The Importance of NOT Being Earnest


Have Children Really Forgotten How to Play?

What does education often do?  It makes a straight cut ditch of a free meandering brook.

- Henry David Thoreau

Christ Church playground

by David Rowan

In a chaotically vibrant East London playground, 9-year-old Rebecca is busy nailing a persistent myth of modern childhood.  "I went to a Chinese restaurant, to buy a loaf of bread ...," she starts to sing, her wide eyes concentrating intensely on the boisterous clapping routine she is practising with her classmate Muhima.

... He wrapped it up in a five pound note, and this is what he said said said:
"My name is Andy Pandy, sugar and candy,
Dad's had a baby, mum's gone crazy;
Do me a favour - get lost!?"

The two girls break apart giggling, proud of a performance that has had to compete with a cacophony of football yells and a multilingual playground scramble of bulldog charge.  "We changed the words so that it was dad having a baby," Rebecca explains with a subversive grin.  "It makes it seem funnier.  We're always making things up like that."

It is morning break time at Gainsborough Primary School, a dauntingly Gradgrindian edifice in Hackney Wick surrounded by bleak industrial warehouses and battle-worn council estates.  Officially, this is one of Britain's most impoverished neighbourhoods - yet the riches on show during playtime today would confound any index of childhood deprivation.  From improvised reality-television games at one end to traditional hopscotch at the other, the anarchic chaos of the playground turns out, on closer inspection, to be a seething but curiously ordered grid of self-devised distractions.  It may escape the patrolling teachers' attention, but here the children are resolutely in control.  They have been playing Spider-Man and Scoobie Doo, hula hoops and a joined-hands running game they call "octopus king" (its object: to tag the individual "fish" who cross their path).  In a sheltered area framed by wooden benches, half a dozen younger children are ending a breathless game of "off-ground touch", with only the benches offering them protection.  The repertoire includes improvised Lord of the Rings rôle-play, Eminem-style rap duels, and simple old-fashioned cops and robbers; a small group of girls is skipping, unaware that their chant is perhaps a century old.  With almost 50 ethnic and national groups represented here among just over 300 pupils, they are evidently also learning from each other - from Caribbean skipping songs ("Jenny was a baker, Living in Jamaica ... Drop out tha' window, broke her little finger..."), sung here by both black and white girls, to old "naughty" rhymes suitably updated to amuse the mobile-phone generation:

"What's the time? Half past nine.
Phone your uncle on the line.
If he falls, break his balls
Take them up to Santa Claus."

It is a common complaint nowadays that children have "forgotten how to play", whether because electronic toys and screens are inducing a relentless passivity, or through wider threats to traditional games.  Often the blame is put on local authorities' excessive caution in this litigious age: a report from the Children's Society and the Children's Play Council 3 years ago claimed that some schools had banned daisy chains, tag and yo-yos for fear of spreading germs or causing injury.  Another widely reported study by Keele University echoed concerns that conkers were being banned as "offensive weapons", skipping ropes confiscated after minor accidents, and even football kicked out of one primary school in two.  The current obesity panic is only adding to these worries, along with children's ever-growing technological sophistication.

But have today's PlayStation-owning and text-messaging 9- and 10-year-olds really lost the art of creative, imaginative play?  The Times Magazine decided to investigate by visiting primary schools across Britain to watch and listen.  I went in search not of the songs or activities taught by teachers and parents, but of the uncensored rhymes and self-generated games that children pass among themselves.  The brief was simple: to discover whether the 21st-century playground retains any of the variety and vitality documented so thoroughly in Peter and Iona Opie's classic 1959 survey, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren.

Collectors have documented children's lore for centuries, often to record what they considered a dying culture.  When William Newell published Games and Songs of American Children in 1883, he described his material as "an expiring custom" whose oral tradition was "perishing at the roots".  A decade later, when the English folklorist Lady Alice Bertha Gomme published her 964-page Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland, she hoped that her work would help preserve the games' "civilising" influence.

Yet by the time the Opies began their survey in the 1950s - by writing to The Sunday Times seeking suggestions - there was little sign that such traditions had been lost.  Indeed, the Opies collected so much material directly from children that they organised it into almost 200 rigid categories - from "Finding Sweetheart's Name" in skipping jumps ("'Black currant, red currant, gooseberry jam / Tell me the name of your young man ...") to mildly erotic rhymes about contemporary film stars ("Betty Grable / Sitting on a table / Showing off her legs / To Clark Gable ...").

