The power of play

Feb 14, 2024
Teenage playing hide-and-go-seek in the playground

A while ago I was – reluctantly – watching some television footage about the catastrophe in Gaza. To my amazement, a fleeting image appeared of two little girls, about 7 or 8, playing a hand-clapping game. I don’t know what nationality the girls were, or the location of their play. They could have been Israeli or Palestinian, or one of each. We do know that for many years enlightened people in both locations have tried to encourage harmony through cross-cultural activities, including children’s play.

We also know that children will play in the most dire of circumstances. International scholars such as Viktor Frankl and Bruno Bettelheim documented children’s play in the Holocaust, including in Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.

Nowhere has the power of play been made more evident than during the recent Covid pandemic. Since its outbreak, international scholars have been studying the way play has been used by children to help them cope with this awful time. It seems that almost universally, children transformed the game of chasey or tiggy into a battle with the virus. Different versions of ‘Corona tiggy’ were popular around Australia and overseas. The common illustration of the corona virus as a sphere with prongs was used by children in their drawings and games to battle the monster.

In Australia, researchers Judy McKinty and Ruth Hazleton studied children’s play during the Covid pandemic, and their work has been recently published in the UK in an international publication Play in a Covid Frame by Open Book Publishers (2023), with significant contributions from senior playworker Danni von der Borch. The Australian Pandemic Play Project was carried out mainly in Victoria, and online, during one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world (and one with the lowest number of deaths). McKinty and Hazleton considered how children had taken the coronavirus into their play repertoire, how they stayed playful at home during lockdown, and how the pandemic affected the way they played with their friends at school. They found that children who were able to use computers to maintain friendships benefited greatly for their mental health. Similarly, parents who were able to accommodate house-bound children turning the home into a fort or a hospital for their play, greatly helped their children’s well-being. The title of the Australian chapter in the Covid Frame book was ‘We stayed home and found new ways to play’.

New ways to play? What are the ‘old ways’? Children’s play is a universal phenomenon; it seems to be hard-wired into their brains. From very soon after birth, infants will respond to adults playing with them, and will laugh at the adults’ efforts. The earliest interactions between adults and infants are usually lullabies and baby games like Peekaboo and This little piggy went to market, as well as the great repertoire of nursery rhymes. It’s fascinating to realise that some of the earliest publications in the English language, at the very beginning of printing, were rhymes for the nursery, books such as Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744). As well as many rhymes well-known today, such as Baa Baa Black Sheep and Ladybird, Ladybird, Tommy Thumb included Piss a bed, piss a bed, barley butt; your bum’s so heavy you can’t get up and other gems which might raise publishers’ eyebrows today. (Though not folklore researchers’.)

These games and rhymes are initiated by adults, but what of children’s own lore? It’s passed on mainly in the primary school, from one generation (say six years) of children to another, though parents will sometimes pass on remembered favourites. This traditional repertoire has numerous forms: games, rhymes, parodies, insults, jokes and tricks. It’s often used by children to establish control over their world, perhaps to make fun of the adult world. Parodies are especially popular – a hardy annual in the ribald tradition is Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water; Jill the dill forgot her pill and now they’ve got a daughter. Children’s traditional play has other powerful learnings: language, numeracy, social interaction, cooperation and rules management, as well as self-entertainment.

Sometimes play needs protection from adults. In 2001 the US Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, where federal funds were allocated to improve education in the USA, with particular emphasis on academic progress and standardized testing. Unfortunately many primary schools reacted to pressure by abolishing playbreaks at recess or lunch time. After fifteen years of controversy, and intensive lobbying by child development and play advocates, as well as pedagogues and comedians, federal intervention was withdrawn, and education matters largely passed to the States.

Fortunately, Australian schools have not reacted to Naplan and other pressures by abolishing play. In a world where children’s street play is rare and children are no longer told ‘go out and play and don’t come back till tea time’, it’s the primary school playground which is the principal source of transmission for the thousands upon thousands of traditional games and rhymes.

And there are thousands of them, many well documented in many different countries. The great English-language archive of children’s play is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University: the Opie Archive. From the 1940s, husband and wife team Iona and Peter Opie diligently recorded children’s traditional play and published numerous compilations in a variety of books. Their collection was acquired by the Bodleian around 1988 after a public appeal for funds under the patronage of the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III.

Closer to home, the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection is one of the world’s largest collections of children’s traditional playground games, rhymes and chants. Founded (in a filing cabinet) around 1979 by highly-respected folklorist, social historian and writer June Factor and myself, it is now held in the Melbourne Museum. In 2004 the Collection was entered on the UNESCO Australia Memory of the World Register as one of Australia’s most significant collections of documentary heritage, alongside other items such as The Mabo Papers, Captain Cook’s Endeavour Journal, and the world’s first feature film The Story of the Kelly Gang. It’s good that children’s culture sits in such august company: it’s a suitable recognition of the power of play.

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