child must be able to segment the speech stream into units of sound, and also of meaning" (Bavin 376).  Play can involve identifying, extracting, remembering, and manipulating such units. 

A common play activity for children learning words is naming elements of one's immediate environment, and asking and answering questions about these things_ locations and availability.  At a young age, such play may be done as a learning activity; whereas older children may do this as a song, dance, and/or game that reinforces the memory of the player.  A scholar of baby talk among Tamil children living in Malaysia has written:

I often observed caretakers engaging in deictic verbal routines with their children.  These routines centered around naming, labeling individuals in the household, but also involved lists of objects to buy at the store, naming individuals in a photo album, counting in several languages, etc.  The routines are initiated by the caretaker, who sits with the child and offers say and give (solli-kuTu) words.  The child is asked to repeat each word after the caretaker.  On one occasion, the child took over the role of the initiator, and the mother repeated after her.  (Williamson 165)

An infant is more likely to learn to comprehend a new label if that label is presented at a time when the infant is already focused on its referent, as opposed to when the label is presented in an attempt to redirect the infants' attentional focus.  Thus, "word learning is most likely to take place when cooperative labeling on parents' parts reduces the effort that infants themselves must direct toward joint reference" (Bloom 130).

As soon as a child has learned how something is supposed to be, then turning it upside down or distorting it in some way becomes a source of fun.  Assignment of outrageous names to self, partner, or to imaginary others reflects awareness of the importance of the normal name and address system.  Children often seem to enjoy contrasts in their play, especially the alternating between, and juxtaposition of, sense and nonsense. 

In the course of play, children may make puns (jokes that exploit the different meanings of a word, or the fact that there are words of the same sound and different meanings) (Oxford English Dictionary Online).  They may also play with words that are related to each other, such as: homonyms (words of the same sound, but of different meanings); synonyms (words of the same meaning); and antonyms (words of opposite meaning).  In forming play phrases, they may use alliteration (successive repetition of the initial sound of words); assonance (resemblance of sounds, usually vowels, between two syllables in nearby words); and anaphora (repetition of an initial word or phrase in successive sentences).  All of these phenomenae involve repetition with variation, a basic and universal feature of verbal play (Jakobson). 


Among the child_s many possible uses of repetition is that it may be used to question or agree with a caregiver_s comment, to remind oneself of something, to request information or services, to reassert an earlier statement, or to reverse the direction of an order or greeting.  Repetition, along with a negation word, may be used to make a counterclaim ("You silly." /  "No, you silly.") (Keenan 131).   "The child may make innumerable incomplete or inaccurate imitations -- that is, inarticulate mutterings, wild stabs, false starts, and the like -- which are not repetitions in any accepted sense of the word.  However, it may be that the child is repeating not to imitate but to satisfy some other communicative obligation, and in such cases inexact repetition may be the intended desire of the child" (Keenan 127).  In repeating a version of what was heard, young children often omit the function words, but retain most of the content words. 

In the language learning process, repetition is among the techniques used by both child and caregiver for communication checks, to increase the chances of one's utterrances being received and understood by one's conversation partner (Keenan 135).  When, for example, the child repeats the caregiver's utterance back to the caregiver, the child may be presenting her interpretation of the caregiver's utterance to the caregiver for verification.  In the absence of a challenge from the caregiver, the child can treat this utterance as shared knowledge (Ervin-Tripp and Mitchell-Kernan 9), and in subsequent discourse both parties can consider this utterance to be known, or old information.

One role of repetition in discourse is to establish topic candidates (Keenan 136).  In many cases, the first making of a statement is a request for the matter to be ratified as a topic candidate.  The speaker who repeats the utterance may be doing so to signal acceptance.  The information may then become the topic of subsequent utterances in the form of a pronoun, as pronouns normally refer to an already known subject. 

Acquisition of communicative competence must include the study of not only the acquisition of linguistic rules, but also the setting for their use.  In much play, children are learning, memorizing, and reinforcing social roles, as well as linguistic rules.  The use of language in social settings is rule-governed, and the failure to follow the rules often has socially disruptive consequences.  Sociolinguistic features of speech provide evidence of the child's knowledge of social roles and reflect a conception of a social system.  Communicative competence is the knowledge that underlies socially appropriate speech, involving social as well as linguistic knowledge (Hymes 1973).  It involves projecting socially appropriate identities, and includes engaging in social acts such as playing, teaching, persuading, directing others, asking questions, narrating stories, and being a conversational partner.  Childrens' awareness of the discourse structures employed in roles other than those they normally enact themselves appears typically in role-playing games.  In order to be socialized into the role system, children must learn rules for address and for pronoun selection, and songs and games provide practice for this learning. 

