Friday, August 12, 2011

Place, Folklore and Play

The tree where I played as a child
Can you recall a special place where you played as a child? An object, structure or piece of equipment that always seemed to be a point at which children would congregate? As a child I can remember many such spaces. There was a narrow strip of ground between the southern side of our house and a low fence. It was a place to hide, and the site of numerous 'lean-to' cubbies. And it was a place of imaginary play alone, and sometimes a place to share secrets and stories with others in our 'clubhouse'. I can recall a tree over-hanging the creek near my house as a child where we spent hours climbing it, jumping off it and talking under it. The photo opposite taken in recent times show that it still has the same use 50 years later. I can also recall a line of seats around a large gum tree on our school playground which we'd jump, use as balance beams, and use as the walls of a great imaginary fort holding out the enemy forces closing in as part of lunchtime battles.

What games did this site once host?
Have you ever noticed that some spaces attract children and others seem to repel them? Some park playgrounds seem to work and others leave children disinterested? There is a special relationship between space, objects and children's play. 

A school Principal and a researcher on play made an interesting discovery at a Melbourne school recently. As part of the development of a new masterplan for the school playground the researcher discovered that an unusual structure near the front gate of Princes Hill Primary School had special significance. It is made of steel and timber, and looks like a long disused bike stand.  But while the structure was inconsequential (and probably ready to be removed), at lunchtime it would be the site of an unusual game. A group of pupils would gather around it to begin a ritual that it would seem has been going on in this school, at this place, using this object, for generations.

They call the game 'Cat and Mouse'. The researchers found that while it has similarities to other games of chasey, there are unique elements.  The children form a circle and one child chants the traditional counting rhyme "Dip, dip" to see who will be "it". But the game is only ever played around the unusual structure. The structure is well worn, with metal railings polished to a shiny brilliance by generations of children. And yet, the exact purpose originally is now unclear. But for 'Cat and Mouse' the rules are clear. Grade 6 students have been teaching them to the Prep (Grade 1) children for generations.

As I said in a post on the imagination some months ago, imagination and creativity are fundamental to human advancement and are qualities to be valued and nurtured. It is important not to constantly constrain and conform our children with a resultant loss of originality, innovation and discovery. The example at Princes Hill Primary School is a good reminder of why we need to remember this.  

I have quoted John Holt before, but I want to do it again, because he expresses this point so well: 

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out. (John Holt, 1981)

Other links and posts

You can read the newspaper report on Princes Hill Primary HERE
'Stimulating Children's Imaginations' HERE
Story on June Factor and the Australian Children's Folklore Collection HERE
'Australian Children's Folklore Collection' HERE

Dr Ken Ginsburg & Dr Marilyn Benoit Speaking on Play

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