Cootie Power

The People in the Playground

by Iona Opie
Oxford University Press, 240 pp., $23.00

Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School

by Barrie Thorne
Rutgers University Press, 237 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Most readers of this magazine, though they may have enjoyed childhood, were not totally happy in elementary school. I am reminded of this when I see children waiting for the yellow bus on a misty autumn morning. They look serious, tensed up, uncertain of what lies ahead. They know that even if events in the classroom are predictable, recess will be an interlude of nearanarchy in which anything can happen. They may be admired or mocked, attacked or welcomed, know sudden triumph or crushing humiliation.

As the British folklorist Iona Opie puts it in The People in the Playground, childhood “is a time more full of fears and anxieties than many adults care to remember.” Few of us revisit elementary school as we do secondary school and college. The idea that someone might deliberately return to this scene and spend months and even years hanging about, without the pay and official status of a teacher, seems odd. Yet Iona Opie herself in England, and Barrie Thorne in America, did just that during roughly the same period—the late 1970s—with interesting results. They also witnessed many of the same phenomena; but their stance as observers, the manner in which they report their discoveries, and the works that resulted, are wholly different.

Iona Opie’s attitude toward the children whose activities she recorded is one of affectionate sympathy, and though she makes few attempts to analyze the rich original material she has collected, her journal is a pleasure to read. She writes in the British tradition of the amateur naturalist and essayist, assuming a wide but literate audience who will understand references to Rabelais or Rossetti.

Barrie Thorne, who was far less comfortable on the playground, is a professor writing for professors, which traditionally requires a more formal manner. Gender Play is sometimes hard going, but it contains many interesting and original observations.

Iona Opie is now probably the world’s best-known authority on the culture of childhood; she shared this honor with her husband, Peter, until his death in 1982. Together the Opies more or less invented the study of juvenile games, rhymes, and songs, publishing now-classic works like The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, The Lore and Language of School-children, and Children’s Games in Street and Playground. In 1960 Mrs. Opie began to spend time at a state elementary school near her home in Hampshire; between 1970 and 1983 she made regular weekly visits. Her new book, in journal form, is “a narrative account of what one person could see and overhear and be told directly during the fifteen eventful minutes of morning playtime,” from January 1978 to July 1980.

Iona Opie seems to have known instinctively how to present herself to children. When she appears they crowd around, jostling for the chance to tell a joke or a rhyme, or draw her into their fantasies. “The bold bad story-teller caught up with me,” she writes of one encounter, “brandishing a length of joined elastic bands and saying ‘This is a threatening machine.’ ”

For her, the experience was exhilarating. Even after twenty years of observation, she writes, “I still feel the excitement of the hunter when I hear children coming out to play.” The playground is a thrilling place: “There is always something to copy, something to watch, something to join in.” She admires the children’s imagination, the way they can instantly throw themselves into a fantasy. “We’re playing Anti-tanks and Anti-aeroplanes…killing elephants and the warring mammoths,” one confides. “That’s how they got extinct.”

But Iona Opie is by no means sentimental about children. Sometimes she sees them as temporary lunatics, or angry savages:

I stood watching…and thought, “Playtime is a chance to go mad.” The children were pushing, clutching, staggering, prancing, dodging, exaggerating every movement into pantomime; it was continuous Saturnalia.

The savage noises of the playground: the aggressive and defensive shouting—“Nah, gettaway,” “Watch it, you dope,”—and the wordless invective of screams and snarls. Hobbes, I thought, was right in his belief that man is committed to endless conflict.

At other times children appear to her as instinctive humorists:

Try to analyse the sound of children at play: the thin screaming noise can be heard from several streets away. Vitality? Yes. But come closer and step into the playground; a kind of defiant light-heartedness envelops you. The children are…making fun of life.

Usually Mrs. Opie describes rather than analyzes: but her range is both broad and detailed. She notes the weather, and the way people move and speak: “The sky overcast, with glaring white light shining through. House-martins hunted…directly overhead.” “A maelstrom of wind and small wet snow.” “As a boy begins to run away from a chaser his eyes open wider.”

Part of the charm of Iona Opie’s book is that often she reacts as if she were a child herself. “A boy was standing and writing in the middle of the playground. I felt a sense of kinship, and competition.” She identifies the children as a child might: “the mouse boy,” “the gorilla boy,” “the chorus girl,” and “the freckle-faced horror.” She describes a hollow in the grass as “a depression deep enough for a platypus to nest in,” and takes notes with a pencil she decorated with silver sealing wax when she was ten. Reporting on an encounter with two little girls, she speaks as if she were exactly their age: “We were quite content to laugh together about nothing in particular (an enjoyment not comprehensible to adults).”

As might be expected, Iona Opie admires the spontaneous and natural and is put off by self-consciousness. She is especially irritated by a girl named Lisa, who seems to be what might be called an inauthentic subject. Lisa, Mrs. Opie remarks, is “a damned nuisance. It is ‘Miss, watch this!’ all the time. She showed me several boring sequences with a ball today…. She invents these things especially for me, so that I will write them down. I am sure she would not play them otherwise.”