Children play with and practice linguistic structures through the use of substitution, accumulation, and transformation rhymes, songs, and games (Larsen-Freeman).  Accumulation games test, challenge, stretch one's memory abilities (Beresin 2002).  Transformation games consider the same content from various points of view (question-and-answer, positive-and-negative-command, etc.).  Children may unravel a sentence into parts that can be analyzed, and then put the elements back together again.  In some cases, "children systematically substitute words of the same grammatical categories, and build up and break down sentences, thus isolating their components.  (For example:  Stop it.  Stop the ball.  Stop the ball now!)" (Garvey 34).  Sometimes children practice conversational exchanges with themselves, asking and answering questions, congratulating and warning themselves, and so on.  These voluntary performances have been called practice play, i.e., the repetition and variation of newly learned structures (Garvey 34).

The playing of word games and the making up of nonsense rhymes provides clear evidence that the child has internalized at least some of the language's rules and is beginning to exploit the possibilities of the language, and to create alternatives to those possibilities.  A child may at times prefer to work on, or play with, certain levels of the language and assign nonsense, or purposely incorrect, forms to the other levels.  Gibberish can involve imitating the inflections, melodies, and rhythms of the sounds of the language without having to worry about the meaning of the sounds.  In jabberwocky, both phonological and syntactic rules are maintained, but the words are largely nonsensical.  In tangle-talk, the syntax is jumbled, but the words are correctly spoken.

Just as children assemble words to form sentences and paragraphs, they also assemble (or choreograph) their bodies to form groups.  One of the simplest stages known to humanity is a line, semi-circle, or circle of dancers who also act as a chorus (Opie 414).  Among the formations children's games may take are the line form, circle form, individual form, arch form, and winding form.  The circle form can denote friendly communion.  The line form can denote opposition.  Question-and-answer exchanges often form essential parts of this type of game.  A line may be drawn on the ground to separate the territories of the two sides.  Players in each line join hands, and the lines advance and retreat in turn while players sing or speak their parts.  In the winding form, players, clasping hands, wind round another player until all are wedged closely together, and then unwind again. 

One form of verbal interaction practiced by some children of Tamil descent living in Malaysia is a game called kuttu-kuttu-taambaLam (Williamson 165).  The game requires children sitting in a circle to answer certain questions.  The questions are chanted, and the chants are accompanied by the pounding of fists on the ground.

In play activities, physical location in relation to others and to landmarks can indicate being in and safe, as opposed to being out, out of bounds, or out of the game altogether.  Here feelings around inclusion and exclusion are experienced and explored, as children learn what is in and what is out, both in the particular game and in the society in general. 

At certain times in verbal play -- when participants agree that they are entering such a phase -- words can be improvised and rules are flexible.  Indeed, in play it is always possible to negotiate and change rules in mid-stream.  Games can end in horseplay, and chaos may rule well before the game ends (Opie 18).  In accumulation songs, the enactment may accelerate and become increasingly intense as the game proceeds; such games may -- and in some cases, are meant to -- culminate in delirious and hilarious confusion.


The following examples of children_s verbal play are practiced especially by particular ages and types of children.  For example, song-dances (also called singing games) tend to be the special province of girls over the age of seven.  However, all children are, to some extent, exposed to all of the types of children's verbal play in the community, and thus may be passive tradition-bearers of certain genres at times, and active tradition-bearers of those genres at other times.

The distinction between nursery lore (transmitted from adult to child) and children's lore (transmitted from child to child) must be kept in mind.  Regarding children's lore:

Children in the playground are for the most part in sole charge of their activities in a world of play which, though open for all to see, is essentially close-knit and secretive.  One must be invited into this hidden culture and allowed to share at least some of its secrets.  So strong are its protocols and policing that the owners of the information, the young people themselves, use self-censorship and other powerful means to control access and, if they think it is necessary, to conceal information and/or withdraw cooperation.  (Widdowson 138) 


Some verbal play spoofs the rules of accidence --

Did you eever, ever, iver,
In your leaf, life, loaf
See the deevil, devil, divil
Kiss his weef, wife, woaf?
No, I neever, never, niver
In my leaf, life, loaf
Saw the deevil, devil, divil
Kiss his weef, wife, woaf.  (Widdowson 141)


In the following pun-riddle, the suffix, "-ies" is applied to the word, "sleeve-," to form the diminuitive play word, "sleevies."  The pun points out that while the word, "arm," refers to a bodypart, the word, "armies," refers to a group of warriors.  It also demonstrates two possible uses of the "-ies" suffix: one making the word diminuitive, the other making the word plural: 

Where did Napoleon keep his armies?

