Play is okay! Children learn and have learned for ages and ages through play—engaging, joyful, creative action. For some reason, however, teachers sometimes get it in their heads that learning requires work and that work is not play—is not fun. I suggest two points relative to this misunderstanding:
First, play is NOT the opposite of work. Think of someone who has a passion for hiking—researching to discover the best gear (shoes, backpack, sleeping bag, food) and places to hike—a set of crystal clear mountain lakes, for example. The actually hiking trip takes considerable effort; the path is steep and full of rocks. Somehow, though, the hiker enjoys the entire trip, both the challenge of the hike and the view of the lakes. This is play, recreation, fun. It is also a lot of work. Similarly, singing games are fun AND require considerable cognitive, kinesthetic, and social engagement. In fact, they likely would not be as fun if they didn’t require significant effort.
Second, many people enjoy their work. Sometimes people say, “I can’t believe I get paid for this!” Some vocations allow significant levels of autonomy, creativity, and social interaction. Some people even have a knack for making the most mundane tasks, such as yard work or household chores, interesting and fun (this is called autotelic personality, by the way). Work doesn’t have to be unpleasant or boring. In fact, if the work of learning is unpleasant or boring it will likely be less effective than if it involves ample opportunity for physical, social, and creative engagement.
The reason that children’s singing games have endured over time is that they naturally engage students in meaningful musicing and musical learning. In the process students learn far more about music and develop musical skills at levels far surpassing anything that could be accomplished through a music worksheet, for instance. Of course, a music worksheet might have a place once in a while, but if learning is the aim (and, of course, we all know it is), we will allow the joyful and creative play/work or work/play of traditional singing games.