Italian Language Blog

Traditional children’s games Posted by on Jul 9, 2009 in Culture

Here in Italy the schools are closed for the summer holidays, and children are at home playing. A few days ago I saw a small group of bambini (young children) aged around 2 to 8 playing an old traditional playground game: Il Girotondo (the equivalent of Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses). I felt a touch of nostalgia as many happy memories came back to me, and at the same time I was pleased to see that in this era of electronic virtual entertainment kids are still playing these traditional playground games which have been passed down for generations. I felt inspired to write about some of my old childhood favorites, and decided to do a bit of research on the Internet to try and find out about their history and origins, but I couldn’t find anything definitive. One interesting fact that did emerge however is that these games are all part of a very old oral tradition, and are common all over Italy. The same games can be found from Friuli Venezia Giulia in the very north down to Sicilia in the south, with a few minor variations and spelling adaptations.

In keeping with tradition I would like to pass on to you three of my giochi preferiti (favorite games). The first is the aforementioned Il Girotondo, in which the children make a ring by holding hands and walking in a circle while chanting this short rhyme, at the end of which they throw themselves down onto the ground with great hilarity.

Giro girotondo

Casca il mondo

Casca la Terra

Tutti giu’ per terra!

Turn round and round / the world falls down / the Earth falls down / everybody down on the ground!


La bella lavanderina

This is another popular “ring-a-ring-a-roses” type game, but the attraction of this one is that it gives the children the possibility to express their acting abilities! In this game, while the children fanno il girotondo (make a ring) and sing the nursery rhyme, one child is chosen to be la lavanderina (the little washerwoman), and stands in the center of the ring acting out the ‘script’ of the rhyme. When the rhyme is finished the bambino or bambina chooses another child from the ring and they swap places.

La bella lavanderina

che lava i fazzoletti

per i poveretti

della citta’

fai un salto

fanne un altro

fai la giravolta

falla un’altra volta

guarda in su

guarda in giu’

dai un bacio a chi vuoi tu!

The pretty little washerwoman / who washes the handkerchiefs / for the poor people / of the town / make a jump / make another one / twirl around / do it again / look up / look down / give a kiss to whom you want!


Quante belle figlie, Madama Dore’

You will recognize the tune from this very old game if you listen to Ottorino Respighi’s Pini di Villa Borghese (Pines of Villa Borghese), which is the first scene of his evocative symphonic poem Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome). In this descriptive scene the composer wanted to represent children playing in the park of Villa Borghese. The game itself can be played in different ways and has many variations in the text. I’m going to describe the one I used to play as a child. The children create two rows facing each other, each row has their arms interlocked. One row is the king’s party, and the other one is Madama Dore’s party, and they each take it in turns to sing a line of the rhyme. The king’s party begins, followed by Madama Dore’s, as if they are having a conversation. The row that is singing steps forward and backward as they sing. At the end of the song the king’s party chooses the most beautiful daughter from Madama Dore’s party. This is repeated until all the children from Madama Dore’s row have been chosen except one, who is Madama Dore’ herself. To illustrate how the ‘conversation’ works I have highlighted the king’s party in maroon and Madama Dore’s in green:

– Oh quante belle figlie, Madama Doré,
oh quante belle figlie.

Oh, how many beautiful daughters, Madame Dore’, how many beautiful daughters. / They are beautiful and I keep them for myself, King’s Squire, they are beautiful and I keep them for myself. / The King would like one of them, Madame Dore’, the King would like one of them. / What does he want to do with her, King’s Squire, what does he want to do with her? / He wants to give her a husband, Madame Dore’, he wants to give her a husband. / Whom would he marry her to, King’s Squire, whom would he marry her to? / To the Prince of Spain, Madame Dore’, to the Prince of Spain. / And how would he dress her, King’s Squire, how would he dress her? / He would dress her with roses and violets, Madame Dore’, he would dress her with roses and violets. / Take the most beautiful one, King’s Squire, take the most beautiful one.

– Son belle e me le tengo, Scudiero del re,
son belle e me le tengo.

– Il re ne vorrebbe una, Madama Doré,
il re ne vorrebbe una.

– Che cosa ne vuol fare, Scudiero del re,
che cosa ne vuol fare ?

– La vuole maritare, Madama Doré,
la vuole maritare.

– Con chi la mariterebbe, Scudiero del re,
con chi la mariterebbe?

– Col principe di Spagna, Madama Doré,
col principe di Spagna.

– E come la vestirebbe, Scudiero del re,
e come la vestirebbe?

– Di rose e di viole, Madama Doré,
di rose e di viole.

– Prendete la più bella, Scudiero del re,
prendete la più bella.



As children, when we used to play this game we often ‘modernized’ it by substituting the ‘Prince of Spain’ with famous actors and singers who were popular at that time.

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  1. Joan Engelhaupt:

    Hi, Serena!

    First, thank you so much for your wonderful blog!

    Regarding children’s games, you commented you didn’t know the origin of them. For what it is worth, I have heard that our version of Girotondo, Ring-Around-the-Rosie, dates back to the Plague or Black Death. Hence the “Ashes, ashes, all fall down”. Perhaps “casca il mondo, casca la terra, tutti giu per terra” refers to the same dolorous social catastrophe.

  2. Nathan:

    Great post Serena!

