Games pass test of time;In the playground;Millennium Edition

31st December 1999 at 00:00
Traditional circle games may have vanished, but the past still rules at break time, reports Alison Shepherd

Playground games with their ancient roots have survived thanks to an oral history passed down by generations of children. But, so the argument goes, this link, forged in the heat of childhood conservatism, has been broken in a society where children can no longer play in the streets and where television and computer games have become a child's nanny, teacher and friend.

Godwin junior school, in Forest Gate, east London, would appear to be a star witness for this argument. Thirty years ago, Iona and Peter Opie, in their book Children's Games in Street and Playground, reported that games were flourishing in the playground, and that there was a local name for many of the 164 distinct games they recorded.

Yet this term Godwin's head, Marva Rollins, decided that her pupils did not have enough variety in the playground and needed help. So the school hired John Goodwin, a specialist in traditional games, ignoring the Opies' warning: "Nothing extinguishes self-organised play more effectively than does action to promote it."

Mr Goodwin, who has reintroduced games to playgrounds across the country, trained 12 children in the joys of around 15 traditional games. The idea is that with the help of lunchtime support staff, the Year 5 pupils will disseminate their re-discovered heritage to the rest of the school.

But one morning break provided evidence that the past still has a firm hold on the children. True, there was no sign of the circle games, previously enjoyed by young girls intent on finding the farmer a wife, or wiping down dusty bluebells, but two groups of girls were creating dance routines.

There were also several variations of chase and too many tennis-ball-bouncing, throwing and catching games to count, most of which get a mention in the Opies' dispatches.

And obviously, the most popular game of all, and the bugbear of Peter Goodwin, was being played - football. He believes that the dominance of "the beautiful game" is one of the reasons why his services have become so necessary.

"It tends to take over 70 per cent of the playground for just 10 per cent of the children. Some heads have banned the game and this can make the playground much less threatening," he said. "I can help fill the gap ... give the children new opportunities."

He argues that in the "good old days" when children had the streets to themselves, they had more time to pass on the games. Indeed, in 1969 the Opies wrote in the introduction to their book: "There is not a town or city where street games do not flourish." But with the increase in car traffic and heightened awareness of "stranger danger", says Mr Goodwin, the baton has been dropped and adults have to intervene. "We can't turn the clock back. In our culture, children expect adults to take the initiative, to point them in the right direction."

Talking to some of his Forest Gate group, it became apparent that as much as they enjoyed their training, the nine and 10-year-olds had their own ideas as to what was suitable in the playground. Of all the "new" games, only one - Cat and Mouse - made it to their list of favourites.

Those which they actually played had been taught to them by other children.

And most are mentioned by the Opies as games which have been played for generations, perhaps proving that they were right in 1969 when they wrote: "The belief that traditional games are dying out is itself traditional."

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