Top 10 fingerplay songs for EFL ESL young learners in page image

Short fingerplay songs and chants are known to benefit a child’s development in a number of important ways. These include developing motor skills, pre-literacy skills, number concepts, position concepts, and social/emotional skills, among many others. They are also extremely useful for building language and vocabulary, and for supporting good classroom management.

This article will highlight the top 10 fingerplays that I find useful and engaging in my classes. I’ll also describe helpful ways to adapt each song and chant to promote language acquisition, especially for the EFL / ESL classroom.

1. Finger counting - 1 to 10 & 1 to 20

This first one isn’t actually a chant or song, BUT it’s a really great one to do to get every child’s attention and prepare the children for an upcoming song or story.

  1. Raise your hands above your head and wiggle your fingers. Slowly lower them down in front of you, as if they are raining. Encourage the children to copy you.
  2. Touch your two little fingers together and count, ‘ONE’. Keep your little fingers touching, while you touch your ring fingers together and count, ‘TWO’. Continue, this time with your middle fingers, ‘THREE’; index fingers, ‘FOUR’; thumbs, ‘FIVE’. Now, all your fingers are touching.
  3. Next, count as you separate your fingers in reverse. Separate your thumbs, ‘SIX’; index fingers, ‘SEVEN’; middle fingers, ‘EIGHT’; ring fingers, ‘NINE’; little fingers, ‘TEN’. Now your hands are open, palms up.

I usually, like to have everybody give each other a clap at this point. You can also do step 3 in the opposite order, i.e, separate your fingers from the bottom up – a little bit more tricky!

For children aged 4/5 and up, I continue on up to 20. Simply, repeat the same actions.

2. Two little blackbirds

Two little black birds usually gets a lot of giggles. You can use it to introduce and practise different adjectives.

While the adjectives can be understood easily from the actions, some of the rhyming vocabulary isn’t. In this case, I do one of 4 things:

1. Add in another action to demonstrate that item, e.g., driving to indicate ‘car’.

2. Point to a picture of the item in the room, e.g., ‘tree’.

3. Say the word in L1 and then again in English, e.g., ‘in a tree’, ‘en un árbol’, ‘in a tree’.

4. Don’t worry about it and move on! If it’s not a word you’re worried about the kids learning, and the children are joining in, perhaps there’s no need to labour it.

There are some really great ideas for verses from Jbrary. Here are a few others:

  • STICK – slow and quick
  • DAD – happy and sad
  • BRICK – healthy and sick
  • CHEEK/CREEK – strong and weak
  • GRASS – slow and fast

3. One from the left

I love this one, because you can add in more counting, and some other common exchanges and actions. You can even elicit some ideas from the kids too, once they have got used to the song.

The original song follows this order:

  1. One from the left – One from the right
  2. They met in the middle – And they danced all night
  3. They made up a dance called ‘Whoop dee doo’
  4. They waved goodbye
  5. They walked away – those two

The changes I usually make to this song are simple:

  • I put the verbs into the present tense: met to meet, made to make etc. 
  • After step 5 (‘those two’), I count the fingers. I bend each finger, as we count them.
  • Again, at step 5 (‘they walk away’), I add different actions. Quite often the children tell me actions they want to do. For example, run, fly, jump, swim etc.
  • Add in some different exchanges and actions. So, instead of simply waving goodbye, they can hug, kiss, ask how are you, say ‘I’m hungry’, say ‘see you later’. Whatever your imagination or the children’s imaginations come up with! Just be careful not to add in too much with each round, so you don’t lose the momentum of the chant.

4. Five little monkeys

This is always a popular one with my groups. I adapt it a little from the version shown in this video. I promise to post a video of my version soon. For now, here’s a description of how I do it:

Five little monkeys sitting in a tree.

Hold up left hand with five fingers. Run right hand down forearm to indicate the tree. Sometimes, I say the word for ‘tree’ in L1, or point to a picture of a tree.

One hungry crocodile, looking for his tea.

Hold up right hand in a pincer grip, like a mouth. Move it around, like it’s looking.

“I’m hungry!”

Make the crocodile’s mouth speak, and use a deep ‘crocodile’ voice.


Move the crocodile (right hand) towards the five monkeys. On the 3rd ‘SNAP’, grab one of your five fingers and fold it down.

