Child’s play is serious business

Playing games is an important facet of children’s intellectual and social development recognised since Ancient Greece.

The Museum of Victoria recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its acquisition of the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection from Dr June Factor of the University of Melbourne.

Today, parents and other adults worry about childhood obesity, about the sexualisation of young children through the media, and about educational issues. One of the best answers to childhood obesity may well be to encourage more active play.

It was also the fifth anniversary of the inclusion of the Collection by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation into the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register, a small list of documentary collections of national significance to Australia’s heritage, such as Captain Cook’s Endeavour Journal, convict records, the Burley Griffin design drawings for Canberra and the Mabo Case manuscripts.

The Museum and UNESCO are not the only organisations to take children’s play seriously.

In 2006 the Australian Research Council, together with Melbourne, Deakin and Curtin Universities, the National Library of Australia and Museum Victoria, funded a four-year project to study primary school playgrounds in every State and Territory of Australia.

Why should so much interest be taken in children’s traditional playlore, and what exactly is it?

The Australian Children’s Folklore Collection at Museum Victoria is one of the largest such collections in the world, and contains more than 12,000 items: game descriptions, rhymes, chants, insults, fortune-telling, tricks, and a number of objects such as home-made toys and games.

Some of these items can be identified as the same as those depicted in the famous painting we know as Children’s Games painted by Pieter Brueghel in 1560.

In the painting we can recognise skipping, knucklebones, chasing and hiding, playing horses, hoops, and others.

But children’s play is one of the oldest and best documented of continuous traditions in the world.

In 2004 the Getty Museum in Los Angeles presented an exhibition Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past, and on its website stated that Ancient Greek artists were the earliest to create images of children that did not portray them as miniature adults’.

The exhibition showed 150 antiquities on loan from American, Australian and European collections, including painted vases, sculptures, grave monuments, toys and baby feeders.

The knowledge of the ancient nature of children’s playlore, and of its persistence in contemporary society, increases our understanding of the nature of childhood itself, an understanding of crucial importance to children in today’s complex and difficult world.

Today, parents and other adults worry about childhood obesity, about the sexualisation of young children through the media, and about educational issues.

One of the best answers to childhood obesity may well be to encourage more active play.

The great English researchers Iona and Peter Opie published their ground-breaking study in 1969 as Children’s Games in Street and Playground. Not any more!

The street is now a no-go zone in many places in Australia, and school playgrounds are now the main locations for vigorous play.

Perhaps primary school playgrounds should be declared cultural heritage sites! It is unfortunate, however, that some schools, bedevilled by largely groundless fears of injuries and litigation, have banned some activities such as climbing, cartwheels and even running.

In the 1970s two Queensland physical education lecturers, Peter Lindsay and Denise Palmer, carried out a study published in 1981 as Playground Game Characteristics of Brisbane Primary School Children.
The book, sadly out of print, should be a basic reference book in every primary school in Australia.

Lindsay and Palmer studied 5000 children, and compared traditional games with formal syllabus games, finding that on a number of measures such as cardio-vascular endurance and rhythm the traditional games were superior to the formal syllabus games.

Children can often solve their own problems, if left alone!

They can not only take up the amount of physical activity they need, but in their games they can negotiate social and intellectual challenges.

They can learn – from each other – hand-clapping rhymes such as A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea and When Susie was a Baby which are almost as long as The Man from Snowy River or The Ancient Mariner.

They can remember the words of counting-out rhymes (surely ancient incantations!) such as Ibble Bibble, Black Bubble or Uga Buga, Uga Buga Umbrella Feet, and organise activities such as building a cubby house, marbles or tippety cricket.

It’s not for nothing that the American researchers Mary and Herbert Knapp described children’s games as ‘legislatures and courts of law’.

A number of researchers into children’s playlore are increasingly concerned that Australian schools may follow America in becoming dominated by national testing, often with disasterous results.

The No Child Left Behind project (dubbed by some of its critics No Child’s Behind Left Untested) introduced by former President George W. Bush in 2002 linked funding to test results, so that a large number of schools in the United States either abolished recess and other play time or reduced it considerably.

Unfortunately, ‘teaching to the tests’ often resulted in children’s achievements declining rather than improving.

Some adults say that ‘children don’t play like they used to’, and that television, computers and electronic games have replaced the old ways. Not so!

Children can cope with both tradition and technology, and to date this is being clearly shown in the fieldwork carried out in Australian primary schools for the Childhood, Tradition and Change project.

When the project finishes in 2010, it will have amassed a considerable amount of data to compare with earlier research, and to provide some valuable information about ‘the state of play’ in Australia.

Dr Gwenda Beed Davey is a Research Fellow in the Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific at Deakin University, Melbourne. She is also a Principal Researcher for the Childhood, Tradition and Change project.