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 …

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