A survey out today points to a decline in traditional outdoor games like hopscotch, marbles and conkers. You may have heard me talking about the findings on Radio 5 live this morning, supporting the call for a ‘rough and tumble play’ campaign. Mourning the loss of such games makes a nice summer season story. But does it really matter? Isn’t the attempt to revive interest in these games just shallow nostalgia? Is it even adults’ business to get involved? After all, these games have traditionally been passed down through the generations by children themselves, with little or no adult input.
I think there is something important about these traditional games that cannot simply be dismissed as rose-tinted, sepia-toned nostalgia. And I think the time is right to revisit these games and breathe new life into them.
There is something wonderfully pared down and self-reliant about many traditional games. They rarely need equipment. Many can be played almost anywhere, and can cope with a wide range of ages, abilities and numbers of players (I once saw two siblings play hide-and-seek for about fifteen minutes in a five-metres-by-five leisure centre reception area.) And the rules can be endlessly adapted – just as long as a sense of fair play is respected.
Outdoor games also provide children with valuable rehearsals for everyday life. Think about all the tasks that are involved in a game of tag, for instance. Players have to decide who is ‘it’. They have to agree safe spots, and how ‘time out’ works. And they have to sort out disputes about whether or not someone was tagged. The physicality of tag, and indeed many traditional games, demands accurate risk management. When chasing or catching, players have to try to make sure they don’t hurt each other too much, and it’s not a great idea to collide with any non-participants who happen to stray into the area. That is a pretty impressive list of physical, interpersonal and social skills.
Some of the most popular traditional games cut across gender and cultural divides. I have seen the very same gestures being used to signify ‘time out’ in my daughter’s highly multicultural primary school in East London, and in a largely Maori school in Auckland, New Zealand.
Last but not least, many of these games are simply great fun. At their best, they create the opportunity for physically immersive, open-ended, ever-evolving narratives of a kind that is simply not possible when sat (or even stood) in front of a screen. And let’s not forget: given the choice, children today would rather be playing outside than anything else.
In my view, forecasts of the death of traditional games are somewhat premature. They are more resilient than we adults sometimes think they are – though I do fear that they are at long-term risk, simply because children are denied the space, time and opportunity to play and share them. Hence the most important job for adults is to create the space and time that is needed. Children themselves will do the rest, perhaps with some invitations and cues.
There are some encouraging signs. As I have noted before, interest is growing in reclaiming residential streets for play. Moreover, playworkers and others working in schools and childcare settings are also exploring how to make break times more playful.
Playground games may not be as popular as they were in the days when Peter and Iona Opie – the pre-eminent scholars of children’s play culture – were in their pomp. But with growing interest in the topic – witness this recent research and cataloguing project hosted by the British Library – their future could be brighter than we think.
What are your views: do children play traditional games in your setting or neighbourhood? If not, why not – and do you think kids are missing out as a result? Do you think parents and teachers should be reviving these games? Or do you agree with the Opies, who provocatively declared in their classic book Children’s Games in Street and Playground “nothing extinguishes children’s self-organised play more effectively than those who aim to promote it”?