Up his sleevies. 

(Widdowson 141)


Learning a language involves picking out patterns, and then generalizing them to new contexts.  In play, sometimes children overgeneralize, or mis-apply a rule, on purpose.  This is the case in the following question-and-answer, in which "-ology" is mockingly added to the verb, to swim: 

Do you know how to swim? 

Yes, I study swimology. 

(Beresin 2002)


Tongue twisters present salient differences, whether between sounds, words, or phrases.  In the following example, in successive phrases ("She sells" and "seashells"), the "h" sound is moved from the first syllable to the second syllable:

She sells seashells by the seashore.


In the following play poem, first categories of who is screaming are given (various pronouns).  Then the pattern is broken with the statement of the thing that is being screamed for.  In the process, the difference between "I scream" (subject and verb) and "ice cream" (compound noun) is made clear:

I scream,
You scream,
We all scream
For ice cream.


Variations of the following rhyme are used for jumping rope, counting-out (determining who will be choosen to be on a side, for example), and other purposes.  The lines vary between sense and nonsense:

Eeny, meeny, miney, mo,
Catch a robber by the toe.
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miney, mo. 

(Abrahams 1963b, p. 204)


Contradicting routines may tease, criticize, challenge, and censure, and may feature repetition and reversal:

You are a mouse! 
I know you are, but what am I? 


In the following play sentence, there are phonetic and semantic reversals.  In the first phrase ("As I walked down to the wayrail station"), the first and second parts of a compound word are reversed ("railway" becomes "wayrail").  In the second phrase ("I met a bark and it dogged at me"), the subject and verb are substituted for each other, and the original subject is conjugated as a verb ("it dogged"), while the original verb is treated as a noun (instead of "barked at me," we have, "I met a bark").  In fact, one can be "dogged" by someone or something, and "bark" can be a noun (as in tree bark).  This kind of verbal play may gently protest the multiple uses of words, which may make a language all the more difficult to learn:

As I walked down to the wayrail station, I met a bark and it dogged at me. 

(Widdowson 143)


Three examples of antithesis are:


One bright morning in the middle of the night ...

(Widdowson 147) 

Finders, keepers, losers, weepers.

Ladies and jellyspoons, I come before you to stand behind you, to tell you everything about a subject I know nothing about. 

(Beresin 2002)


As mentioned above, much verbal play involves uses of repetition.  In one type of such play, the end word of one line is used as the initial word of the following line:

In the street there was a house,
In the house there was a room,
In the room there was a box...


Question-and-answer rhymes may teach about categories.  The following example juxtaposes objects with love (or, perhaps, the promise of equality and respect).  In this song-dance, a line of suitors repeatedly advances as an offer is made, and withdraws as the offer is rejected:

We will give you pots.
We won't take your brass.
We will give you anything for a pretty lass.

Finally, the suitor offers his heart, and the young lady accepts (Opie 114).

A similar progression from object (or location) to person occurs in the following two jumprope rhymes:

Shake it to the east,
Shake it to the west,
Shake it to the very one 
That you love the best. 

(Abrahams, 1963a, p. 7)

I like coffee, and I like tea,
I like Chuckie to jump with me.
And a one, two, three, and a out    (Abrahams, 1963a, p. 8)

Verbal play may present a range of choices, and may build up and widen the child's repertoire of potential future responses.  The following two stanzas provide practice in giving possible responses (complete with seemingly random elements of everyday life, and nonsense syllables):

Acka-backa, soda cracker.
Does your father chew tobacco? Yes.  No.  Maybe so.                     (Abrahams, 1963a, p. 11)


Won't you marry me?
Salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper.
Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, yes.              

(Opie 147)


In a transformation rhyme, game, or song-dance, the material may first be presented in question form, and then in answer form:

Where are my roses, where are my violets, and where is my fine parsley? 
Here are your roses, here are your violets, and here is your fine parsley.                                         

(Opie 279) 



Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? 
Number two stole the cookie from the cookie jar. 
Who me?   

(Opie 448)


In play, all things can be connected -- one is not limited by logic and rationality.  Using repetitious phonetic and metrical forms can unify the material: that is, rhyme and rhythm can psychologically hold the juxtapositions together.  Much verbal play juxtaposes the fantastic and the mundane, the distant and the immediate:

Sally go round the sun,

Sally go round the moon, 
Sally go round the chimney pots,

on a Sunday afternoon. 

