Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground,
Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around.
The chants and charms of childhood, the rhymes and riddles, the taunts and rituals that occupy the oh-so-short a spell from the seemingly never-ending lessons at school are passed down from one generation of children to the next.
Over the garden wall, I let the baby fall.
My mother came out, and gave me a clout,
And sent me over the wall.
Children are tradition's warmest friends; they were conservationists long before adults ever heard the word. In their games, rhymes, jokes and chants, children continue to preserve a culture – mostly invisible to adults – that stretches back hundreds of years.
"Eeny, meeny, miney, mo" dates from early forms of pre-Christian rituals; versions of marbles and hop-scotch have been found in Roman ruins; on the wall of an Egyptian tomb, two girls are pictured – handclapping.
A piece of Etruscan terracotta dated about 800 BC shows girls playing jacks or knucklebones; Pieter Breughel's 16th century landscape painting illustrates 84 playground games, and most would be known to many of the world’s young today.
By some process of collective osmosis, each generation of children manages to induct a new wave of tiny tots into the playground's rich heritage.
Playground rhymes deal with adult themes
Amid all the apparent confusion of cries and seemingly random movement of little people at play, there are rigid rules that get passed on by word of mouth from the older to the younger. There is humour, poetry and a frequent bawdiness that adults never get to hear about – another world that often mimics and mocks the one outside the school gates.
Ask your mother for sixpence, to see the big giraffe,
With pimples on its whiskers and pimples on its...
According to Dr June Factor, a University of Melbourne academic who has spent years collecting children's folklore, many of the playground rhymes deal with themes that adults do not expect young children to know or talk about – sex, lavatory humour, underclothes.
Yet any study of what children get up to when they are by themselves soon makes clear that adult behaviour comes under constant close watch by apparently uninterested tots.
Often ignored when adults get excited or involved in their own concerns, children observe the goings-on with a grim sort of jocularity and a capacity to puncture adult conceits and pretensions.
International Journal of Play
Now Dr Factor, Professor Pat Broadhead of Leeds Metropolitan University in Britain and Associate Professor Michael Patte of Bloomsberg University of Pennsylvania in the US have edited the world’s first International Journal of Play, assisted by a 20-strong editorial board whose members are from 10 different countries.
Apart from those inhabited by the three editors, the countries include France, Belgium, Greece, Hong Kong, Norway, Taiwan and the West Indies.
The journal is a peer reviewed 114-page publication produced by Routledge with a print and online subscription of US$316 (US$284 online only) for three issues a year. The first edition has seven papers from academics around the world as well as commentaries and book reviews.
The editors say the idea for such a journal began years ago with discussions among play enthusiasts at conferences and professional gatherings about the need for an international forum. That led to a formal proposal to Routledge and the scheme was officially approved late last year.
“Our intention is to produce a journal that reflects, challenges and advances an understanding of play across the alphabet of scholarly disciplines,” they write in their first editorial.
“The journal aims to provide an international forum for mono- and multi-disciplinary papers and scholarly debate on all aspects of play theory, policy and practice from across the globe...”
In 1969, Monash University Professor Ian Turner produced the first book in Australia of children's play rhymes. Cinderella Dressed in Yella leapt into prominence when the then Postmaster General's Department found certain of the schoolyard ditties indecent and banned it from the post!
Exploring the underground world of play
Since then a growing band of researchers have been exploring the underground world of children's play.
Their investigations have revealed that play is both important and significant in a child's development. In the playground – or the backyard – children learn to socialise; they practise adult roles and even pick up the rhythmic patterns of the language.
Mary Mack Dressed in black,
Silver buttons down her back.
She likes coffee,
She likes tea,
She likes sitting on a black man's knee.
Those who have spent time observing children's play are amazed by the young's powers of concentration, by their commitment and preparedness to practise endlessly. The young child is the hardest toiler on the planet, as one writer puts it.
Periodically, though, adults look at what children are doing and express alarm that they no longer seem to be playing – that they are spending too much time in front of television or computer screens, or in arcades playing electronic games.
"Go outside and play!" becomes a recurring cry.
In Captain Cook Chased a Chook, one of Factor's studies of children's play, she disputes the notion that television is an assassin of childhood, helping to destroy a subculture that traces its origins back to the beginnings of humankind.
Not so, Factor says; all the evidence points to the persistent and enduring role of play in children's lives.
This is not to say that playtime or child lore is not open to assault from outside, adult sources; what the critics have detected is not the end of childhood but new forms of neglect of children. Commercial and sexual exploitation now occur through television and advertising, and only belatedly are many governments showing concern.
But Factor was still optimistic when she wrote: “The traditions of child lore contain much that sustains the young and protects them, for a time, from the deformities of the adult world.
“Children are resourceful, resilient and hopeful. Whenever two or three gather they build small, shifting islands of play, separated by an invisible sea from the large land mass which all must tread.”
As we cross that ocean into adulthood, we put away childish things even though, as Factor says, we still carry our faded passports from the past. Nevertheless, the rules of marbles, of skippy, tiggy and downball eventually disappear, along with the rhymes and the rituals, behind a thick fog of grown-up concerns.
We forget that in their schoolyard games, children learn to play with other children rather than against them; that playing is more important than winning – that cooperation counts for more than competition.
This is one of childhood's traditions adults today might do well to recall.
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