The distinguished environmentalist Roger Hart summed up the changing nature of children’s lives in the cities of the industrialized world like this:
their diminished freedom in space and time, the growth of mass media as an acculturating force at the expense of peer culture and local culture, a reduced contact with the natural world, the private and more exclusive provision of spaces for play and recreation at the expense of more inclusive public space, an erosion of community in the geographic sense of the word, an increase in social class segregation, the loss of meaningful work opportunities and a growth of violence.23
If this seems a bleak picture, there are also contraindications that children continue to create and pursue their own interests and identities independently from those of adults when time and space permits. In 1969 Peter and Iona Opie recorded children’s games in close-to-home spaces – driveways, pavements, streets, carparks. They identified more than 3000 games played by children. They argued that this rich children’s culture was carried on in the interstices of everyday spaces, the ‘child-to-child complex…of people going about their own business within their own society. fully capable of occupying themselves under the jurisdiction of their own code.’24 Indeed, they were dismissive of the idea that this children’s culture could be shaped or controlled by adults in any way.
Although it is now much less likely that children would be allowed to play out and find spaces for their own use, recent evidence suggests that ‘schoolyard lore’ or ‘childlore’ is still vibrant in school playgrounds.25 Despite the overwhelming contemporary pressures to which they are subject, children, as they have done since time immemorial, have their own games, rhymes, chants and crazes, their own ways of amusing themselves. As Iona Opie comments:
Amidst the bustle and noise of the playground can be seen remarkable skills of organization, quick agreements and decisions, and instant adaptability. The basic games demonstrate the pleasures of strategy and movement that probably predate language itself. We can begin to understand what constitutes fun, what humour is thought cleverest, what noises are most satisfactory to make, what prowess is admired. Simply by examining which songs and rhymes are the most popular, we can see that the mental attitude found most useful in an uncaring world is insouciant, defiant, offhand, pretending not to care. The important thing in a playground or other gathering is to protect one’s ego.26
This ‘childlore’ is still the daily currency of the playground for most children.27,28 It has been charted in Australia, Britain, Continental Europe and north America, and in ethnographic studies in the Third World. Childlore and childplay reveal dimensions of creativity, artistry, musicality and complexity. Some of it, such as ball and skipping games, is highly active and requires dexterity and physical coordination. It is performative, carnivalesque, subversive and parodic – including elements of parody of the very features of advertising that seems so threatening. It includes narratives, epithets, jeers, taunts, riddles and jokes. It is fun, but not necessarily all the time for all of the children taking part, and it sometimes veers on bullying (although bullying, too, is subject to interpretation). Much of this childlore is scatalogical or subversive, e. g.:
Mary had a little lamb,
She fed it on cream crackers,
And every time it dropped a crumb,
She kicked it in the knackers.29
The persistence of such childlore, despite all the concerns to the contrary, suggests that there are overwhelming reasons for its continuance. Brian Sutton Smith, the guru of children’s play, argues that ‘childlore deals with behaviour that has traditionally been regarded as non-serious, but as this behaviour appears to be a systematic part of the human repertoire, to think, therefore, it is unimportant might be a mistake.’30
Marc Armitage claims that layout of playground space inadvertently affects the nature of the games that are played in it. He carried out 90 play audits of school playgrounds over a 5-year period. He pointed out that designating an area as a particular kind of playspace is no guarantee that it will be used in that fashion; on the contrary, the most unlikely – or to adults unsuitable – places will be commandeered for games. Playgrounds have shrunk, as land has proved more profitable for other uses; and playtime has shrunk as teachers
have become more obsessed with curricular and supervised activities. Neither self-directed play nor the playground itself are accorded the priority they had in earlier times.
Boys playing football, typically a minority of the school population, now claim a great deal of space – typically more than half of the hard surface area, to the detriment of girls, younger children, and other games. Playgrounds with nooks and crannies – round the back of steps, in corners, are commandeered for games, e. g. marbles on drain covers, cops and robbers games by metal grilles or fences. (Gaol games and imprisonment games were a feature which occurred in all the play audits. Frequently witches prepared potions in gaol-like places!) Armitage comments that:
The primary school children of today can quite easily be left alone on the playground and their spontaneity will do the rest. This is in fact what already happens. But for them to be able to make use of this spontaneity to the best of their ability, and to do so without the need for direct adult intervention in their play, the
environment provided for them as a place to play must respect the finding that children themselves are informally organizing their available spaces and features to meet their own needs. As adults, our role should be to support this and provide an environment that caters for what children actually play as opposed to what they should or could play, or even what we think they play.31
This childlore is created wherever children gather, in streets, in parks, in playgrounds. They still gather in the playground, although less than previously, but they have effectively been deterred from using other public spaces.