Is technology killing children’s play culture, or breathing new life into it?

Just before Christmas, I was helping out at an after-school play session in a community centre in Tower Hamlets in East London. Eight-year-old Jane arrived, took a plastic mug from the kitchen, sat down at a table near me, and started clapping her hands and the table, and tapping and flipping the cup, in a repetitive, rhythmic routine.

Cup on a table in front of a boy

Readers will at this point either be scratching their heads – like I was – or sighing and saying to themselves ‘oh, he’s talking about the Cups Game’. Or the Cups Beat. Or the Cups Song. Or that bit in the Hollywood film Pitch Perfect where the Anna Kendrick character auditions for a singing group by performing a bluesy, folksy song accompanied only by a plastic beaker.

Anyway, back at the play session, I asked Jane what she was doing. With help from my smartphone and YouTube, she quickly brought me up-to-speed on the Cups phenomenon.

That evening I told my teenage daughter what had happened. She couldn't believe I had not come across the routine, saying “dad, everyone knows about the Cups Song.” She also said that of course she knew the moves. So she helped me perfect the routine. As a result of which I learnt the following:

  • It is not that easy. Just to master the cup moves needs good fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and a sense of rhythm. It took me at least 30 minutes of focused practice (though I dare say many children would be faster). Singing along to your own routine is harder, as the melody is off-beat. I couldn’t crack it, though my daughter did after another hour or so of practice.
  • It is fun. Mastery gives a real sense of satisfaction (try it!) and once you have got it, the routine has an addictive quality that may leave you seeking out suitably sized objects in cafés and bars.

I thought it was unlikely that Anna Kendrick had invented the routine out of nowhere. Wikipedia took me to a Washington Post story from last summer that only added to my sense of being way behind the curve.

But some questions remained. How popular is the game? Who plays it, and how far has it spread? How accurate is the Washington Post version of its history? I turned to the ‘childlore’ academic listserv, and found out the following:

  • According to this online account, the cup routine goes back to at least 1987 (in the 1990s it was a common activity amongst American summer camp groups). The song (as performed by Kendrick) goes back even further, to the 1920s if not before.
  • While Pitch Perfect was the key to the routine’s global spread, the process had been unfolding for several years before the film’s 2012 release. Several instructional videos had been uploaded to YouTube by early 2008.

  • By 2011-2012, some online versions had become so popular (notably one by Indiana teenager Anna Burden) that Kendrick picked up on the song and made the case for its inclusion in the movie.
  • In its current form, the game has spread literally around the world (I heard recent reports from Sheffield and Bradford, and also from Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand) and has been reworked in hundreds of forms (as a quick YouTube search will confirm).
  • The game has proved popular in secondary/high schools as well as primary/elementary schools – an intriguing finding, as historically clapping and rhyming games were very much the pursuit of younger school children.
  • The game appears to be more popular with girls than boys (like a lot of clapping and rhyming games). However, boys are familiar with it too. To quote Australian researcher Athena Lill (whose PhD is exploring the topic) “the boys all know it - they just don't play it openly… common amongst the boys was a desire to subvert the game by retaining the rhythm but adding in different body percussion instead of using a cup.”

What is also intriguing is how, despite its global popularity, the game has been so invisible to so many grown-ups. Just two days after I first came across it, I heard presenters on the popular BBC Radio 4 programme Saturday Live, mourning the death of children’s culture of playground games, songs and rhymes, and blaming this in part on screens and digital technology.

How wrong could they be? The story of Cups shows that children’s culture is alive and well - and perhaps in better shape than I thought when I wrote this post on traditional games a couple of years ago. (Peter and Iona Opie, the world's pre-eminent scholars of children's folklore, would not have been at all surprised at this.)

What is more new media and digital technology, far from threatening its extinction, are now integral to its evolution, as Steve Roud notes in The Lore of the Playground (his 2011 Opies-inspired compendium). As Prof Kathryn Marsh of the University of Sydney Conservatorium of Music told me: “children use the media as a source of inspiration, rather than having it dampen their enthusiasm for play.”

As I write, I suspect that the Cups Game is already fading from the world's playgrounds. I wonder what the next expression of children's culture will be. And I wonder if the adults around them will notice.

Update 18 Feb 2014: the game is also sweeping France, according to a January 2014 article in the French language Huffington Post
(hat-tip to Andy Arleo).

