On the slide? Not playtime

11th November 2005 at 00:00
Reports of the death of playground games are exaggerated, says Virginia Hunt. Photorgaphy Richard Lea-Hair

The lure of colourful graphics, fights to the death onscreen and the chance to compete against a piece of software isn't as enticing to youngsters as many adults think. They don't all spend their free time sitting in front of a computer or Playstation. In most playgrounds, traditional games are as popular as ever.

For many children, play-time is the only chance they get to run around and make a noise. Games and sports, particularly in primary schools have become a bit of a luxury in an otherwise constrained time-table. There is limited space, particularly in inner-city schools where playing fields have been sold for development.

Old favourites such as skipping, hopscotch and tag remain popular in today's schools. Even as a busy teacher, there's nothing to stop you joining in from time to time and showing them a few of your own childhood favourites, or just observing how your pupils behave and interact.

In her book People in the Playground, Iona Opie underlines the value of free play in helping children develop social skills. It helps them make sense of the world around them and teaches them how to behave towards each other.

Watch how quickly children organise their games, making the most of the short break; rules are laid down or invented along the way.

Dipping is still the favourite method of choosing who's It or On. And rhymes have also stood the test of time, although some have been amended with more political correctness than before.

Rhymes are popular in skipping and clapping games: many seem to focus on the search for "a nice young man" and kissing.

Stereotypical divisions are evident when it comes to boys and girls choosing their games. Girls tend to dominate in skipping and clapping games, or huddle together chatting in small groups. Boys are more active and enjoy posturing. Ball games, such as football, remain firm favourites.

In role play games, boys are seen chasing, throwing themselves bodily across the playground and capturing each other - all very physical. Players divide into Goodies and Baddies. Cops and robbers and spy games are replacing war games, which are usually discouraged by supervising adults.

Girls' role play revolves around relationships and domestic scenes. Sue Reeves, a teaching assistant at John Stainer primary school, in Brockley, south-east London, has observed how the game of mummies and daddies has been displaced by mummies and babies. There is a total absence of male figures - a sign that children imitate the reality of their own lives.

Even in similar activities, there are differences in how girls and boys approach play. In garden areas, girls will often make homes for insects from leaves and sticks. The boys are more likely to be digging holes in the dirt and bombing the little beasts with stones.

Many schools now supply equipment, ranging from stimulating play structures to basic ropes, hoops and balls. Watching children adapt these props into their play proves that inventiveness is still very much alive. Ropes and hoops are used for the age-old game of horsies, popular among younger pupils. The climbing frame provides a fresh resource for tag, hide and seek and make-believe games.

Games go in and out of fashion, sometimes with the help of canny toy manufacturers. I remember making do with a ball in a stocking attached to my ankle which I would jump over until it was replaced by a manufactured version. Scooby-doos enjoyed a recent revival - this time with glitter but basically involving the same process of weaving intricate designs from long plastic strands.

Often, children's own possessions are banned in school, so marbles, cards and conkers are likely to be confiscated although such illicit items still make an appearance away from the teachers' not so watchful eye.

So where do adults feature in all of this? Sacha, aged 7, says that "they just walk around". They can be honorary rope-turner, but children's creativity is more likely to develop if left to their own devices. However, using traditional rhymes as a topic in literacy or introducing games that can be copied and adapted in the playground could help keep old favourites alive.

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