Now 81, Iona Opie still has a thick folder labelled Games Disappearing, chronicling hand-wringing warnings of the tradition's imminent demise that go back as far as 1664.  As today, it is technology that has generally shouldered the blame - from the arrival of railways and the gramophone to threats from the wireless and the cinema.  "Of course, technology won't kill that insuppressible drive to play," a delightfully opinionated Opie says impatiently in the book-lined dining-room of her rambling Victorian house in Liss, Hampshire.  "The latest arguments about television are just another bogie, yet more media scaremongering.  The truth is, it's instinctive to exert your own personality."

Iona Opie remains remarkably alert if rather deaf, her large headmistressly hands tending to an unwell bantam, one of 50 she keeps for company (Peter died in 1982), which, as she speaks, is defecating freely on the dining-room table.  The Opies' obsessive inquiries brought them in contact with more than 20,000 children for a series of books that have sold more than a million copies over 4 decades.  And although Iona has long wanted to "move on" - "To be honest, I'm very bored with it," she admits - she remains Britain's foremost expert on children's lore, interrupting this very conversation to take a telephone call from an American researcher.  "You'll find some things have nearly disappeared," she says afterwards, happy to offer advice for the journey ahead.  "The group singing games, for instance, which used to be sung for courtship by young adults all over Europe.  The old games that people are mourning were needed at the time.  But this is a living lore that's changing all the time.  So if some of the words of the old singing games have lost their function, they'll be changed to produce much more active, combative games."

She reflects that children will always need such ritualised means of confronting social anxieties, affirming their growing independence, or simply channelling their aggression or sexual curiosity.  "The fun is making your own mark on a song, by putting in slightly different words," she continues, suddenly animated.  "I just adore hearing the words of the old games being modified, corrupted and turned into a sort of surrealist poetry.  We underestimate children all the time," she sighs.  "When I've talked to teachers doing playground duty, they tell me firmly that children don't play games any more.  I'd ignore that if I were you.  They're playing them all around them, and just as able to think up their own entertainments today as they ever were.  You'll get masses of material."

"I'm afraid play here has been quite a passive activity for a while," John Corn, the deputy head of Ingrow School, in West Yorkshire, explains jovially in his office.  "When I was a kid, we'd go fishing, explore the countryside, play conkers."  He smiles good-humouredly, and makes an apologetic shrug.  "There were no PCs or GameBoys around then.  It's not that our children don't play," he adds cautiously, "but they do so in, well, quite a robust way."  He arches his eyebrows.  "Pushing each other around, say, rather than the structured, creative, inventive sort of play."

It is a rainy Friday morning, and Ingrow, a large primary in the suburb of Keighley, has been kind enough to spare small groups of Year 5s and 6s who would otherwise be learning maths.  They arrive excitedly 4 at a time, 9- to 11-year-olds, to sit in the absent headteacher's office and explain to the newspaper man (and his MiniDisc recorder) what they have lately been playing.  Also present is Mavis Curtis, a researcher and writer specialising in children's oral traditions, who has been collecting material at Ingrow since 1992.  Even over the past dozen years, she explains, she has noticed how rhymes have vividly reflected cultural changes - with "Will You Marry Me" skipping songs, for instance, nowadays counting out the number of expected divorces as well as kisses and weddings.  These are not, Curtis warns, ideal conditions for gathering material - the children will be self-conscious, and will self-censor to avoid adult judgment.  Yet over the next 3 hours, they eagerly share song parodies, reworked clapping rhymes, movie re-enactments, creative wordplay, even centuries-old traditional games that their teachers appear never to have noticed.  Iona Opie is right: the real challenge is to take in this mass of information as quickly as it is paraded.

Current games range from "Damsels in distress", with boys rescuing girls using firemen's lifts, to Pop Idol and Harry Potter.  "You pretend to be on a broom and fly around throwing wands at everybody casting spells," explains 11-year-old Connor.  "The wand's a rolled-up piece of paper.  For Quidditch, someone makes paper balls and throws them on the floor, while everyone on your team races to get them."

