The People in the Playground
Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.