Education · Folklore · paintings

A Painting about Play

Ring Around the Rosie
Oil on canvas by Herbert Knapp

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.

* * * * * * *

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.

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Folklore

“Ladies and jellyspoons / I come before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about.”

In her last post, Mary wondered if a playground culture still exists.

Since today there are so few informal playgrounds where no adults intrude, it is doubtful.  Adults always want to organize children’s play. The assumption is that children learn only that which adults teach them. But the best laid plans of adults cannot accomplish what children used to accomplish for themselves, guided by a folk tradition that had been passed down in some cases for hundreds of years.

stacks-image-e920aaa
Still in print after 42 years.

They learned, for example, to handle conflict verbally rather than physically. When the linguistically unsophisticated and emotionally immature child was teased, insulted or ridiculed, he could choose from a number of ready made responses, for instance, “I’m rubber, you’re glue / Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you, “ or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / What you say is what you are.”

When a little girl heard, “I see London; I see France / I see Velma’s underpants,” did she run to a safe space and tell the teacher? No, she probably shouted back,  “Liar liar, pants on fire,” or maybe “XYZ!” If the boy fell for it and checked his fly, she won. The one thing she did not do was grow up to be a snowflake.

Left alone, children organized their own games, making fine juridical adjustments: one good player for this side, but three fumble fingers for that side. They learned to compromise, because they didn’t want the game to end.

And They Learned About Language

They learned that poetry could be fun. Without fear of the speech police, they could sing about their school lunch: “Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts / Chopped up parakeet / Mutilated monkey meat / Pig snot and camel rot,” etc. A child who sang that song was introduced to alliteration and hyperbole early on.

And the child who recited the mock oration beginning, “Ladies and Jellyspoons / I stand before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about / Admission free, Pay at the door / Pull up a seat and sit on the floor” experienced the satisfaction of employing rhetorical tropes that gently raised college students only learn to label.

How We Did It

In the seventies we were living in the American Canal Zone in Panama. Since almost everybody in the Canal Zone came from somewhere else, we were able to collect examples of children’s folklore from recently arrived children as it was practiced all over the States as well as in foreign countries and military bases abroad. During the summer when we were on leave from our jobs, we also did something that we couldn’t do today without getting us in trouble: we sat on park benches, taking notes while watching children at play.

We learned that what seems to be trivial and silly was extremely functional in the social development of children. We wish some young folklorists would write a sequel documenting what traditions are still around and what new customs children might be creating to help them cope with the digital world. If you have kids or grandkids, ask them about this.

You can buy One Potato, Two Potato on Amazon, but last time we looked there were 20 used copies available from abebooks.com for $3.50 to $4.00, free shipping. If you want to take a trip down memory lane and be reminded of things you have probably forgotten, you can get one cheap!

 

 

Childhood learning · Education · Folklore · Political Correctness

One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of Children and My Eight Minutes of Fame

hideseek-blog
No adult needs to teach kids how to play Hide and Seek.

Forty-two years ago this month, our first book: One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children was published by W.W. Norton. As was their custom, they submitted their newly published books to The Today Show, hoping that they would select one to be featured. Much to our publisher’s surprise (and ours), they selected our book!

Before the Today Show would book me for the eight-minute interview, however, I had to audition. I don’t remember much about it, but I do know there was a wait of several weeks before I appeared on the show, during which time I lost ten pounds.

I had been given the questions and practiced in front of a mirror (with daughter Sarah’s coaching), but apparently Jane Pauley didn’t get the memo. Nevertheless I managed to deal with the unexpected turn of the interrogation, and the interview was deemed a success by the publisher and my co-author.

Still eight minutes is hardly enough time to explain why children’s folklore is worthy of serious consideration when it seems so trivial. Who can take “King’s X” or “liar, liar, pants on fire” seriously?

As we watched children playing we discovered that the traditional customs—the rhymes, sayings, games, and stories that children teach each other and that have been passed down for generations without the mediation of adults —play a critical role in their social and emotional development.

From the book:

Unsupervised children playing together learn how to govern themselves. They learn how to deal with cheaters and cry babies. They make sophisticated juridical distinctions that strike a fine balance between the self-interest of individuals and the good of the group.

They are competitive, but winning is not their goal. They come together voluntarily for a good game. Thus they learn the joy of team play without suffering from the depersonalization and bitterness that mark fiercely competitive supervised contests where the goal has been reduced to mere victory.

They let off steam, releasing tensions created by the repressive atmosphere of the school.

