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Street Actions

Children’s Games in Street and Playground

by Iona Opie, by Peter Opie
Oxford, 400 pp., $9.50

About children’s games—“those games children find out for themselves when they meet” as Plato called them—the Opies know everything. Their learned books are to be read not only for curiosity and delight; they have a particular urgency for educationalists and for people who are trying to manage children in the city and suburb of today. The child’s natural playground has been the street for centuries, but street life is visibly vanishing in our cities; and where it survives, especially in slummy neighborhoods, reformers are dedicated to clearing it away and turning it into the asphalt playground. The Opies give us warning that the blame for vandalism, rioting, and pilfering rests with the reformers who forget, as older children themselves quickly do, what the young child is like and what he needs and why he needs it:

In the present day we assume children to have lost the ability to entertain themselves, we become concerned, and are liable, by our concern, to make what is not true a reality. In the long run, nothing extinguishes self-organized play more effectively than does action to promote it. It is not only natural but beneficial that there should be a gulf between the generations in their choice of recreation. Those people are happiest who can most rely on their own resources.

The children of the better-off classes, above all, are to be pitied and feared:

It is to be wondered whether middle-class children in the United States will ever reach maturity, whose “playtime has become almost as completely organized and supervised as their study” (Carl Withers). If children’s games are tamed and made part of school curricula, if wastelands are turned into playing fields for the benefit of those who can form and ape their elders, if children are given the idea that they cannot enjoy themselves without being provided with the “proper” equipment we need blame only ourselves when we produce a generation who have lost their dignity, who are ever dissatisfied, and who descend for their sport to the easy excitement of rioting, or pilfering or vandalism.

The peaks of a child’s experience are not visits to the cinema and the family outing but when he “escapes into places that are disused, overgrown and silent.” He likes the wasteland where there are no “play leaders,” no side shows; the bomb site is better than the laid-out park. To young children, as Bertrand Russell once said, “it is biologically natural that they should, in imagination, live through the life of remote savage ancestors.” And the Opies add:

As long as the action of the game is of a child’s own making he is ready, even anxious, to sample the perils of which the world has such a plentiful supply. In the security of a game he makes acquaintance with insecurity, he is able to rationalize absurdities, reconcile himself to not getting his own way, “assimilate reality” (Piaget), act heroically without being in danger.

And they point to the study of apes and monkeys in the wild and captive states. In the wild state the authority of experience is accepted and idiosyncrasy is respected. In the captive state the bully and least sensitive animal comes to the top, a pecking order develops, and debauchery becomes common. The wilder the state, the more “civilized” the behavior. Not that the child wishes to be static in his play: he is growing; he is moving, the Opies think, from the fanciful to ritualism, even to romance and the severely competitive as his selfconsciousness increases; but to tame his wild period is mutilating. In the organized playground he becomes more aggressive.

Anyone who has been lucky enough to have had a wild period in childhood will be reminded and refreshed by the researches of the Opies. They are mainly based on games played, under scores of fantastic names, in England where the regional spirit is still strong; but they include a good many American, French, Italian, Far Eastern, and ancient versions of the same items. Put a child down anywhere in the world, and at any period of history in the last 2000 years at least he will recognize his game at once.

The ancestry is long. The Romans played Husky Bum, Finger or Thumb? The Greeks played Ducks and Drakes, Blind Man’s Buff. Frog in the Middle (US: Watch Dog and Baste the Bear) was played in Pompeii. In the Middle Ages a child would have played Prisoner’s Base, Street-football, Hunt the Hare, and Pitch and Toss. Tug of War was “Sunne and Moone” to the Elizabethans. And Hi Johnny Knacker, the roughest and most powerful of English games which we used to call Hump the Knacker in South London when I was a boy and which has at least fifty other names, has been played in Naples for centuries and was enjoyed by Gargantua.

Children are sticklers for tradition. It is curious how old are some of the rules and practices. In the seventeenth century turning a blindfolded figure round three times before starting a chase was general; the choosing stratagem of a pair of straws, sticks, or an orange or lemon is very old. The truce sign of a special word or finger sign seems to be a relic of the age of chivalry. The old “Fains I,” “Fanites,” or “Fen” is still common use in London schools: how grateful one was for the Norman invasion! The punishment of a player who does worst in a game goes back to classical times—a matter to remember when one sees the losing ball player beheaded in the Maya murals at Chichen Itza.

One of the oddest London practices is “chinging up.” This is a practice of choice that has mysteriously come from Japan. You wave a closed hand in the air three times, then chant meaningless words, like Jan, Ken, Pon, and then make finger signs: they are identical in Japan, China, and Indonesia. In England some of the gibberish is distinctly Oriental: Ching, Chang, Cholly, or Chu Chin Chow; Flee Fly Of. There is also a Latin version: Hic Haec Hoc.

