Traditional outdoor games: why do they matter?

Traditional outdoor games: why do they matter?

Rethinking Childhood
Posted on August 22, 2012 | 44 Comments
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”?
Share this:
Like this:
Like Loading...
| August 22, 2012 at 9:06 am | Reply
thanks for the post. I feel quite privileged – children where I work skip, play tag (bulldog, blocky 1-2-3) make dams, play hide and seek, build dens in the summer. We help them, intervene, show them how to jump rope (well others might!), patch them up if needed, allow them to negotiate, arrange a set of rules given the space we have. Does it help? Probably it does. They are active, they play with a range of friends of different ages (cheating slightly here) as it’s a tiny school. The children often stay on at the end of the day to play – it’s in a very sparsely populated area, some of the children living miles from their neighbours. The games are child led, passed on from one group to the next, mutate, change, allow younger ones to be brought in, and accommodated. Before we get too rosy tinted, sometimes children fall out and get upset. This is quickly resolved, on the whole, by other children, keen to see the play and game continue. Football does not dominate! I’d love to delve in deeper to what children think, do they value playtimes, why…but time is always against it
| August 22, 2012 at 9:15 am | Reply
Absolutely Tim,
You have to create the conditions for the activity to begin again. I spend most of my time working with exactly this. Children are raised on a diet of virtual action and the culture of ‘white lines’ and referees to adjudicate the flow of their play. They have had the natural creativity that engenders game-play hijacked.
Shopping appears higher on their list of ‘want-to-dos’ than play, certainly if you don’t conside fiddling with your thumbs is quite the same thing!
Craig Taylor
| August 22, 2012 at 9:35 am | Reply
Indeed, doesn’t happen by happy accident. Shopping, thumbs, screens and lines….love the C21st malaise for children in this context reduced to 5 words. However, they are part of life, here we are online discussing it, and we need to find ways to balance, prioritize, and ensure children value all aspects of their lives, not just those marketed most effectively. Without appearing prissy, old fashioned, or luddite!
| August 22, 2012 at 10:25 am | Reply
Craig and Mark, thanks for your comments. Mark – I’m reminded of another quote from the Opies – in fact, a response from children to their adult interest: “but we’re only *playing* – it’s not meant to be *serious*” (or something like that). Craig – yes to balance. Screens are in danger of being the focus of the next piece of scaremongering, and that won’t help children any more than all the other moral panics about childhood.
| August 22, 2012 at 11:39 am | Reply
Hi Tim, I enjoy reading your blog. I’m blogging along similar lines but with a focus on the inherent creativity of childhood. Much of all this we write about starts with providing kids with the free time to play, to get bored enough to shift into their own creative modes of play. I enjoy observing some of the simple games my kids play when left to their own devices. I believe the decline of these kinds of traditional games occur when, not only is there a loss of free time in over scheduled lives, but they are provided with too many prescriptive toys and tech and loose the balance of childhood play.
| August 23, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply
Hi Tim, Not only toys but many playgrounds are extremely limiting too. Kid’s are bombarded with ready-made solutions for play. Yes, it’s a tough one, since technology and computers are their future too, I’ve made sure my kids start with a computer as an open ended creative tool – some games have fabulous creative opportunities, such as the game minecraft, and this builds on his interest in construction. He loves the fact he can build inside or outside! My six year old has also learnt the basics of programming (without realising it) in a game where he gets to be the creator. There are the opportunities for computers to provide creative learning and exploration, though it’s about being very selective and again keeping balance with all things play. They still prefer the adventures and interactive play with siblings and friends long before the computer.
Andrea
I have a 9yr old and a 4 yr old.
I put a large emphasis on outdoor play and traditional games.
I think the key is that these spaces (for free range children to play in) need to be created! and imagination needs to be used to create them. I live in smaller duplex style housing on the gold coast (where you just visited) and on a main road. So, thus far playing in an outdoor environment has been confined to the small yard we have (due to age and safety reasons inherent with living on a 4 lane street).
However imagination has been used when using designing the outdoor space to allow traditional, outdoor and rough and tumble games. So we have a mango tree and we keep I trimmed however sufficient branches to climb, so all kids who come to my house, get to climb it. It’s my 9 yr olds fav spot. It has rope and wooden (free hanging) ladders hanging from it and a tyre swing. (all made by my partner and I).
Under the mango tree the grass does not grow (not enough light etc) so we thought long and hard about how to solve the problem. In the end we decided it does not need solving, while it looks ugly and I can pave it. It’s an excellent place for kids to get dirty and play with dirt. They have a ‘dig dig’ and dig the dirt up, make race tracks, make little town and dig holes and make pools and dams for the people.
