“Five little green frogs swinging on a vine…” There is something irresistible about finger plays. Children love them and there are countless variations to be found. For young children, they reinforce rhythm, coordination, counting, and language. They are popular—both traditional ones lovingly taught through generations in families, and new ones created for fun and learning for home and classroom. Most reflect the time and culture they were created in, though their origins can become more obscure over the years. Though they can seem innocent on the surface, the ones with racist roots can still carry and evoke uncomfortable, painful feelings and racist messages. The Five Little Monkeys finger play variations are one such example: five little monkeys jumping on the bed, sitting in a tree, teasing Mr. Crocodile, etc. In the minstrel shows of the Deep South, the original had racist language that made them extremely offensive. In creating and singing healthy and respectful music for the healthy child, I believe we need to address those roots today. For more information about this issue, see Azizi Powell’s insightful blog post about Five Little Monkeys on pancocojams.blogspot.com.
I often used finger plays in my children’s music program, Sound Beginnings. I love the form. In the 1990’s I wrote two of my own and recorded them in 2000 on my first CD, “Make a Circle Like the Sun.” I wanted to use children’s familiarity with the format and combine it with a message of friendship and dealing with conflict. It started with children in my classes requesting “Little Bunny Foo Foo” which I really didn’t like. It was silly and fun to do but I thought there was too much emphasis on bopping on the head and the unsatisfying ending of turning into a goon. I like more redemptive messages. So I decided to write about a little rabbit who did bop other creatures on the head to deal with his own pain but in the end was befriended by a red bird who helped him understand and change. That was my “Little Rabbit and Red Bird.”
Children were always doing variations of five little monkeys finger plays, and without thinking too deeply about it, I decided to use the familiar form and make it about bullying. In my Five Little Monkeys, the little monkey who pushes and shoves learns how to share. In recent years as the conversation around the country has deepened around racist roots of some of these classic songs and chants, I realized that I needed to address the problems with mine. Though “Make a Circle Like the Sun” is no longer in print, it has been available to download, and now to stream, for many years. I’m not going to re-release the whole recording at this point but I would like to offer an alternative for Five Little Monkeys for those who like its anti-bullying message. I do think most of these problematic songs should just be dropped rather than rewritten and used. I also think each one needs to be decided on an individual basis. Finger plays based on five counting down to one or none abound. That format is universal, like the five fingers on our hand. I offer a different version of this finger play as one example of making a different choice, keeping the anti-bullying message and letting playful green frogs be the ones to tell it.