Clapping games

Clapping games have been a popular form of children’s parties for generations. Musical elements, such as melody, rhythm, meter and timbre, abound in children’s play. In some cases, these help to regulate the game but are secondary to its overall goal, such as the rhythmic chanting of counting out, or the song accompanying ball-bouncing or skipping.

In other cases, though, a musical performance is the aim of the game, such as a song and dance routine, or a hand-clapping game. It is this very performance aspect, with its accompanying physical, musical and verbal challenges, which makes such games appealing, and it seems that their popularity has been increasing from the mid-20th century on.

Clapping games are often played in pairs, although formations involving more players also take place. They are generally done on the spot, have a well-defined beginning and end, and emphasise rhythm, beat and coordination. The performers are very focused on their partners, striving to synchronise their movements with each other and with the song that accompanies the game.

‘A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea’ also illustrates the multimodal nature of clapping games, and the many ways in which they combine, for example, words, music, gesture, touch, and gaze.

In the UK ‘A Sailor Went to Sea’ is often one of the first games to be learnt. It can be clapped very simply using a ‘pat-a-cake’ style of clapping in which the thrice-repeated ‘sea, sea, sea’ coincides with three upright-handed claps with a partner (as in a ‘High 10’ gesture). Having mastered this, the challenge can be extended by replacing the patting with a gesture in which the hand taps three times against the player’s own forehead (in the manner of a salute).