‘Children are forgetting how to play. This is doubtless an inevitable result of modern developments.’ Not as you might imagine a lament from the digital age, but one expressed in an article in 1903. Fretting about the state of children’s play, it seems, is far from being a recent pastime.
Steve Roud’s engrossing new survey comes some five decades since Iona and Peter Opie’s famous studies of children’s games and traditions, Children’s Games in Street and Playground and The Lore and Language of School Children. Seminal as those works are some updating was clearly required now that the frequenters of today’s playgrounds are the children of a new millennium. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of people aged 8 to 80, and an online survey, The Lore of the Playground gives us a comprehensive picture of what children are getting up to right across the nation.
The picture that emerges is fascinating, and goes against much current ‘wisdom’. There have been changes of course. Traditions in children’s games come and go, with each generation having its favourites. In the 1930s, hoops and tops were all the rage; now they are rarely seen. Clapping rhymes by contrast are more prevalent and varied then they have ever been. Other pastimes like skipping and tag (interestingly Roud prefers to call it ‘tig’ which is how I, an East Midlands girl, always knew it) are remarkably resilient, passing effortlessly down the years, but frequently spruced up with new variants.
Though Roud acknowledges other profound changes in contemporary childhood, notably the fact that traffic volumes have seen off the kind of street play that was once widespread, there is much here to comfort those who fear that traditional children’s games are on the verge of extinction. Roud’s book proves beyond all alarmist headlines to the contrary that children’s playtimes still constitute an astonishingly rich mixture of tradition and innovation, perhaps even more so in this multicultural and multimedia age. As I have been fervently proselytising this view since publication of my own book on children’s games, this is for me, the most welcome aspect of this joyous book.