When the material Mrs. Opie is offered is authentic, nothing bores or shocks her, though at one point she does become weary of the inane washroom jokes offered by two children she calls “the naughty boys.” “Perhaps they were possessed,” she suggests after they have contributed a characteristic rhyme. (“Hey diddle diddle, The cat done a piddle, The cow done a poo on the floor.”)

Most of the material Iona Opie is so eagerly offered is harmless or even witty. (“What lies on the bottom of the sea and shivers? A nervous wreck.”) She enjoys it even when the joke is on her:

The story-teller…was prancing round me, clutching a plastic bag of biscuit crumbs. “You ain’t having none of these,” he chortled. “Oh, where did you get them from?” I asked, forgetting that he was not a fellow housewife. “Up the common,” he said, “when I was digging for food.”

As might be expected, The People in the Playground is full of remarkable rhymes and games. Some go back over a hundred years; others are topical and prove again that it is impossible to shield children from contemporary life:

One banana, two banana, three banana, four,
Fifteen skinheads knocking at the door,
Five with machine guns, five with sticks,
Five with hand-grenades hanging from their—
la la, la la la la la…

A few are romantic and surrealist:

Please, Mr. Crocodile, may we cross your golden river
In a silver boat?
If not, why not?
What is your favorite colour?

Even if it were magically possible, few children would want to experience forty consecutive periods of recess. Most readers, similarly, will not choose to read The People in the Playground straight through, unless they are interested in observing an ethnographer in action; but you can open it anywhere and find something to enjoy.

Barrie Thorne’s Gender Play, on the other hand, is not the sort of book you can dip into for fun. Part of the problem is its style. Professor Thorne does not cling to social-science jargon; she wants to lighten up, but doesn’t always manage it. Half-dead metaphors jostle each other uneasily in her prose; as she says in a sentence that proves its own point, “Different angles of vision lurk within seemingly simple choices of language.”1

Also, though she has much to say about the culture of childhood, Thorne seems to have been less comfortable than Iona Opie at the schools she visited in California and Michigan in 1976–1977 and 1980. She began with some disadvantages, of course: she was twenty years younger than Mrs. Opie and far less experienced as an observer of children; and she was trying to do much more. The Opies, as folklorists, assumed that it was enough to collect material. Barrie Thorne assumes that a book must have a thesis, a focus of interest. Hers, as her title suggests, was the difference between what boys and girls do in school.

Superficially, Professor Thorne’s methods are more detached than those of Iona Opie. She does not spend much time talking to kids, because she is not interested in individual behavior, but in what she calls “group life.” But in another sense her approach is far more personal. As she tells us, she is a feminist and the daughter of a feminist, and has been “active in the women’s movement.” She and her husband (who, like Iona Opie’s, is called Peter) are “alert to the forces of gender socialization” and determined “to help our son and daughter break through this kind of channeling.”

Barrie Thorne’s approach to her subject is conscientious. She begins by consulting the OED with a magnifying glass to discover the possible meanings of the word “play,” and critically reading many of the studies that have preceded hers. In spite of her focus on groups, she is aware of individual differences and rejects the idea that all members of the same sex are alike. She complains that previous researchers have tended to concentrate on the most “masculine” boys and most “feminine” girls, ignoring tomboys and sissies, thus exaggerating gender differences. In some cases, she sees “a skew towards the most visible and dominant,” and suggests that observers have tended to identify with the most popular kids and neglect to pay attention to the loners. She is also honest enough to see this process occurring in her own field work, and tries to counteract it:

After a few weeks…I realized that my fieldnotes were obsessed with documenting Kathryn’s popularity….Then I realized the envy behind my note-taking and analysis and recalled that many years ago when I was a fourth-and fifth-grader of middling social status, I had also carefully watched the popular girl.

She finds the same bias in other researchers. “I detect a kind of yearning in these books,” she says of one group of studies, all by men; “when they went back to scenes from their earlier lives, the authors couldn’t resist hanging out at the top.”

Unlike Iona Opie, Barrie Thorne was ill at ease on the playground. “Several kids asked me if I was a spy, and, in a way, I was, especially when I went in search of the activities and meanings they created when not in the company of adults.” She also ran into trouble with her cover story. Mrs. Opie explained herself as someone with “the sensible and interesting hobby of collecting games, rhymes, and jokes,” an activity that children, who are often collectors themselves, could identify with. Professor Thorne, in attempting to level with her subjects, repelled them:

As I crouched, watching and scribbling, on the sidelines of a basketball game, a girl came up and asked, “What are you doing?” “A study of children and what they play.” “Do you wanna be a teacher?” she asked. “I am one. I teach sociology, ever hear of that?” “No,” “It’s the study of people in groups.” “Well, goodbye,” she said, running off.