There is something called “Chinese Counting” in England and “Indian counting” in the US. It is, of course, neither. In England the “eenie, meenie, macca raca” gibberish is common, but in the US this generally becomes “Inty minty tipty te,” or “eenie, meenie, miney mo.” In Wales the verse runs

Ina, mina, maca, raca,
Re a room, domi, naca
Chica pica, lollie popa
Om, Pom Push

One or two of the Opies’ collection of ritual verses from childhood’s secret society are striking inventions.

One-ery, two-ery, ziccary, zan;
Hollow bone, crackabone

ninery ten;

Spittery spot, it must be done; Twiddledum, twaddledum
Twenty one.

Hink spink, the puddings stink, The fat begins to fry,
Nobody’s at home, but jumping Joan, Father, mother and I.
Stick, stock, stone dead, Blind men can’t see,
Every knave will have a slave,
You or I must be HE.

But they are not necessarily old. Fashion, topicality, words overheard in the family, and newspapers play their part:

Charlie Chaplin
Sat on a pin
How many inches
Did it go in? Four
One, two, three, four.

Since 1940, the Opies say, it has become obligatory to say the ritual word “Dip” with a slight bow to the ground before counting out; for what reason no one can tell the French have been using “pouce” for generations. In fact, to my knowledge, wetting the finger and saying “Dip” has been known in Wales at least twenty years earlier although it seems to be connected with the old magic of dipping the finger in mud for luck. “Dip” is unknown in the US. To my ear the latest London Dip seems to glance at the National Health Service:

Dip-a-dip-a-dation, my operation
How many people at the station?

for the child artist loves the topical. Obviously a glance at the race situation has made him substitute a new word for the censored one:

Eenie meenie mina mo
Catch a fisher by his toe.

The child is a traditionalist who moves with the times. So “touch wood” replaced Touch Iron (which had an interesting connection with the magic of metals), but is now being replaced by “touch color,” usually green, which was used so commonly in English primary schools. Fashion affects the reign of certain games. In a long list of games “going out,” the Opies list Kiss in the Ring, King of the Castle, Blind Man’s Buff, Leap Frog, Prisoner’s Base, Sardines, Tom Tiddler. The rising ones tend to be played violently: Hi Johnny Knacker; Kiss Chase; Off Ground He; Jack, Jack; Shine a Light; Statues; Relieve-O; and a macabre game called Poison.

Television keeps Cowboys and Indians alive under the names of current programs like Cheyenne, Pony Express: there has been a surprising burst of King Arthur’s Knights. Spacemen are going out, now that astronauts have become commonplace. One game, entitled The Lurgi Strikes Britain, seems to have been imposed by the famous Spike Milligan, Secombe, and Seller’s show, The Goons, which exploited the love of gibberish lasting almost into adult life. Once “touched” in a game of He or Tig, you were infected—a primitive notion—with Lurgi, i.e., you were stupid, goofy, loony, nuts, or a nit. The nit was the traditional “flea.” Lurgi replaced it. In New Zealand if a girl caught you there was a shout of “you’ve got girl fleas.” In Naples you got the plague, in Madagascar leprosy; in Glastonbury the old term was “minge” (mange?). I have an idea that the sophisticated “Germ” is replacing the fantastic Lurgi.

The most popular game today in England with elaborate rules is Kingy, which we used to call “Hot Rice.” It is very fast. Those who are not He (US: It) have the ball hurled hard against them without means of retaliation, and against increasing odds. Anyone who is hit by a ball joins the He in attacking the rest. The throwers may not run with the ball in their hands, but chase the quarry by passing the ball to each other. Those who are chased are allowed to dodge and can even punch the ball back, and since the ball stings when it is thrown hard they wear handkerchiefs on their fists. Boys still play it up to the age of sixteen, often across the streets.

The Opies are exhaustive. Their regional knowledge is immense—it takes them back to the counting methods of Celtic shepherds—and their reflections are wise. It is no coincidence to them that the games in decline are the ones adults know best and are constantly pushed by them. The Opies suspect that the children who say they go around “aggravating people” or shouting, in gangs, “Anyone who gets in our way will be knocked over” (like the six-year-old girl who liked “setting gangs on people”) are children of the official playground conditioned by teacher’s orders and whistle. The children of the wasteland do not tolerate such behavior.

People in institutions, even those in concentration camps, are often far from feeling camaraderie and are likely to set about making life more intolerable for their fellows in confinement. Institutions create the bully: the more regulated, the more bullying:

…in our continual search for efficient units of educational administration we have overlooked that the most precious gift we can give the young is social space; the necessary space—or privacy—in which to become human beings.

How vividly we remember our wasteland life; its private adventures and thrilling secrecies, where half the pleasure was in the imagination; how much, in recollection, we resent in the life that was schooling us off the lanes and the streets, and planting us, like little robots, in the “areas” of recreation. For God’s sake, couldn’t the word “area” be denied to our planners and sociologists! Who, at any time in his life, wants to be in an “area”?

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