They play with the emotion of fear, thus becoming less fearful.

In all this, they are guided by their folk tradition.

Is there still a playground culture? Today children have so little opportunity for unsupervised play that it seems doubtful that it flourishes to the extent it did 42 years ago. On the other hand, we sometimes see evidence that it has not disappeared altogether: a tell-tale hopscotch diagram chalked on the sidewalk, two little girls playing a clapping rhyme on a cross town bus.

Certainly kids have learned by observing their elders’ attitudes to clean up some of the politically incorrect or racist rhymes that we collected. It’s very doubtful that today any publisher would publish a trade book recounting the history of childlore that included these rhymes.

Childhood learning · Education · Folklore

RIP, Iona Opie

Iona Opie died on Oct. 23 at the age of 94. You probably never heard of her, but in 1971, she and her husband, Peter, helped determine how Mary and I spent the next few years of our lives.

We had taken a sabbatical leave from our teaching jobs and were enrolled in a folklore class at Indiana University. There we read The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, written by the Opies in which they collected and classified the traditional folklore of children—rhymes and games and jeers and jokes, etc. They were British, so of course they collected the lore of British children.

We decided to do something similar for American children’s folklore. We’d get to hang around playgrounds and interview lots of children. Sounded like fun. Our professor thought it was a good idea. For him the important thing about the project was the fact that apparently nobody else had done it. Like the Opies, we were not academic folklorists (we were English majors) so at this point what we intended to do was simply a class project in which we would collect and classify children’s folklore from as many children as we could.

Back in the day—here I am consulting the experts.

And here’s Mary interviewing Panamanian children in Cerro Punta, Panama. We wondered if Panamanian children’s lore bore any resemblance to that of American children. (It did.)

However, as our work progressed, we were surprised to discover how important this children’s oral tradition was to their emotional and social development. So—instead of just recording and classifying their lore, we began to take our work more seriously. We decided to write a book organized around the many ways children’s folklore helped children learn lessons and skills they needed to make their way in life. One Potato, Two Potato was published by WW. Norton in 1976.

We were critical of the way schools and parents then took charge of children’s playtime and squelched their ability to play and learn on their own. Now—39 years later, we have even more reason to complain. Informal neighborhood play groups composed of children of different ages face extinction. Whatever free time a child has is taken up with organized sports, music lessons, karate, you name it. Parents are afraid to let their children out of their sight. And there seems to be more homework, more pressure to excel at academics. Some schools have even dispensed with recess!

Incidentally, our book was well received and is still in print after 39 years, which must be some kind of record. You can read more about it here.

 

 

 

 

 

Education · Folklore

Imagine That! (Revisited)


Once upon a time, refrigerator-sized radios streamed fairy tales into our ears.
Once upon a time, refrigerator-sized radios streamed fairy tales into our ears.

Before the Mickey Mouse Club—before the Flintstones and Batman and Captain Kangaroo, there was the Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, and the Green Hornet. The serial adventures of the 30s and 40s had kids glued to the radio from the time they got home from school until dinnertime. But best of all was a Saturday morning show called Let’s Pretend, a 30-minute dramatization of a different fairy tale each week.

These programs were not a feeble prelude to children’s televised fare of later years. In one respect at least, I think they may have been even better because they demanded that we cultivate the power of our imaginations. That’s me in the picture at the age of 8 or 9; the book on my lap is a prop introduced by my father, the photographer. He probably thought I should look like I was doing something. But listening to these stories was doing something, something intense. We didn’t need the help of illustrations to create imaginary worlds of enchantment in great detail. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the subterranean kingdom I envisioned as a little girl where the trees had leaves of silver and gold and twelve beautiful princesses (with curly hair, I might add) danced all night in a glittering palace with their handsome partners.

In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist, contends that unlike any other form of story, the fairy tale meets the psychic needs of children. Before the child can rationally understand what troubles him or figure out what he must do to be a good independent person, he unconsciously identifies with the symbolic elements of the fairy tale and is comforted and instructed.  Separation anxiety, feelings of powerlessness in an adult world, sibling rivalry, fear of growing up—this is the sort of thing the repeated telling of a specific tale can ameliorate.

Even though one might not accept the Freudian concepts underlying Bettelheim’s analysis, it’s hard to argue with the idea that fairy tales are unique in their ability to meet some of the conscious and unconscious requirements of the listeners. How else to account for their ubiquitous appearance in all cultures and their phenomenal staying power. The oldest record of a variant of Cinderella dates back to the ninth century—in China!