Play Today in the Primary School Playground

Play Today in the Primary School Playground

Play Today in the Primary School Playground is a compilation of papers presented at the 1988 “The State of Play: Perspectives on Children's Oral Culture” international conference held at the University of Sheffield and sponsored by the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition. The organizers of the conference and the editors of the resulting book, Julia C. Bishop and Mavis Curtis, maintain that the common belief of the decline of children's play needs to be reexamined in light of children's self directed traditional play.

While the conference was held in England and the book was first published there in 2001, Play Today includes research from around the world concerning play in school playgrounds and among children in “middle childhood” meaning those children between early childhood and adolescence. Their research shows children's play to be “one of vibrancy, creativity, continuity and variety, not one of decline.”1

Following a foreword by Iona Opie in which she outlines the research approach and published results which she and her husband Peter achieved in collecting “school lore,” Bishop and Curtis explain the origin and development of more general “folklore” as an academic discipline. All together they provide background information and perspective on the various published collections of “childlore,” the evolution of different theories and classifications of children's traditional play, and the importance of seeing such play from the child's point of view instead of the more commonly employed adult viewpoint.

Bishop and Curtis, quoting Brian Sutton-Smith, mention the adult pitfalls of trivializing “the nonserious things of life.”2 These things may have “no obvious survival value or adult-oriented benefit, but nevertheless form a significant part of children's experience of childhood.”3 They also maintain that adults “come to children's lore with their own agenda” and only notice play when it becomes a problem in their eyes, such as when the children don't seem to be achieving goals or to be actively organized.4

Also in the Introduction, a discussion of what defines “traditional” explores the bias that indicates only “positive” and unchanging activities as traditional. Bishop and Curtis then expands this definition to include both “continuity and change” and thus define children's play traditions to be “an ongoing process which does not die out but whose manifestations in forms, beliefs and activities ... wax and wane and transform, making perceivable lineages and setting in motion new ones through time and across geographical space.”5

On the foundation of this definition, they then classify children's play traditions into three broad categories: play with high verbal content, play with high imaginative content, and play with high physical content.6 Each of these categories is subdivided by how the play is used by the children. For instance the “high physical content” category includes the subdivisions of games without playthings, games with playthings, making things, and collecting things. Further, the first two subdivisions are divided between play with individuals, with groups, and with teams.7 They believe that this classification facilities the discussion of play issues and “shows the variety of experiences available to children during their free play activities, and demonstrates the potential for learning and enjoyment which a rich and fulfilling playtime can generate.”8

Play Today is organized into three parts followed by a conclusion, general index, a games and rhymes index, and an extensive bibliography that includes both written and audio-visual sources. Nearly all of the nine chapters are revisions of papers presented at the 1988 conference by university professors, researchers, directors, authors, lecturers, and a playworker and play consultant.9

Part One explores the difference between the perceptions of adults and children in today's play world through “Three myths about children's folklore” by June Factor and “The ins and outs of school playground play: children's use of 'play places'” by Marc Armitage. June refutes the myths that children today are not as “well-behaved” as they use to be, that “childhood” is a cultural creation, and that children's play is unimportant and needs to be replaced by adult sanctioned achievement activities such as competitive sports or academic studies. She maintains:

“Play is at the core of middle childhood. It is a means of integrating the child's outer and inner worlds. It is a medium of friendship, and a protection against enemies; the language and rituals of play provide a form of collaborative discourse which distinguishes 'us' from 'them' through a shared aesthetic of performance. Secure in the arena of play and make-believe, children can safely explore and experiment. Play's disengagement from everyday reality gives children a sense of control over the messy fluidity of life; play both distances and patterns experience, and gives it shape and meaning through form.”10

Marc, as a playworker and play consultant, explores the “relationship between what children do on the playground and where they do it.”11 For instance, he decries the adult habit of designing play spaces that are “large open squares or rectangles set away from the school buildings” for these are “devoid of access to nooks and crannies or other three-dimensional features that might serve a defining boundaries, making it difficult for children to define their own places and gain distance between different forms of play.”12 He agrees with Robin Moore who declares “we have no business making policy and spending money on facilities for children until we have an understanding about what parts of the environment children actually use, and why.”13

Part Two includes in-depth studies of play traditions in Australia, Britain, Europe, and North America which show “not only the continuity of many contemporary children's play traditions, but also their creativity, renewal and variety.”14 These include “Counting in and counting out: who knows what in the playground” by Mavis Curtis; “It's not all black or white: the influence of the media, the classroom and immigrant groups on children's playground singing games” by Kathryn Marsh; “'We like singing the Spice Girl songs … and we like Tig and Stuck in the Mud': girls' traditional games on two playgrounds” by Elizabeth Grugeon; and “The saga of Susie: the dynamics of an international handclapping game” by Andy Arleo. These chapters present “a detailed picture of children's play” and fieldwork “evidence of a flourishing culture of play...which is very much alive.”15

Part Three speaks to the possibilities of play in different settings and contexts. J.D.A. Widdowson relates children's informal play to the acquisition of language in the schools through “Rhythm, repetition and rhetoric: learning language in the school playground.” He proposes that these “alternative 'three Rs'” are largely acquired unconsciously through play and are “essential factors enabling the effective mastering of language skills.”16

Concerning cultural identity, Simon Lichman's “From Hopscotch to Siji: generations at play in a cross-cultural setting” reports on the use of joint children's play traditions between Arab and Jewish children and families. The Traditional Creativity through the School project conducted by Simon in Israel resulted in “a non-threatening environment in which members of these groups can establish contact, experience peaceful coexistence and explore common interests.”17

Carole H. Carpenter reports on play of boys in Toronto, Canada in the chapter “'Our dreams in action': spirituality and children's play today.” She maintains that the cultural trends of the commercialization of sports and the increasing adult control over children's free play have helped to “sap the ingenuity, vitality and self-esteem of young boys.”18 She believes that “adults owe children the opportunity to exercise their cultural rights as children and ought to be enabling their freedom and safety to pursue their own games and other traditions in their own manner...So armed through play to face life's challenges, more children just might experience greater joy in being alive.”19

In Play Today in the Primary School Playground, Bishop and Curtis conclude that adults foster children's self-directed play by providing quality time, conducive space, and “low-key” supervision. Through this traditional play the children can “satisfy their psychological and physical needs and develop their own social networks; social, cognitive and artistic skills; and imagination and creativity.”20

  • 1. Bishop, Julia C. and Mavis Curtis, eds. Play Today in the Primary School Playground. Buckingham, England and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press, 2001. p. 2.
  • 2. Sutton-Smith, B. “Psychology of childlore: the triviality barrier.” Western Folklore, 1970. 29: p. 2.
  • 3. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 7.
  • 4. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 8, 11.
  • 5. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 10.
  • 6. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 13.
  • 7. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 14.
  • 8. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 18.
  • 9. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. pp. vii-ix.
  • 10. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. pp. 29-30.
  • 11. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 38.
  • 12. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 55.
  • 13. Moore, R.C. “Childhood's Domain: Play and Place in Child Development.” London: Croom Helm. 1986. p. xvi.
  • 14. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 19.
  • 15. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 59.
  • 16. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p.133.
  • 17. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. pp. 133-134.
  • 18. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 134.
  • 19. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 178.
  • 20. Op.cit., Bishop and Curtis. p. 183.