Children’s Street Games

A Free-for-all sample investigation recently conducted by this writer revealed that, of a hundred and fifty children around thirteen years old, only one knew a commoney from an alley taw and none at all could play Jimmy Knacker. On the other hand, almost every one was au fait with TV panel games, space-travel and the Hollywood pantheon. Childhood pleasures have undergone a minor revolution, with most adults uncertain of its merits against the recollection that they had to make their own amusements in their young days.

That is true enough, but it means little. It would be more accurate to say that people of all ages “made their own amusements,” in the not-so-distant past and now take them second-hand, canned and standardized: the front-room piano and the family party have faded equally with Hopscotch and Tip-cat. Television, films and the other leisure-machines are obvious factors in the change, but its real nature lies much deeper in modern society.

Children’s games are traditional. Many of them, like skipping, see-saws and swinging, began as ancient work-rituals: the reason why each had its immovable “season.” Hoops were an autumn pastime, marbles were for Lent, and skipping belonged to springtime. So did whipping tops; Greek and Roman boys played with them, as well as leap-frogging and doing the labyrinth mime we know as Hopscotch. And there were the war games—Tom Tiddler’s Ground, Prisoner’s” Base, and half a dozen others which existed five hundred years ago under names like The Last Couple in Hell and Barley-Break: the hunting and hiding games; the courtship games— Queen Anne, Drop Handkerchief and so on.

There was more than just playing them. Each had its proper ritual, beginning with a counting-out rhyme to choose the victim or the sides. Most, excepting the ones where breath was needed for vigorous action, depended on accompanying chants or songs. There were scores of them, from ball-bouncing and skipping rhymes to things like:

“The wind, the wind, the wind blows high.
Snowflakes flutter from the sky—
Lizzie Gordon’s going to die
For want of the Golden City.”

Though the past tense has been used, they are still played, of course. Some of the rhymes have taken strictly modern imagery, like this one for skipping:

“Hi. Roy Rogers, how about a date?
Meet you round the corner at half-past eight.
I can do the rumba. I can do the splits.
I can wear my skirt up high above my hips.”

All of it has become increasingly rare, however. It is not merely that new amusements have superseded traditional ones, or even that road traffic has made the streets dangerous playgrounds. Children’s play is functional, a part of the social pattern, and its transformation is part of the change in urban social life that has taken place in modem times.

Education today means schooling—the mass imposition of basic knowledge, skills and attitudes. In its real sense, however, education is the process of adapting children to the world they have to live in. Obviously that process is not limited to school: it takes place at home, in the streets and everywhere, and play is part of it. Through play, young children have learned from older ones the ways and ethics of their communities and the essentials of co-operative living. That is still the case in present-day primitive societies, and it was so in ours until recent times.

This was the real function and significance of all the children’s games and songs. Little girls singing “Poor Jenny is A-weeping” or “Wallflowers” were not merely playing an ancient ring game but learning to accept and evaluate the fact of death; just as the Drop Handkerchief game was imitation and rehearsal of the conventions of pairing and courtship; just as, in even the rough games, everyone learned to behave co-operatively so that the game could go on and be enjoyed. Folklore, morality, sex, sociability—all were learned through play, together with agility of hand, foot and eye.

The division of labour in our society is such that one generation’s experience means little to the next. That in itself is one reason why lore and attitudes are no longer commonly handed down. More than that, however, the division is marked out in childhood. Children seeming to have special ability are creamed off, classified and made conscious of the separation at anything from seven years old. So are the “backward” ones. Hewers of wood and plan-makers in prospect are labelled and stratified and pressed along divergent roads without much common ground between.

It is common nowadays to speak of parents’ having abdicated in favour of teachers and administrators, as if the working class were directly to blame for the State’s having assumed charge of their children. In fact, anyone who tried to keep his child out of it all would find things made very difficult for him. The real point is that, as community life has fallen away, the formal communal function of education has been taken over to an ever-increasing extent by specialists with the State’s authority behind them. In the first place it was to instill simple knowledge; now, there are few aspects of childhood life it does not touch.

Thus, the function of children’s games has largely ceased to exist. Physical agility is no longer acquired climbing trees, or with rope tied to the railings; it is the concern of the Physical Training teacher, who has hoops and ropes and climbing frames and calls them “apparatus.” Rounders, touch and stump-cricket? in the “organized Games” lesson on the Council’s playing-field. The rituals, codes and knowledge have been transmuted into rules. In “The Reasonable Life,” Clifford Gessler’s delightful book about the Polynesians, children are described as playing with and learning from one another without adult direction; our society, on the other hand, has led to direction in practically every human activity—including those of childhood.

One result of the handing-over of communal and personal responsibilities to authority-bearing specialists is that many people have come to take it as the natural order; the authorities should do this, that and something else. Another, in part, is the amount of tension and frustration which characterizes life in the modern world; the outstanding frustration—and one unprecedented in history—is that of people’s desire for association with and acceptance by their fellows. It is worth considering the matter, however in relation to the lives of children themselves. There is a great deal of alarm nowadays about the apathy and recalcitrancy said to be rife in State elementary schools; there are the juvenile delinquency figures —and, of course, the Teddy Boys.

Why do numbers of young people today adopt and display anti-social attitudes? Various immediate causes are fairly obvious; for example, statistics from all over the world show a clear relationship between delinquency and broken or unstable homes. The bigger, more important point is that anti-social behaviour is a matter of the organization of society. In this case, its strongest single cause is the absence of former communal, co-operative living and thinking.

The Teddy Boy is one product of an un-social society. He has grown up in a world where life is individualized and behaviour depends less and less on communal sanction. He has been educated insofar as knowledge and attitudes have been more or less forcibly inculcated from above: in the wider sense of education, of learning in and from a community, he has not been educated at all. And the dominant ideals of the Capitalist world, the mainspring of his behaviour-pattern, are of ends justifying means and might being right.

Thus, the disappearance of traditional children’s games is part of a change in social life which has taken place in our time and has added fresh problems to those inherent in our society. The latest generations of children know only a world which is atomized, congested but lonely, which can teach them little about co-operation and social harmony. Criticisms of schooling and of the behaviour of young people are easy and plentiful. The real criticism, however, is of society. The millions spent on our educational systems are directed to training children to take their places as workers and consumers. In a world organized for human satisfaction and not for profit, the purpose would be very different.

Robert Barltrop

“The Reasonable Life” is published by The John Day Company of New York and Longmans Green of Toronto. It describes everyday life among the Polynesians of the South-East Pacific, who have not so far had the good fortune to discover tension, neurosis and the other benefits of Capitalist society.