I have looked at this painting by Herb for hours. In our apartment in New York it was hanging in a spot opposite the couch where I tended to recline with some frequency. Over time, I grew to love it, not only because I just like the way it looks, but for what it says about children’s play.
The figures in Herb’s painting are not real life children. Their bloodless limbs, their simple monochromatic dress and the dark moonlit setting suggest to me that these figures and what they are doing transcend time and place. They are playing a circle game in which children reach out to one another, join hands and move in an unbroken circle, learning the rhythms of human interaction. No doubt you remember some of these games from your own childhood.
Or maybe not. It may depend on how old you are, for these and other folk games that are passed on by children themselves without mediation (or sometimes even the knowledge) of adults no longer have a fertile ground in which to thrive.
Pete Gray, professor at Boston College, who is an evolutionary psychologist, contends that the need and impulse for play is biologically embedded in our nature as human beings. In his book Free to Learn, and in his blog for Psychology Today, he explains that it is through play that children learn the skills and behaviors that they need to thrive.
In our incessant drive to encroach further and further on playtime that is free from adult authority, we are making a tragic mistake. If you are a parent, grandparent, or just care about the consequences of our education system, I strongly suggest that you check out this very readable blog post by Gray.
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In 1976 Herb and I were studying at Indiana University, on leave from our teaching positions in the Panama Canal Zone.
Our study of children’s traditiional games and practices of children that have been passed down by children for generations began as a paper written for a folklore course we were enrolled in. Since we were English teachers, we were focused on the verbal accompaniments to these games and practices— something that most people dismiss as trivial childish rhymes and formulaic sayings that are of no particular significance. I mean who can take “I’m rubber; you’re glue” or “I see London, I see France; I see someone’s underpants” seriously?
However as we watched children at unsupervised play we realized that what they were doing was anything but trivial. We saw that unsupervised children playing together on their own learn how to govern themselves, according to a system of rules.
They learn how to deal with cheaters and crybabies and how to make sophisticated juridical decisions. They learn the joy of team spirit and group solidarity without suffering from the depersonalization and bitterness that characterize competitive supervised sports.
They let off steam, releasing tensions created by the repressive atmosphere of the classroom. They play with the emotion of fear, thus becoming less fearful.
And we decided that the subject deserved more thorough study and exposition. Thus the idea for our book, One Potato, Two Potato, was born. It was eventually published by W.W. Norton and is still in print after 43 years! Some twenty years after our book was published, Herb painted the picture.
Like most artists, he is reluctant to discuss the “meaning” of his work or the creative process that results in a painting. However, he assures me that he did not have the study of children’s folklore in mind when he set about to paint this picture, What eventually appeared on the canvas simply “emerged” as he painted.
Herb seems to have dimly and unconsciously recognized what Gray is telling us: Play is part of our human nature; we are sorely in error when we impose our ideas of how our children should structure their time and activities, thus denying them opportunities for unsupervised play and the development of their humanity.