Book of the week
In 1998 a conference was held at the University of Sheffield entitled "The State of Play: perspectives on children's oral culture", which inevitably became a book with a new title.
Neither title prepares us for the book's combative stance, a riposte to those who claim children don't know how to play any more and that the traditional culture of the playground is going or has gone.
The contributors set out to show that, on the contrary, "the picture of children's free play activitiesI is predominantly one of vibrancy, creativity, continuity and variety". The papers certainly show us that children's playground culture is alive and kicking.
The contributors, through their detailed and enthralling documentation, are carrying on a tradition whose finest monument is Iona and Peter Opie's The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Indeed, this venture's pedigree is displayed by the splendid introduction by Iona Opie herself.
The investigation of everyday life, and often the celebration of it, easily provokes scholarly contempt, especially when it involves young children. Moreover, there are contemporary efforts to take over playtime and, as the book shows, to substitute adult-organised activities. Against this, these papers describe children's ingenuity in finding places and spaces in otherwise barren playgrounds, an exploration of how lore is, or is not, disseminated by children, the influence of the media and immigrant groups on playground singing games, a feminist slant on girls' traditional playground games, the international diffusion of "Susie" handclapping games ("When Susie was a baby" and so on), an exposition of how children's playground activities "contribute significantly to the acquisition of language skills", and an account from Israel (poignant at this moment) of Arab Jewish collaboration in exploring and sharing folklore.
The editors tell us that the approach is "more descriptive than prescriptive". Not quite. Lurking in the texts is an ambiguous attitude to the role of the adult. On the one hand, there is a plea for adults to keep out - "Nothing extinguishes self-organised play more effectively than does activity to promote it." On the other, the account of the Israeli project is an example of sustained collaboration between children, teachers, parents and randparents. More tellingly, the embattled piece by June Factor sets out to dispel what she calls myths. Armed with scholarship and passion, she attempts to demolish the notions that children's play-lore is in decline, that childhood is a social construct - children are entirely what we make them, and that "what children do in their free time is unimportant and useless".
Perhaps the most chilling passage in the book is her citing of a decision in Atlanta to eliminate free playtime and replace it with "socialised recess" consisting of "structured, monitored activities".
June Factor, like others in the book, fights her corner, and all power to her elbow. In her analysis, childhood is not infinitely plastic. "It is misguided to assume that the intent of manufacturers or parents will entirely determine children's play," she writes. "Cultural imperialismI is resisted, even undermined, through the imagination, innovation, and traditional play practices of the young." That "entirely" is a salutary reminder that the planned and targeted colonisation of children's minds also chalks up its successes.
So, while this book shows beyond all doubt that the language and lore of the playground continues to flourish or survive, the editors do not seem to have takento heart the very last piece in the book by Carol Carpenter, which is an elegy for Canadian children's folk hockey and a lament for its ousting by the commercialised version. The final judgment about decline calls for a more sober reckoning.
The writers here, of course, rejoice at whatever the children's oral culture produces without any serious attempt to appraise its negative side. It is too easy to call the precise imitation of a Michael Jackson performance, complete with its sexual gestures, a parody and therefore subversive. Of what?
Much more serious is the avoidance of a darker side. John Widdowson, carried away by his indiscriminate admiration for child language learning, tells us that through "jeering, taunts, defiance, retortsI they learn the exercise of power and assertiveness by the deployment of insults". And what do the victims learn?
Iona Opie is wiser. She writes: "Behind the verbal traditions of the playground can be heard the age-old prejudices, beliefs, hates, resentments." It would need a very different conference to explore these issues. Meanwhile we must rejoice at this defence of childhood.
Harold Rosen is emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London