Notes and acknowledgements

Children’s names have been altered. Thanks to Julia Bishop, Steve Roud, Prof Kathryn Marsh, Athena Lill, Mavis Curtis, Gareth Whitaker, Anna Beresin and Janice Ackerley from the Childlore listserv for their comments, pointers and anecdotes. Thanks too to Play Association Tower Hamlets for letting me volunteer at some of their play sessions.

19 responses to “Is technology killing children’s play culture, or breathing new life into it?

  1. I always thought first people that did this were Lulu and the Lampshades – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWCOYJg9ps4, I’ll get Pitch Perfect out now.

    Agreed this is great phenomenon! And hard to do. My nieces did versions making a junk orchestra, and were all suitably impressed by the tap version – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4FYNF02yEM

    • Hi Cath – your comment got lost by WordPress. Yes Lulu & friend were part of the story (I think they first brought song and routine together) – but the articles I read suggested it was Anna Burden’s version that went viral and got picked up by Anna Kendrick. So many great versions and mutations online now.

  2. It’s hard to determine because it depends on the child.

  3. Also my nephews and a number of other 8-16 year olds I’ve spoken with (v anecdotal!) regularly talk about incorporating video games into their play in the playground – World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Assassins Creed etc. are the new Blake’s Seven and Zoro.
    From the internet you can also find amazing recipes for more types of playdough than I would have thought possible, teach yourself to slackline and use crampons, do complicated climbing moves, play games new and old and learn to knit.

    The Hole in The Wall Project (http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/) is phenomenal, and a perfect example of how the internet levels the playing field of academia across class, language and cultural divides.
    But that doesn’t make up for fact that the majority of children are sitting at those screens for so very, very long, day in day out. The internet is amazing. So is apple juice. You don’t let your child drink three litres of juice, and similarly internet use in normal households – it is so very, very addictive – does at least arguably need to be moderated.

  4. Reblogged this on The Register of Playwork Professionals and commented:
    A highly interesting blog. We’d love to know your thoughts on technology and play

  5. Thanks for the comments so far. Cath, you are right of course that we should be worried about children whose use of screens squeezes out everything else. But I also worry that simplistic calls for ‘screen bans’ and the demonisation of technology are unhelpful responses. If we underestimate the richness of children’s engagement with technology, we do them a disservice – and we may also miss out on ways to expand their horizons.

  6. Another excellent, well -researched piece, Tim.

    Can I just say:

    Playworkers notice, Tim.

    More than anyone else who works with children, more even than mum or dad or teacher, I humbly contend.

    The good playworkers do anyway; if not all of them, the poor benighted creatures that they are, so often victims of cuts, poor training, uncaring local authorities and so on.

    And what better guides for you, as you roll up your sleeves and do some voluntary worker as a playwork helper, than my lovely chums at PATH (Play Association Tower Hamlets)?

    There is a huge gulf, and it is widening, between what is written about playwork and the lived experience of playwork on the ground.

    Things aren’t improving either, in this ‘age of precarity’ or as some insist, ‘age of austerity’. Lucky are the few playworkers who have any ‘job security’, much less a pension.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precarity

    I look forward to more of your excellent and insightful writings, Tim, especially in the field of playwork.

    Shameless plug – I’m running the ‘Ludic Salon’ for playworkers, and also two workshops, at the excellent National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne on the 4th and 5th of March, if any readers would be interested.

    One of the workshops will revisit two classic publications: ‘Best Play’ (which I believe a certain T.Gill was involved in), and ‘Making Sense – playwork in practice’.

    http://www.playworkconferences.org.uk/

  7. Our eight-year-old grandson was on holiday with his cousins. We rang him on his first mobile to see how he was getting on. “I’m having a lovely time thank you. But we’re playing hide and seek and you’ve just given me away!”

  8. This is a very interesting post. I’m seriously conflicted with children’s engagement in media but that’s not to say I don’t see it’s benefits. We too have mastered the cup song, not to mention the use of YouTube to help us with our tricks we do with string… Eiffel Tower… Cats whiskers… Jacobs ladder etc. However… I feel that important social interacts are lost. What would have once been a peer teaching a peer and all those skills of patience, listening skills, teaching skills etc are lost when children can hone into YouTube individually and come and go as their perseverance pleases… I’m still a sceptic! But then is this just the way of the future now that we will inevitably adapt to?!?!

  9. Thanks for this post, Tim!

    It is à big question for me and many of my friends: when and how the technology is good for children.

