Today's childhood is toxic, certain newspapers would have us believe. Children do nothing but munch crisps, stay in their bedrooms playing computer games and watch reality TV programmes.
It seems that adults like to imagine their own childhoods as more carefree and creative than those of the present generation. In the opening pages of Steve Roud's bestseller, The Lore of the Playground, he recounts one commentator decrying feckless youth as early as 1903: "Children are forgetting how to play. To realise this one has only to . watch the pupils. in recreation time with their disappointed efforts at amusements, their unrelated racings and shoutings ."
But are children really like that? According to a recent research project, Children's Playground Games and Songs in the New Media Age, which involved academics from London University's Institute of Education, Sheffield University, the University of East London and the British Library, playtime games are more vigorous and imaginative than ever.
Over two years, researchers led by Professor Andrew Burn of the Institute of Education worked with two primary schools in London and Sheffield, intensively researching and collecting games, songs and rhymes in their playgrounds. In both cases the investigators worked alongside panels of children who, armed with notepads and simple flip-cams, helped them to gather examples of games they enjoyed.
"The best thing I have learnt," says 11-year-old Olivia Chan from Christopher Hatton Primary in Camden, north London, "are the different categories of play that can be going on in our playground." For her classmate Alfie Mckinnell, 10, what stood out was establishing the relationship between different places and the kinds of games that flourished in each location. "We have a wall with gaps in it," he said, "and that's where all the hide-and-seek kinds of games happen."
At Monteney Primary in Sheffield, the connection between environment and play was even more apparent. "We play the `fox game' on the grass," explains seven-year-old Abigail Clegg, "and if one of the foxes gets caught by the hunters then they get taken to a tree and we pretend it's a cage. Sometimes they keep you and sometimes they let you go."
The role the children have had in gathering the evidence has helped to ensure that the project is a broad reflection of what is going on in playgrounds, rather than solely the adults' perception.
"It would not really have been about children if we hadn't helped. When I was filming, I got people hiding in a hole in a tree which was the only time they did that," says seven-year-old Max Heath from Monteney.
The project was not only done with academic research in mind - the findings form a major part of the British Library's new Playtimes website (www.bl.uklearningnewschildrensgames.html). The project has also digitised audio recordings from the 1970s and '80s compiled by renowned experts in the folklore of childhood, Iona and Peter Opie, and includes still images captured by the folklorist and photographer Father Damien Webb.
"Visitors to the site will be able to see how we have married up some of the images and recordings and to these we have added film extracts collected during the present project's ethnographic work in the two school playgrounds," says Laura Jopson, one of the research assistants on the project. The most recent findings, from Monteney and Christopher Hatton schools, has resulted in the creation of a separate kids' zone.
"Children's culture has almost exclusively been preserved, interpreted, described and curated by adults," says Professor Burn. "This was an attempt to reintroduce the voice of the child into the curatorial process."
One of the most profound discoveries of the project was the role that contemporary culture plays not only in today's playground games, but those of former generations. "Children often think that they have invented their games," suggests Steve Roud, "but they were fascinated to discover that the hokey cokey was really a pop song of the 1940s and how ancient some of the games are. Games involving marbles, skipping and whipping tops go back millennia, but while archaeologists may have uncovered such objects we have no idea of the rituals that might have been associated with their use."
These days, programmes such as The X Factor, The Jeremy Kyle Show and even Mastermind are represented in children's role playing. "The key thing," says Professor Jackie Marsh, head of the school of education at Sheffield University and one of the project's playground investigators, "was that this kind of play was never just simple re-enactment. Rather it often contained witty parodies or enabled children to explore aspects of adult life that they found puzzling or intriguing."
Fellow researcher Grethe Mitchell, a senior lecturer at the University of East London, also witnessed much media-inspired play during the filming of more than 40 hours of documentary footage over the past two years. "There was a great deal of interest in reality TV shows and also the more dramatic moments in talent shows, particularly when the judges have been rude about a performance and the participant kicks up a stink. It was clear to me that they were knowledgeable about the conventions of such programmes."
For Professor Burn the importance of media-based play was the children's continuing capacity to absorb new material - everything from video games to trading cards. "It is not simply the case that playground games are imitations of computer game actions," says the preliminary report arising from the research. "Rather, children adapt generic elements of them such as stealth moves, weapons and technology - using tree stumps as computer consoles, for example." In short, playground games do not suffer at the hands of other media such as video games or TV shows.
"Our research indicates that playground culture and children's games are not overwhelmed, marginalised or threatened by the quantity or plurality of available media," says the report.
"There is a huge amount going on in children's culture that educationalists and teachers need to recognise," adds Professor Burn. "Consider the patterned language in playground rhymes that boys may enjoy repeating even as they can seem to struggle with poetry being taught in the classroom. Then there is the way children are adept at stepping in and out of role while playing and the precision of their dance and clapping routines."
The research also linked with curriculum activities - the mapping of spaces and games in particular requiring history and geography skills. "It is also fascinating to see how the process can be a two-way one with classroom content moving out of lesson time and into their play," reports Gwen Lee, headteacher at Christopher Hatton. "I recently overheard the Tudor (legend of) Bloody Mary becoming a spooky playground game."
There is one aspect of the study where the future is uncertain, however. It highlights the importance of supervised playgrounds in a world in which other traditional sites of play - streets and parks - are frequently off- limits.
"What (children) often lack is the space and freedom to make their own play out of unlikely materials and environments; over-structuring, over- providing, over-designing seems to defeat the object," says Professor Burn.
Good playworkers and teaching assistants can help them to explore that freedom, he says, ensuring that all children are involved and safe and letting them just get on with it. But as funding for staff and equipment becomes more squeezed, will playtime continue to be so creative?
The British Library's Playtimes site encourages visitors to share their children's and their own games experiences. The site also offers teaching resources designed to help embed playground games across the curriculum. Among the activities recommended are:
- encouraging children to collect and attempt to categorise their own games, comparing their groupings with the nine preferred on the Playtimes site;
- writing to the British Library describing their games - making sure they include detailed descriptions of such things as lyrics and hand or other body movements; colourful drawings are also encouraged;
- using video cameras to interview each other about their play and favourite games;
- creating a book of songs and rhymes based on their own examples and any favourites from the Playtimes site;
- creating a calendar that shows the connection between the seasons and the kinds of games children play;
- creating a playground website of their own;
- working out a timeline plotting how world events and the media have affected children's play. There is plenty of material on the site to help with this more challenging activity;
- creating a time capsule celebrating children's play in 2011.