On hearing that the Webmag was focusing an issue on play, my mind wandered around the notion for a while. I seemed to recall that the longer time spent in play was one of the things which helped humans to function better as adults, by being different from just about any other species. Lambs, puppies and kittens are perhaps some of the nearest to humans in terms of periods of frisky activity, unrelated to the necessities of feeding, between periods of rest and sleep. Currently three young squirrels inhabit our garden. They do dash about, chasing each other, but a lot of their other activity, swinging, climbing and jumping is related to their need to feed themselves, which they do with great daring and agility by robbing the bird feeders.Having thought of a variety of terms such as playful, plaything, play time, play group, play dough, play ground, play clothes and being of the ‘look it up and find out’ generation of teachers I checked the dictionary. In my case old habits die hard. My first thought was dictionary, rather than Google.
The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, which is kept on the shelf above my computer tells me that play is :
(a) to move about in a lively or unrestrained manner, or
(b) to amuse oneself, or
(c) to frolic or
(d) to pass time pleasantly or
(e) to act as required. Etc. etc.
Being the Oxford Dictionary, even pocket sized, it also has two further columns of definitions, related to sports, music, acting, and gambling. But for the purposes of the Webmag I thought the five I have listed might be enough.
Sixty years ago
My first thoughts on play were of my own childhood, which essentially lasted from 1942 to about 1953 – during some of the darkest days of the war and some of the tough times that followed. Coupons, rationing, make-do-and-mend, hand-me downs and doing without were the everyday experiences of the adults in my life. But it was only much later that this realisation dawned on me.
As a young child I was totally unaware of shortages. We listened to Children’s Hour on the radio. We usually sat around the big all-purpose table, which dominated the only living room, which was also the only room to be heated by a open fire, which burned coal when it was available and all sorts of other stuff when it was not. It was at this table that my father played endless counting games with me, disguised as Ludo, or snakes and ladders. Without realising it, I learned to take turns and lose with good grace. At Christmas there was also a ritual of jolly group games for all ages. To the embarrassment of my own sons, ‘I’ve been to Paris’ and, to the delight of the younger generation, ‘Pass the Parcel’ (with toe-curling forfeits, of course) still linger on in our present day, more sophisticated celebrations.
In addition to these family-centred activities, in which we amused ourselves, frolicked and passed the time pleasantly, there were also lots of peer group activities, although at the time we just thought we were playing with friends.
I had a group of friends in the streets around who were all about my age and who all attended the local primary school with me. We all knew and were known by all the adults in the neighbourhood and the only dire warnings given were never to go near the canal or the railway and to cross the road carefully – in case the one car of the day happened to be passing perhaps.
By the age of six we were all deemed able to go to and from school, not only at the beginning and end of the day, but also for a cooked mid-day meal every day and we did this in a group. On the way we had to cross what would now be called derelict land and with its humps and hollows and intertwining pathways it was ideal ground for acting out little dramas. So we rode our imaginary horses like cowboys or knights in armour, or slunk around like the Merry Men of Sherwood. We also hopped, skipped and generally moved about in a lively or unrestrained manner!
Once at school we observed the ritual of the games, as they changed with the seasons. Nobody said, “Next week it’s skipping ropes”, but suddenly there would be an outbreak of skipping. If somebody’s mother’s clothes line broke at the right time we would have a long rope for group skipping. Orderly lines formed, without any instructions being given. Then in turn (usually) girls would ‘run in’, sometimes to run out again and rejoin the line at the back. Sometimes whole groups would skip together, and woe betide the person who fluffed it and left everyone else’s feet in a tangled mess. These bursts of activity were accompanied by little chants, sadly none of which I can remember – except for the start of one – “All in together, girls. This is jolly weather, girls”.
In the autumn, of course, the boys had their conkers. Marbles and jacks and hop scotch also came and went for weeks at a time without any formal external organisation. We were of course learning group co-operation and patience and also developing spatial and bodily awareness, hand-eye co-ordination, gross and fine motor control. But we just thought we were passing the time pleasantly.
More solitary home-based activities were tops and whips, again seasonal, although I have no idea why. We decorated the head of the tops with bits of silver paper saved from rare sweet wrappers, or, if even that was in short supply, with coloured chalks. More hand-eye co-ordination and a lot of patience to perfect the technique.
I also recall a lot of time spent with a small ball. A bit like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, I used to spend hours throwing it against the blank end wall of the house and catching it over and over. But unlike the famous star I also had a repertoire of variations. Under arm, over arm, bouncing under first one leg then the other, clapping or even trying to do a complete 360 degree turn between the throw and the catch. O for that level of energy and concentration now, not to mention the time with no one demanding anything else from me.
Should play be organised?
Now I get dizzy listening to some of my younger friends and relations talking about the organised activities to which they take their very young children, planning the next stimulating experience they have lined up and worrying that the milestones are hit at just the right time. It all seems somehow so technical and contrived, not to mention such a source of angst.
I remember with a group of other mothers organising a coffee morning cum play group in the local Methodist Church Hall. We drank coffee and enjoyed some adult conversations and the pre-school toddlers tried out each others’ toys as they ‘moved about in a lively, unrestricted manner and amused themselves’.
I wonder : can we sometimes over-organise, or can we really raise smarter children by being smarter ourselves and providing a more structured programme of purposeful experiences for our tiny tots? Certainly when I was training and managing residential child care workers, I had no doubt that intuition was not enough and that staff should engage in planned, purposeful activity whilst on duty.
I have two problems about the way things are going these days. The first is that I do not see lots more brighter, more co-ordinated young people graduating from the structured groups or serious nurseries. I do see a lot of thoughtless, selfish and randomly destructive behaviour, not to mention all those teenagers in the service industries who seem totally unable to calculate anything without the aid of an electronic till.
The second worry is that, by the age of ten, for many children play now seems
to consist of horrific computer games, played mostly alone and certainly indoors. Yes, safety outdoors can be an issue, but there is no rule which says parents or grandparents cannot take members of the younger generations in to the great outdoors. Spending time at the weekend in countries like Belgium and Luxembourg will reveal whole families hiking or cycling together in the countryside.
Looking to the future
If we must structure and organise, can we first of all think what kind of people we want and need our tots, toddlers and young children to grow in to? We can have only vague ideas of what society will be like in twenty, thirty, or fifty years from now. Between 1942 and 1953 no-one could have had any idea what sort of life we skippers and hop-scotch players would have by 2008. It is even less likely that we can foresee what life will offer or demand of my eleven-year-old grandson between now and 2063.
But we can be sure that then, as now, we need people who are self aware, able to co-operate with others, prepared to take responsibility, willing to share what gifts and talents they have and above all to have open and enquiring minds, because learning should not stop with the end of formal schooling.
Even in that largely uncharted territory, the Third Age, we can still learn new things by simply passing the time pleasantly and amusing ourselves. Some of us can even frolic and quite definitely do not act as required. Indeed, adults learning to make constructive use of their decades of leisure time could be one of the biggest challenges of this century.