    Frist i thought that its good because i can show esthetic and smart educational apps. But then i saw that It works some other way – not about direct éducation (even though playful one) but about free play and opportunity to explore modern culture using tech devices.

    Now i just limit the time.

    My daughter also gave me a nice example:
    when weaned from iPad she and her friend constructed huge structure from paper and found objects and made play dough birds as an offline version of angry birds game.

  10. Arthur, Mick, lib817, Daria – thanks for the comments. Arthur – yes, good playworkers notice more, and their insights deserve wider appreciation. And yes, the Eastbourne conference is a great place to share and debate those insights (sadly I won’t be there this year). Nice anecdote, Mick! lib817 – you are right about the value of social interactions between children, and right to be worried about how much children today have those experiences. I’d echo Tim Hall above – it depends on the child. I reckon that peer learning is still going on for most children (though not all). Daria – good point that there are different ways that children can engage with technology, and that free play is one valuable way. that’s a nice anecdote too!

  11. Reblogged this on arthur battram| and commented:
    Hello readers,
    to quote myself in the comments on this blog by T.Gill that I am reblogging, and you’ll have to read the reblogged blog to better get my drift:

    “Playworkers notice [the richness, creativity and majesty of children's culture, that goes unnoticed most of the time].

    ”More than anyone else who works with children, more even than mum or dad or teacher, I humbly contend.

    “The good playworkers do anyway; if not all of them, the poor benighted creatures that they are, so often victims of cuts, poor training, uncaring local authorities and so on.

    ”And what better guides for you[Tim Gill], as you roll up your sleeves and do some voluntary worker as a playwork helper, than my lovely chums at PATH (Play Association Tower Hamlets)?

    “THERE IS A HUGE GULF,
    AND IT IS WIDENING,
    BETWEEN WHAT IS WRITTEN ABOUT PLAYWORK
    AND THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF PLAYWORK
    ON THE GROUND.

    ”Things aren’t improving either, in this ‘age of precarity’ or as some insist, ‘age of austerity’. Lucky are the few playworkers who have any ‘job security’, much less a pension.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precarity

    “I look forward to more of your excellent and insightful writings, Tim, especially in the field of playwork.

    ”Shameless plug – I’m running the ‘Ludic Salon’ for playworkers, and also two workshops, at the excellent National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne on the 4th and 5th of March, if any readers would be interested.

    “One of the workshops will revisit two classic publications: ‘Best Play’ (which I believe a certain T.Gill was involved in), and ‘Making Sense – playwork in practice’.

    [The other, a repeat of a groundbreaking session form last year, will look REFLECTIVE PRACTICE, through the lenses of storytelling, love, work, and play.]

    http://www.playworkconferences.org.uk/

  12. Hey Tim, Great article! I was just thinking about writing about the ‘cup song’ phenomenon since my son came back from school (all absorbed into this contagious craze). All of us at home has since caught on to it:)

    It is interesting though that many children picked it up from school, bring it home and have us (parents) scrambling on youtube to be ‘educated’ about it. I guess technology will always be part of us and being able to use it wisely is the key to balance in our life and that of our children.

  13. Have you seen the other skilled game involving cups; speed cup stacking? This was a craze at my children’s school a couple of years ago with a school club built around it. Both my daughters love doing the cup song and also now do it with just their hands on their laps in the car – it sounds fab….for the first hour!

  14. I love this article. I agree, that kids use of technology is far more complicated that the screen time vs green time debate that it usually seems to get stuck in. I’ve used a quote in my latest blog post http://www.andme-consulting.com/1/post/2014/02/weknow-what-kids-likeright-wrong.html.

  15. Pingback: Children’s lost imagination | El Pla Subtil

  16. When I was in Girl Scouts, we did a similar rhythmic song derived from Maori culture with two twelve-inch sticks. The song and stick routine could be done by oneself or with a partner, doing various acrobatic things with the sticks such as flipping and passing the sticks in the air or bouncing the sticks on the ground. At my camp we learned to do it in a circle passing sticks to right and left. Trying to throw sticks accurately across a large circle of girls usually resulted in dropped sticks and much hilarity (the stick had to be tossed in a vertical orientation so the catcher could catch it and slip seamlessly back into the routine.)! The tradition was that you found or made your own sticks or made them for a partner. Most girls found and decorated their own sticks from the woods with carving or painting and some were real works of art. I still have mine in a decorative cloth case I made up.

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