Popular culture, particularly film and TV, constitutes a major spur to role-play games.  Depending on current fashions, influences might be The Incredibles or Scooby Doo, Power Rangers or Robot Wars.  To play Tweenies Tig, we are told, the person caught must perform the role of a respective character.  For Lord of the Rings, you need a ring made from a cut-up toilet-roll and an imaginary bow and arrow.  "You have two people on a team, and if one gets killed, you go and help them," William explains.  "But we've had to stop playing it, as nobody ever agrees to die."

"We make up our own games like Gladiator," explains Lucy, aged 11.  "You have to push the gladiators off the wall, and the person who's left wins.  We also invented one where we all have to get in a circle, hold hands, spin round really fast, and let go after 3, with whoever falls over being out.  It's called Spinning."  She adds that Weakest Link is also popular, with the questioner allowed to be "as mean as Anne Robinson".

There are Pokemon Battles as well as Ninja games, whose players stretch their sweatshirts to cover their faces "like a Ninja" before punching or kicking their rivals ("You shouldn't write that one down, it's very dangerous," advises Lucy).  There are also endless clapping games, their intricate movements familiar to boys as well as girls.  Many involve brand names: "Coca Cola, Coca Cola, Egyptian prayer, Egyptian prayer ..."; "A Pizza Hut, a Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut", an established American rhyme that became a UK chart hit for the Fast Food Rockers.  Other clapping rhymes are more surreal, if rhythmically serene:

Donnie Macca, Ronnie Macca, biscuit.
I shoo shiwawa, biscuit.
Ice cream soda with a cherry on top.
Ice cream soda with a cherry on top.
Mama mama, I feel sick.
Call for the doctor, quick quick quick.

Two younger girls, a little coyly, offer an alternative:

There once was a young English girl called
I shoo shiwawa [they touch their eyes and shoes].
All the boys on the football team
Loved I shoo shiwawa.
How was your boyfriend, all right?
Down in the fish shop, last night.
What did he die of?  Raw fish.
How did he die, then?  Like this ...

But where do such verses originate?  "Someone just brings them in in the morning and everybody just learns them," explains one of the "I shoo shiwawa" girls.  They are passed on orally, which accounts for the "Chinese whispers" nature of the local variations: 21 years ago in Hampshire, Iona Opie heard a rather different version that began, "I know a little Dutch girl called Hie Susie Anna...".  Lyrics also differ according to region.  The Hackney rhyme, "I went to a Chinese restaurant", is equally familiar among Ingrow's children, but with no mention of Andy Pandy.  In the Yorkshire version, after wrapping the loaf in a £5 note, the restaurateur says only: "My name is Hi Lo Chicolo, Chicolo Hi Lo, Hi Lo Chicolo, Chicolo Yo!"

"Schools often only see playground rhymes as an encroachment into literacy," Mavis Curtis says afterwards.  "They're only interested in seeing the playground as a problem, not as a stimulus to literacy."  And when a school does invest in playground "improvements" intended to encourage play, the effect can be to inhibit imaginative expression, she says.  "What children like, and use, are inconspicuous features that pass adults by.  Here they're using the drain covers and steps to build into dance routines or tig.  A defunct old bell push becomes an imaginary lift button.  Children's imaginations make use of the natural world around them, yet schools are chopping down trees for safety.  It makes me furious!"

Ingrow's playground underwent its own expensive "improvement" programme two years ago, incorporating giant chessboards, draught pieces and large painted grids for snakes and ladders.  Safely out of teachers' hearing, some 10-year-olds suggest that the result may not have been entirely constructive.  "We'd rather play our own games like Tangle Up, when you all hold hands and have to untangle yourselves without letting go," says one.  Others point out that boys keep kicking over the draught pieces.  "And we're not even allowed to use skipping ropes any more," complains one girl shyly, "because the teachers think the boys will fight with them."