Four little monkeys sitting in a tree….

Continue as before, each time ‘eating’ a monkey, until there are no monkeys left.

If the idea of the lack of a happy ending bothers you, you can always do something silly to create one. The crocodile could burp them up again!

5. Five little ducks

I normally, introduce this one when I tell the Nine Ducks Nine story, but then we come back to it in subsequent classes. I like that it has a clear narrative, and it’s easy to do  actions that help make the story clear. If they have seen an animated video first, even better. I do the song very much like in this video from Super Simple. One thing I do differently is that I use one hand for Mother duck, and my other hand for the baby ducks. Every time the song gets to ‘Far Away’, I hide the baby ducks behind my back. Every time Mother Duck says, ‘Quack, quack, quack’, I bring the fingers out from behind my back.

6. The gate swings open

This chant has a fun narrative of animals escaping. You can get the kids to suggest different animals to you. Vary your actions, so that you exagerrate, depending on the size of the animals. I also think it’s nice to include animal noises (see the second video for how the demonstrators do this).

I would recommend showing kids flashcards or pictures of key elements in this narrative, to help them understand and engage with it better. The main elements are: a gate, an apple tree, home.

The chant narrative goes like this:

The gate swings open and the (chickens) run free.

They climb the branches of the apple tree.

They fall asleep from the apples they ate.

So carry them home and shut the gate.

Repeat the chant for as many animals as you and the kids like!

7. Incy Winsy Spider

This classic fingerplay song has a few different names: Itsy Bitsy Spider, Eensy Weensy, Incy Winsy.

This is a really good song for helping kids focus on coordinating their finger movements. It’s also a good one for adapting to tell in different ways: with a big voice; a small voice; a happy voice; a sad voice etc.

This demonstration from Super Simple Songs, is really useful for showing you how you can introduce the song to EFL/ESL kids. It’s helpful to show kids images of a spider, water spout and the sun, so that they understand the concept of the song.

8. Ten little friends

This is a reworking of the rather questionable, ‘Ten Little Indians’ song. It’s a really simple counting song, that doesn’t include a lot of extra language.

The last line: “Ten little friends are saying hello” can be adapted to lots of other actions. Some ideas are:

  • jumping
  • dancing
  • cutting
  • wiggling
  • waving
  • typing
  • touching (your head / your shoulders / something red, etc.)

9. Where is Thumbkin?

This song is really helpful for working on those fine motor skills. It’s also a good one for teaching, ‘How are you?’ This one is popular with my 3 and 4 year old. I think they like the hiding and revealing element of it, and they enjoy the challenge of manipulating their fingers. It’s not easy for little hands!

I adapt this version a little bit: Instead of saying ‘How are you today, sir?’, I say, ‘How are you this morning/afternoon?’

It’s also easy to change the names of the fingers. In the original they are Thumbkin, Pointer, Tallman, Ringman and Pinkie. You can change these to family words, i.e., Daddy, Mummy, Brother, Sister, Baby. If you have been working on animals, they could be animals. Equally, they could be different foods or colours. 

10. Here is the beehive

This fingerplay song is good for practising counting to 5, common adjectives and it can help children learn some useful chunks of language, such as, ‘Where are..?’; ‘no one sees’; ‘hiding away’; ‘Here they come’. I like this version by Super Simple Songs with an extra verse because it includes more vocabulary and more possibilities for the children to manipulate their hands and fingers.

Here is the beehive, 

But where are all the bees?

Hiding away, where no one sees.

Here they come, flying out of their hive,

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5

Buzz up high, buzz down low,

Buzzing fast, buzzing slow,

Buzz to the left, buzz to the right.

Buzz all day, but sleep all night.

Repeat main verse

Watch to the end of this video for great tips on ways you can extend the song to include counting beyond 5, warmer activities and possibly follow-up activities.

There are other fingerplay songs I like a lot too. They just haven’t made it into my top ten! These include:

  • Hickory Dickory Dock
  • Rain, Rain, Go Away!
  • Rock, Scissors Paper
  • Teddy bear, Teddy bear

We also really like One Little Finger and Open, Shut them. We talk about them in our article on Easy to Adapt Action Songs.

You can find a lot of other fingerplay songs and alternative videos on our Fingerplay songs page.

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