Many observers have noticed that children tend to separate by sex on the playground, even when they mix freely in classes and at home, and that their games and styles of play differ. Iona Opie takes this for granted, as if it were natural law. She remarks that boys are “more egotistical, enterprising, competitive, aggressive, and daring.” Girls “enjoy talking as a purely social activity, and take far more interest in people.” They are hospitable, helpful, conciliatory, and “infinitely cosy.” On the other hand, she notes that boys “are quite often to be seen crying (whereas I cannot remember ever having seen a girl in tears in the playground).”

Barrie Thorne also finds differences between the play of boys and girls. She observes that boys’ groups tend to be larger, that they form ” ‘gangs,’ ‘teams,’ or groups of ‘buddies,’ while girls organize themselves into smaller, more intimate groups and friendship pairs.” She also points out with some irritation that boys have ten times the play area of girls, and yet insist on invading and interrupting girls’ games.

Iona Opie remarks that “food and sex are two of the children’s principal interests” and that the most exciting moments on the playground are when boys chase girls or vice versa. Professor Thorne also observed this activity, and others which brought the sexes together in what she calls “border areas” to engage in the antagonistic or mock-antagonistic contacts she calls “borderwork.” 2 Her account of these activities is one of the most interesting things in Gender Play. It also cannot help but remind some readers of the relations between the sexes that they have observed in so-called “adult” life.

According to Barrie Thorne, borderwork is a form of “interaction across—yet based on and even strengthening—gender boundaries.” These actions, she says, “often teeter between play and aggression, and heterosexual meanings lurk within.” They arouse “excitement, playful elation, anger, desire, shame, and fear.” In a pattern she often observed, a member of one sex insults a member of the other, who then chases him or her. Sometimes several boys may chase one or several girls, or vice versa. The children Barrie Thorne watched often actively provoked these chases; indeed, she mentions one group of girls who spent their time on the playground “in an open-ended search for ritual contact with boys,” an activity that can also be observed at adult parties and even at professional meetings.

In some of these chasing games, known as “catch-and-kiss,” the runner is kissed when caught. Such kisses, however, are more aggressive than affectionate, and may even be contaminating, as Barrie Thorne points out. The schools she visited had rigid pecking orders, and in each class there were one or more children whose rank was so low that contact with them was polluting; in the language of the playground, which some readers may recall, they had “cooties.” Girls low in the pecking order were known as “cootie queens,” and could infect anyone who touched them. Low-status boys might also have cooties, but were not called “cootie kings.”

Both boys and girls could give cooties, but boys did not give cooties to other boys. Most significant, perhaps, all girls, no matter what their social rank, could contaminate boys; in the Michigan elementary school cooties was also known as “girl stain.” Barrie Thorne observes that even objects associated with girls, like valentines, could be contaminating. Though Barrie Thorne does not mention this, the belief sometimes survives into adulthood. Men can be contaminated by wearing women’s clothes, or reading “women’s novels” or magazines. Recently many men have been told by writers like Robert Bly that modern urban life as a whole is intrinsically feminine and therefore weakening.

At the schools Barrie Thorne studied, there were ritual cures for “cootie” contamination, the most interesting of which was a contraption made of folded paper called a “cootie catcher,” with which one could pick off invisible cooties from the infected person. ^3

The idea of the female as intrinsically polluting, of course, has a long history. In many cultures menstruating women are dangerous, and among gypsies women below the waist are marimay (taboo); a man can be polluted merely by stepping over their legs. Urban and suburban Americans are supposed to be free of such beliefs, but Barrie Thorne’s book suggests that this is not the case. She also notes, as others have, that the girl who joins boys’ games and is identified as a tomboy does not lose social status or become contaminated, whereas the boy who is seen playing jump-rope is called a sissy and moves to the bottom of the pecking order. The same processes, of course, can be observed in adult life.

The flip side to this magical belief system, as Barrie Thorne remarks, is that persons who are identified as polluting have power, because they can threaten to pollute: “If a girl is designated as having cooties or threatens to plant a dangerous kiss, it is the boy who has to run.” Of course it is not always sex that makes someone possibly contaminating: I recently heard students at Cornell discussing the problems involved in inviting “creepy” relatives to a wedding. Naturally, they did not use the word “pollution,” but vividly pictured how unpleasant it would be to have Uncle X or Cousin Y sitting at the table or slobbily kissing the bride and groom, and said that “everything would be spoilt” if they were there.

In The People in the Playground Iona Opie does not mention observing a belief in the contaminating effect of some people in the playground on others. It is hard to know whether it did not exist, or whether it seemed so obvious that she did not report it. Given what we know about British society, the latter seems more likely; but it is also possible that in England children remain ignorant of such magical theories until they reach secondary school. It would be most interesting to know whether Barrie Thorne would find a system of infectious touch operating in Hampshire; and to discover what Iona Opie would make of an American playground.

  1. 1

    Professor Thorne uses the verb “lurk” more than once, suggesting—perhaps unconsciously—that unpleasant linguistic and sociological truths lie in wait for the researcher like muggers or predatory beasts.

  2. 2

    The fact that she chooses this term rather than “borderplay” may be an indication of how serious and perhaps even exhausting she considers the interactions of children.