Review - Books - Rhyme and reasons

7th January 2011 at 00:00

The Lore of the Playground: One Hundred Years of Children's Games, Rhymes and Traditions

By Steve Roud

Random House Books


"What I have set out to do in The Lore of the Playground," writes Steve Roud in his introduction, "is to disprove the pessimists who think children no longer play and show how games and rhymes have been endlessly modified and reinvented, or sometimes abandoned and replaced, over the past century."

Five hundred or so pages of carefully researched, elegantly written and well-presented material later, the case is well and truly wrapped up. Our playgrounds are as vibrant and inventive, as much fun and almost as furious as ever.

Some activities have changed, some have become obsolete and some have simply endured. The playground is a foreign country and children do things differently there, but do them at full throttle they most certainly still do.

Despite "the cultural dominance of television and computer games" and fears that children are forgetting how to play, "there is no evidence that there is much to panic about", says Roud.

There is still ample scope for nostalgia, however. The game of conkers has almost died out. Ball "tig" is much less popular than it used to be. And games such as "splits", which I remember playing as a child, have gone altogether.

This may not be altogether a bad thing as splits involved throwing a knife to the side of your opponent's feet. Roud also recalls playing the game himself, adding with commendable honesty: "This was particularly popular with boys in the 1960s when miniskirts were in fashion, which is perhaps the reason I remember it so well." One suspects that knife laws, health and safety and other modern "inconveniences" have accounted for the demise of splits, British bulldog and many of the other rough-house games that defined our primary years.

Clapping games, on the other hand, are the big winners in the fight for the playground. Older and rougher hand games such as knuckles and dish-a-loof, "which would make the blood spurt from the top of every finger" have survived in modified form, but clapping "is the real growth area of the late twentieth-century playground ... and there has been a steady extension of repertoire and method over the last fifty years," Roud writes.

Accompanying rhymes have grown alongside them, including some amusing "naughty ones" involving licking the baby's bum (1990s) and having dolly mixtures stuffed down your knickers in the cinema (1983).

In fact, rhymes in general prove a source of endless fascination throughout these pages, although I suspect that many might dispute the categorisation of the following gem as a nonsense rhyme:

Girls' faults are many

Boys have only two

Everything they say

And everything they do (1984)

A genuine cause of nostalgia, though, is that all of these games are now abruptly cut off when primary school is left behind and secondary school begun. Interestingly, this was not so in the international school at which I worked.

When we deliberately introduced a programme to teach our primary children traditional English games, secondary pupils immediately jumped on the bandwagon and the playground became a blur of skipping ropes swung by all ages and both sexes as notions of "cool" were quickly forgotten. It was exhilarating to watch.

The Lore of the Playground is a book packed with games, rhymes, chants, rituals and social observation and it constantly turns up interesting things. Did you know, for instance, that the ubiquitous rock, paper, scissors is of Asian origin? That in many schools the schoolmaster was paid a fee to supply game-cocks to fight on Shrove Tuesday? That ring-a-ring-a-roses almost certainly has nothing to do with the plague or that twisting an apple stem back and forth while reciting the alphabet can predict the name of your future lover?

In short, this book is an absolute treasure chest of children's folklore, and we should be indebted to The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren for both building on and bringing up to date Iona and Peter Opie's pioneering work on children's folklore in the 1950s and 60s. It is a debt that Roud frequently and generously acknowledges, and in The Lore of the Playground he proves himself their thoroughly worthy successor. Whether your interest is folklore, nostalgia or trivia, or you simply want a resource book of games and rhymes, this magnum opus will not disappoint.

About the author - Steve Roud

Steve Roud is local studies librarian for the London borough of Croydon and served as honorary librarian of the Folklore Society for over 15 years. He has been researching British folklore for over 30 years and is the joint author of the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore and The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, which won the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award in 2004. He lives in Sussex.

The verdict - 1010.

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