Behind the Anti-Video Game Exercise Song, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”

These days, there are fewer and fewer reasons for kids to go outside and play. What was once the norm—from hopscotch, baseball, football, and basketball to tag and running through sprinklers—is now often replaced by worried parents and video games. However, there are still some prompts out there, often in music, that help to get young people off their behinds and working their joints, getting their muscles going and getting that all-important heart rate up.

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We’re talking about, of course, the kinetic exercise and anti-video game-playing song, “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” But what is this song, exactly? Where does it come from and how can it help? Let’s dive into the meaning and the origin below.

Up and At ‘Em

One glance at the lyrics for the song and it’s clear what it’s about: movement. While the words are simply names of parts of the body—head, shoulders, knees, and toes—each is an excuse for the singer of the song to move, touching each in sequence—head, shoulders, knees, and toes—with the tips of their fingers.

The lyrics, in this way, encourage movement, understanding of rhythm and teaches kids about their joints. It also gets their heart rate moving a bit and gives kids a sense of what exercise offers without putting them in the middle of a more formal game or sport like tag or soccer.


While the origins of the song remain unclear, the verse is traced back as early as 1961. The song can be sung two ways, in the same tune as “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Or more commonly in the tune of “There Is a Tavern in the Town.”

You can almost picture a physician with his house call bag inventing this song for his or her 12 children at home. The collision of recess and education.

The Lyrics

While the concept of the song can be arranged however the singer wants, depending on the appropriate body parts (other options include chin, mouth, eyes, feet, arms, hips, leg, and nose)—most commonly, the song is sung with these lyrics in mind, including a little face action:

Head, shoulders, knees and toes,
knees and toes
Head, shoulders, knees and toes,
knees and toes
And eyes and ears and mouth and nose
Head, shoulders, knees and toes,
knees and toes

If one wants, the lyrics can be sung backward, beginning with toes to knees to shoulders to head.

The Game

At last, the best part. When people are playing the “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” game, it’s a bit like “Simon Says.” Players have to pay attention to each body part that is omitted in the lyric with each go. And oftentimes, with each verse, the speed gets increased.

For example, after the pattern is declared, with each repetition of the verse, one body part is omitted. So, players (the kids) have to pay attention to which part to sing and not to sing while still tapping the correct area with their fingertips.

This goes on until all the words are silent. With the final turn including no singing but the pace of the game increasing. For example, for verse two the players would sing,

____, shoulders, knees and toes
kees and toes

Or for verse three,

____, ____, knees and toes
knees and toes

Final Thoughts

As with all nursery rhymes, lullabies, and traditional songs, this tune is trying to teach us something. Namely, motor skills, rhythm, and a joy of movement.

We hope there won’t come a time when a song like this goes by the wayside because there isn’t a Mario game associated with it. But maybe that’s the future: a Mario and Luigi digital version of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” that will keep kids moving into the new millennium.

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