(Opie 398)


Johnny on the ocean.
Johnny on the sea.
Johnny broke a cup,
And blamed it all on me.
I told Mama,
Mama told Papa,
And Johnny got ha-ha-ha.  (Abrahams, 1963a, p. 13)

The personal and the social, the private and the public, are often mixed in child_s play, sometimes in a surreal fashion.  Bodily fluids -- a most personal, and at times, embarrassing subject -- are often included.  To even mention certain private and public matters in the same sentence can be seen as disrespectful and subversive of the public element:

Ladies and gentlemen,
To tell you the facts,
I lost my britches
On the railroad tracks.
They flew so high
Into the sky
They didn't come back
Till the Fourth of July. 

(Abrahams, 1963b, p. 207)


I see London, I see France,
I see someone's underpants.
Are they purple, are they pink?
Oh, my goodness, how they stink! 

(Abrahams, 1963b, p. 206)


In verbal play, topics can be raised that might be difficult to bring up in conversation, such as sexuality. 

I have an ancient auntie,

her name is Josephine,
And when she goes out walking,

I have to say, ha ha.
She has swinging hips,

hips swinging so,
And when her hips are swinging,

her hips are swinging so. 

(Opie 310)

When practicing traditional play, a distancing disclaimer can be called upon, which in effect, says, "I was just playing, just kidding, I didn't really mean it, plus, I didn't make this up, someone else did."

Accumulation songs test, challenge, and stretch the child's memory abilities.  They may also acquaint the child with logical progressions and methods of problem-solving, and may illustrate how one thing leads to another, and how each act has a consequence.  This involves the concept of causality -- this causes that, this comes from that -- which is one of the principles of life that the child must absorb.  Each culture approaches such things in its own unique fashion.  Such play may stimulate children to think things through: if such-and-such happens, what might happen as a result?: 

Mother, mother, have you heard?
Daddy's gonna buy me a mockingbird.
If that mockingbird don't sing,
Daddy's gonna buy me a diamond ring.
If that diamond ring turns brass,
Daddy's gonna buy me a looking glass.
If that looking glass gets broke,
Daddy's gonna buy me a billy goat ...
(Abrahams, 1963b, p. 208)


There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza,
There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.
Well, fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Well, fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, well, fix it.
With what shall I fix it? _
With a straw, dear Henry _
A straw is too long _
Well, cut it, dear Henry _
(Abrahams 1962, p. 194)


Embodied in child's play are some of the manners and customs which are constantly being enacted around them, including domestic quarrels, negotiations, and reconciliations:

Why do you hate me, hate me, hate me?
Why do you hate me, far across the sea?

Because you stole my necklace, my necklace, my necklace,
Because you stole my necklace, far across the sea. 

Here is your necklace ... 


(Opie 308)


Will you get up? 

What will you give me to get up?

I will give you ...


Will you go home?

What will you give me to go home?
I will give you ... 

(Opie 261)

Verbal play gives children practice in being in many of the positions one may experience in the course of life: this helps them learn to see things from multiple perspectives.  Song-dances can provide systematic and methodical listing of options and combinations of behaviors, attitudes, actions, and their consequences, one by one.  Options are selected, named, identified, and enumerated, one by one. 


In songs in which a mother describes her daughters (perhaps to a possible groom), first there may be a question -- what can she do?  The answer might involve listing the attributes, talents, and abilities of her daughters: one can brew, one can sew, one can spin.  Such songs present an orderly exposition of domestic skills.  Sometimes, one skill is given for each day of the week.  Some song-dances list and enact people of various social classes or professions, that is, the range of characters and roles in the community:

When Suzie was a baby, a baby, a baby,
She went ohh, ahh, ahh.  (With corresponding physical action.)  (Opie 459) 


When I was a gentleman, and a gentleman was I,
A this-a-way, and a-this-a-way, and a-this-a-way went I.  (With corresponding physical action.)  (Opie 296)


My mother is a baker, and she bakes like this.  (With corresponding physical action.)

My brother is a cowboy, and he goes like this.  (With corresponding physical action.) 

(Opie 476)

Movements may include the folding of arms, and rocking to indicate having babies; and the bending of knees to indicate being old. 

An interactional routine (a conversation between two characters) may be added:

After singing, "when i was a butcher," they bowed to the adjacent player and said, 
"any pork (mutton, beef ... ) today, ma'am?"