    My parents bought our son a stuffed bear named Giovanni for his first birthday that says a few phrases in Italian and sings both “Il Girotondo” and “La Bella Lavanderina”. Great to learn that these are really sung by Italian kids!

  3. Kavita (Poesia):

    I’m from India,visiting my daughter in Milan. In the Piazza San Lorenzo we were delighted to see people playing giant chess on the ground, yesterday, Friday evening. We wondered as we passed what tables & chairs were laid out for in rows. Later we saw families & friends, young & old having a good time playing some sort of board games. Very civilized & heart-warming. Think I’ve read of people playing in public squares in Indian kingdoms of yore as well as in Rome. The place was buzzing late into the night.
    I thought of your piece on the autostrade as we drove to Lugano last week; saw the electronic toll-paying device.
    I enjoy & learn so much from your blog, Serena, a big ‘Thank you!’

  4. cinzia:

    Serena, your last game reminded me of “Regina, Reginella”? Are you familiar with it?
    “Regina, reginella, quanti passi devo fare per arrivare al tuo castello?”
    My queen, my queen, how many steps must I take to arrive at your castle?
    La regina risponde: “Devi fare ………………. (numero) passi da ………………. (animale)!”.
    The queen answers: You must take ……… (number) steps like a ………..…..(animal) walks!

    Gli animali:
    – un elefante
    – un canguro (kahn-goo-row) kangaroo
    – un leone (leh-oh-neh) lion
    – una tigre (tee-greh) tiger
    – farfalla (fahr-fah-lah) butterfly
    – una mucca etc…

  5. Serena:

    Salve Joan, Thanks for your comment. My husband is a bit of an expert on nursery rhymes and children’s games having been a primary school teacher in England for 15 years! He told me all about the supposed origins of Ring-a-roses and the theory that it refers to the plague. Incidentally, the version he knows ends with ‘atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down’. I decided to do a bit of research on the internet again, only this time starting with Ring-a-ring-a-roses instead of Giro giro tondo, and it seems that they are basically the same song. However there is some doubt about the plague theory for various reasons. You might like to read this page, it’s very interesting:'_Roses

    Alla prossima, Serena

  6. Serena:

    Salve Cinzia, your game “Regina Reginella” sounds vaguely familiar, but I’ve never played it. It seems good fun.

  7. Serena:

    Salve Kavita, Grazie per i complimenti. I agree that it’s very civilized to be able to play in the squares, children and adults alike. It would be great if there were less cars in the town centers.

  8. Serena:

    Salve Nathan, I didn’t know that they make stuffed bears that play these songs, but I’m very pleased about it. Yes, they are real old folk children’s songs.

  9. John:

    “Regina Reginella” sounds like the English/American game “Mother, May I”.

  10. Cezary:


    In Poland we also played this game! I didn’t ever know what it is about, but I everyone had enjoyed I suppose 😀

    However the melody is different in last three lines.

    Original Polish text:
    “kółko graniaste,
    kółko nam się połamało,
    cztery grosze kosztowało,
    a my wszyscy bęc !”

    Translation (mine, with little help of as word ‘graniaste’ isn’t used litterally anywhere but in this song!!!):

    “Angular circle,
    Four-sided [sic!],
    The circle got broken,
    it had costed 4 grosze [cents],
    and we all boom [the sound of falling]”

    I have no idea who came with idea of such strange lyrics!!

  11. alber rabasca:

    I am trying to find the words to a rhyme my father and grandfather used to play with me (i’m 56) Phonectically it sounded like “Bong oning cola sa bella sa bolla . . . they would drum on my back and at the end of the rhyme they would put a certain number of fingers on my back and I would have to guess ho many.

  12. Serena:

    Salve Albert, I loved this game! My mother used to play it with us, but she used a different rhyme. The one I know is: “Mazzabubù, quante dita ci son quassù?” (Mazzabubù, how many fingers are up here?). I had to guess the number of fingers. If the guess was correct we would swap places, if the guess was wrong (for example, I said 3 instead of 4), my mother would chant: “Se dicevi 4, non penavi tanto. Mazzabubù, quante dita ci son quassù?” (If you had said 4, you wouldn’t suffer so much. Mazzabubù, how many fingers are up here?), and so on …

    Auguri di Buon Anno, Serena

  13. Jaques of London:


    What a wonderful Blog. we have really enjoyed reading this post – we love traditional Games!



  14. Rebecca:

    Hello, I was wondering if you could lend a hand:
    When I was younger I used to go to drama classes and as a warm up we used to chant an italian rhyme – the only words I remember are “la sorella” and phonetically “la quanta tula bella” or something to that effect! I believe it was about waking up in the morning and finding that you had turned into a monster/witch of some sort.
    Please help if you can!
    Thanks, Rebecca

  15. Rebecca:

    I just remembered a line!
    “Coballa madre coballa padre coballa filla ella sorella”
    Or something – I believe some of these words do not even exist!
    Anyone know it?

    • serena:

      @Rebecca Sorry Rebecca, I don’t know that particular’ filastrocca’ (nursery rhyme), mi dispiace.


  16. Rita Kostopoulos:

    Grazie per I ricordini della mia fanciulleza. Ho fatto molti passi indietro ritrovandomi all’asilo con le buone suore del mio paesetto in Calabria Mi sentlo di avere 5 anni.
    A presto,

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