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!

 

 

Childhood learning · Folklore

Leave the Kids Alone!

According to today’s Wall street Journal, in many schools, those in charge of the school day realize that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to do away with recess.

They’ve decided kids need to let off steam. (Who knew?) They concede that “recess can even improve emotional and social development in children.” And indeed it can, if children are allowed to play on their own without direction or interference. But that’s not exactly what these educators have in mind. They’re educators, after all, so they’re determined to educate. The result: “organized recess” complete with coaches. Sounds like gym class to us!

Fortunately there are other experts who value unstructured play. Debbie Rhea , professor of kinesiology at Texas Christian has developed a program based on a Finnish model which is in 16 schools in Oklahoma and Texas. It provides for four 15-minute recess periods per day, ethics and character teaching, less standardized testing, and restructuring of the school day. More power to her!

  • Forty years ago we wrote a book, One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children. We discovered that children’s folklore—the traditional games, jokes, stories, songs, superstitions, and pranks that have been passed down from one generation of children to the next without the benefit or sometimes even the knowledge of adults serves important functions in the lives of children. This folklore flourishes only when children are left alone to practice it as they play.

One Potato, Two Potato is still in print, available from Amazon. However, used copies are also available from alibris.com for around $1.50 plus postage.

 

 

 

 

 

Books · Education · Folklore

Remember Hopscotch? Cooties? Miss Mary Mack? “I’m Rubber; You’re Glue”?

Click on image to read Amazon reviews
Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Years ago, before the personal computer had become part of all of our lives, Herb and I wrote a book about the folklore of children: the rhymes, games, customs, superstitions and jokes that children pass on to each other without the mediation or often even the knowledge of adults.

The thesis of that book is that this body of children’s knowledge, while it may seem trivial, is critically important in helping children in a number of developmental tasks. We interviewed hundreds of ten-year olds who eagerly told us—and showed us—their traditional past times. But whenever we talked to their teachers or parents, often we were told, “Oh kids don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” That’s why we originally subtitled the book The Secret Education of American Children.

Now that was a long time ago, and although the book is still in print, we have moved on to other interests so we don’t really know the state of children’s folklore today. After all, it requires face to face interaction. And today children are spending more and more time in the virtual world playing with their “devices” rather than “going out to play,”.  So maybe children really don’t do this sort of thing much anymore. Still, not long ago we observed two girls on a crosstown bus happily engaged in a rapid rendition of “Miss Mary Mack,” a traditional clapping rhyme with deep roots. Watch to the very end of this 32- second video and you’ll get some idea of why this particular past time has endured.

Seen on the terrace in the park
Seen on the terrace in the park

And then there’s this—observed on the terrace of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park. This doesn’t look exactly like the hopscotch of my childhood or that of the children we interviewed for our book. But that’s not surprising. Like any oral tradition, children’s folklore undergoes a sea change as it’s passed along from one generation to another. And new folklore emerges as children make up formulaic solutions to counteract boredom, solve disputes, conquer fear or cement new friendships.

Do you know any ten-year olds? If so, ask them if they “do this sort of thing anymore.” I’d love to know! Click above on “comments” to respond.

oil by HerbKnapp
Oil by HerbKnapp
Education · Folklore

Imagine That!


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!