After singing, "when I was a baker," they bowed to the adjacent player and said, 
"any bread (cakes, flour ... ) today, ma'am" (Opie 296)

In one song-dance, players imitate a person sowing seeds, then pause, clap hands, and do a pirouette (Opie 170).  Such imitations of acts of agriculture may contain relics of rituals, and may include rhythmic utterances which were once magical incantations.  Rituals are sometimes conceived of as causing or enabling nature to move forward; and in many traditional cultures, people play and sing through the night to expedite the passing of a deceased one's spirit.

Ballads also are sometimes recycled as children's song-dances:

Jenny is a-weeping, a-weeping, a-weeping,
Jenny is a-weeping on a summer's day.
Why are you weeping ...
I'm weeping for a loved one ...
Stand up and choose your loved one ...  (Opie 325)


Play helps children learn ways to cope with failure and loss, including physical trauma.  By giving them the chance to experience such things in play, play can help can prepare children for the possible (or inevitable) actual occurrence of traumas, including the building up and breaking down of the body.  One way that psychological preparation may be effected is by placing the loss in a larger context.  In the following case, the larger context is a resurrection ("Now we're all made whole again"), which may refer to a specific religious belief, or to a general mystical sense: 

Now we've only got one arm, 
Now we've only got one leg, 
Now we've only got one eye,
Now we must drop dead,
Now we're all made whole again. 

(Opie 283)


Events in the life-cycle may be presented, together the enactment of physical actions, and the expression of feelings, one might experience in the course of life:

Mary went to school, school, school.
Mary went to school, and this is what she said, 
"I write, I write, I write, I write, I write."
[With corresponding physical action.]

Mary left school, school, school.
Mary left school, and this is what she said,
"Hoo-ray, hoo-ray, hoo-ray, hoo-ray, hoo-ray."
[With corresponding physical action.]

Mary got engaged, engaged, engaged.
Mary got engaged, and this is what she said,
"A ring, a ring, a ring, a ring, a ring."
[With corresponding physical action.] 

(Opie 302)


Solomon Grundy,
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Sick on Thursday,
Worse on Friday, 
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
And that was the end 
Of Solomon Grundy.
(Abrahams 1963b, p. 211) 



There are many similarities between the techniques, methods, and forms that occur in children's verbal play, and those that occur in adult verbal arts.  Repetition with variation, on all levels, is paramount in both cases.  And just as in children's verbal arts, many poetic sentences revise the normal rules of grammar, which may make them seem strange to the listener.  Heightened and stylized forms of speech, and play languages, are cultural treasures, and should be preserved, revived, and played with accordingly. 

Milman Parry and Albert Lord's oral-formulaic theory of composition, Vladimir Propp's structural theory of narrative, and Noam Chomsky's theory of a grammar-generating mechanism argue that, respectively, in the production of chanted epic, of narrative in general, and of language in general, there is formulaic manipulation of conventional units of discourse (Abrahams).  Social play is built on shared resources.  A play-based language learning system could methodically utilize such formulas and resources, using innumerable old and new substitution, accumulation, transformation, and other kinds of verbal games and drills.

The audiolingual approach method of teaching language is based on Skinner's behaviorist theory of learning.  It emphasizes the formation of habits through the practice, memorization, and repetition of grammatical structures, in isolation from each other and from contexts of meaningful use.  However, using forms and formulas developed by a culture's children's verbal play, such structures could be combined and related to one another.  And, through the use of interactive routines of children_s song-dances -- modified for use by adults, and for people of other communities -- such exercises could be placed in the context of the general culture of the language being studied.  Moreover, much of children_s verbal play, especially the song-dances that involve interactional routines, have an emotional wellspring that gets participants involved on an emotional level, with the characters, the actions, and the other players.  This involvement is caused by the players' identification with the play characters and situations, and by the relationships the players have with each other as they are embodying the various roles.

A language teacher must very carefully look for the right moment to create increased awareness on the part of the learner -- ideally at times when the learner is already concentrating on the matter at hand, and is motivated to say something  as clearly and correctly as possible.  If the teacher attempts to teach things which are too far away from the learner's current stage of development, the teaching and learning effort will usually be frustrating.  For learning to be successful, the material which is taught must be appropriate to the learner's stage of development.  New material must be within the reach, grasp of the learner. 

"For every researcher who holds that there are maturational constraints on language acquisition, there is another who considers that the age factor cannot be separated from factors such as motivation, social identity, and the conditions for learning.  Adults rarely get access to the same quantity and quality of language input that children receive in play settings" (Lightbrown and Spada 49).  Experiments in which adults do get access to this quantity and quality of language input are most certainly called for! 

Works cited

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