We have some paving down the side and back of the house, but one thing I insisisted was larger concrete pavers to be used in a section so it can be used as an invitation to play hop scotch. So the big concrete pavers are set out in a line of a pattern of 1,1,1,2,3,2,1,1,1 so it’s still functional as a path but the kids can use it as hop scotch, with chalk so they can write the numbers on it. I’ve even used it to help the kids count by 2’s 3’s etc and modify a hop scotch game and use all the 13 tiles to do this.
The kids do have some modern ‘toys’ like a trampoline and swing set, but they also will grab the long ladder and hang it in between the fence and swing set and use it as monkey bars.
I might add, I do not believe in pads or nets on the trampoline, as any kids new I believe in talking about safety and how to use it properly. In the 9 yrs I have never had a kid fall out if the tree or off the trampoline. No broken bones, just minor scrapes…
They use the trampoline as a cubby house, put sheets around it and make triangle cubby houses by leaning wood against the fence and putting sheets and blankets on it.
They play tiggy all the time, the mango tree is ‘BAR’, also murder in the dark. We make basketball hoops made out of metal coat hangers and make lines for handball out of the skipping ropes. Make car tracks and jumps out of scrap wood….
It is messy, and it is very noisy, but if you allow the kids the tools, even a small area like we have and don’t mind noise it can be achieved very easily.
I think with cluster living, there is a big expectation of kids being quiet, so it becomes easier to allow TV to be a baby sitter to keep the kids quiet after te parents have had a long day at work etc…
There is many kids who come to my house who get paranoid about the dirt and when my kids say ‘let’s climb the tree’ they are mortified…. Since they don’t play these outdoor games I find they need more help to solve minor squabbles as they lack te problem solving skills that outdoor games promote…
Just today I had to take 3 kids out to the footpath out the front (yes next to that busy road) as they had tied a small kick board to a skate board and wanted to pull each other up and down the footpath with a rope they had attached… They expermented, found the rope would not hold their contraption together they got a scraped knee and sore toe, but once I showed them a way to tie it together safely, which they eventually modified as they expermented and learned on the spot- they got it going and had the best fun! Since it is a busy road I was out there for the 2 hours with them, however I only intervened and said something once, after I let them have multiple goes to try and figure it out themselves….
I feel all settings should promote it, home school, daycare etc – but if kids have not been introduced to such games as handball and skipping then they also need to be taught the skils and it promoted. I have hundreds of hours playing handball, skipping and tiggy under my belt. The age gap between my kids meant that I was my daughters first friend. I introduced and taught her these things, before she started day care at age 4. (now she does most of the teaching with her 4 yr old brother) But those skills they learnt allowed all 3 older children today to build their contraption and pull each other along the footpath. Without my emphasis on outdoor play and as I call it … My children are ‘free range’ not ‘battery hen’ children (also known as cotton wool children) they would not be able to do it as these elements wouldn’t have been put into the design of the outdoor play area…
| August 23, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
Sorry Tim, not a Bucks schoolboy, I’m afraid. I’ve seen the Aylesbury GS wall and it’s a bit smaller than the one we played against at Weymouth Grammar School.
The end wall of the WGS building was of a pebbledash effect divided into four equal slabs in a square like a checkerboard, maybe 5m x 5m each? The upper two scored higher than the lower two. It was surrounded by grass that stretched out across an area that had at least eight football pitches and plenty of slack space shared by two large (secondary) schools. So no matter how hard the rebound, we couldn’t go out of bounds (the trick was to achieve such a tight angle with your throw and rebound that the next person to throw couldn’t hit the wall from side on and so far away).
Perhaps also of interest to readers considering the current debate about loss of playing fields is that the school lands are all gone now, lost to housing.
And to make matters even worse;
I used to live about a mile away from school (and another half mile to the nearest beach) and I’ve spoken before about how the back of our typically large council house garden opened onto an old abandoned WW2 airfield hillside of unmaintained grasslands. At one end of the wilderness was the remains of the airbase oval access road (naturally this became our bike racing track) and the old HQ building foundations (the dens), which was where we played day after day, year after year in our own little world too far from adults to be influenced by them at all.
As you may have guessed, that’s gone too, under an industrial estate and more houses, so in all maybe 30 hectares of wonderful grasslands have been lost to development over the last two decades. There’s nothing left now for today’s children in that part of town to play on, not even a token set of swings to apologise for all the tarmac and buildings.
The locals are now locked in a desperate fight to save the final remaining large green hillside area of fields in the heart of the town. Sadly, I think eventually they’ll lose. And then there will be nowhere for half the town’s children to run around in, play, smell the summer grass and count clouds. Multiply that by all the towns in Britain and make Joni Mitchell a saint for her Big Yellow Taxi vision that came true.
Cathy Hope, 5 Allawah Avenue, Frankston, Victoria, Australia 3199