In the meantime, pop-song parodies help pass the time.  Popular during our visit was Nelly Furtado's I'm Like a Bird, rewritten with suitable mischief ("I'm like a turd, I only flush away ..."), and an equally toilet-centred version of Peter Andre's hit, "Pooh, pooh, pooh, Mysterious girl ...".  Curtis later suggests that the Ingrow pupils have been self-consciously restraining their output.  When Punjabi-speaking 8-year-olds in West Yorkshire "dip" to see who will lead a game, she notes, they often dispense with the standard counting-out rhyme, "Ip dip doo, The cat's got the flu, The dog's got the chicken pox, Out go you!"  The local version is notably less innocent: "Ip dip dog shit, F---ing bastard, Dirty git!"  The 8-year-olds also favour another highly topical dip: "1, 2, 3, Michael Jackson is free ..."  "You still get Elvis Presley in some of the rhymes," Curtis says.  "It's surprising how little they change.  Some of them you can trace back 150 years.  But what they are doing nowadays is taking more directly from tv - acting out shows like Blind Date or the James Bond and Spider-Man films.  Their PlayStations merely reinforce the message: they see the films, play the computer games, and then act it all out in the playground."

Still, Curtis is pleased with this morning's material, which includes a few song versions absent from her own extensive archive.  "What I like most about this stuff," she says gathering her notes, "is that it's something the children have complete control over.  And there's not much these days that they're allowed to control."

A striking feature of this oral tradition is the continuity of many of the rhymes and games, typically passed on by older children or cousins.  The current chasing game Duck, Duck, Goose - in which one child goes round a circle specifying who will be the "goose" to race against - was recorded in 2nd-century Greece; a singing game recorded by Mavis Curtis, known in Yorkshire as Kayli Bubble Gum, turned out to be an updated version of There Came a Duke a-Calling, popular 150 years earlier.  One popular ballad, traced by the Opies to 1725, began: "Now he acts the grenadier / Calling for a pot of beer. / Where's his money? / He's forgot. / Get him gone, / a drunken sot."  By 1950, they had collected this variation in Hampshire, used for counting out: 'Mickey Mouse / In a public house / Drinking pints of beer. / Where's your money? / in my pocket. / Where's your pocket? / I forgot it. / Please walk out."  This is also an international phenomenon.  The clapping rhyme When Susie Was a Baby has its local equivalents as far apart as Australia and South Africa.  An American variation calls her Lucy; in France she is Delphine or Fanny, and grows into a microbe, rather than the stripper who, in the English version, "lost my bra, I left my knickers in my boyfriend's car".

Students of this lore see its apparent consistency as evidence of universal childhood needs, irrespective of class or income level.  Educationalists point to its role in socialising children and helping them explore an emerging sexuality.  Perhaps that is why two 10-year-old Ingrow girls precede this popular dance with a whispered warning that "it's very rude ...":

We are the Keighley girls [they dance with a wiggle];
We wear our hair in curls [curling hand movements].
We wear our dungarees
To show our sexy knees [touch knees].
You know the boy next door,
He got me on the floor.
I gave him 50p [hand slap]
To give it all to me.
My mummy was surprised
To see my belly rise [touch tummy]
My daddy jumped for joy
It was a baby boy ...

Yet for all the sociological analysis, this is also about the fun of playing with words - whether the nonsense clapping verse at Ingrow ("Alli alli, chickerlye chickerlye, om pom poodle, walla walla whiskers ..."), or the pop-song parodies proudly performed by 10-year-old Ugurcan in Hackney.  Ugurcan's version of R Kelly's I Believe I Can Fly says less about discovering true love than his own urban expectations:

I believe I can fly.
I got shot by the FBI.
All I wanted was a chicken wing -
And I got shot in the ding-a-ling ...

Some questions remained, however.  Would rural playgrounds offer an equally rich palette of games?  How would a wealthy suburb compare with a deprived inner city?  And was this a national as well as a local phenomenon?  In 1959, the Opies concluded in Lore and Language that "Scottish children seem to be in a happy position" through their particularly wide repertoires, taking in the popular English rhymes as well as their own "hamely clinky" folk songs.  So I decide to continue the investigation in Scotland, taking in a diverse group of schools stretching from the East End of Glasgow to the isolated north-eastern village of Auchenblae.  With the folklorist, songwriter and story-teller Ewan McVicar as my guide, I travel to Golfhill Primary in Dennistoun, a busy 180-pupil school a mile from the heart of Glasgow.  The headteacher's welcoming words are familiar enough.  "They have forgotten how to play," Janet Dunlop says resignedly.  "They just copy whatever the last thing it is they've seen on tv, Ninja Turtles or whatever.  And they seem unable to resolve any issues themselves.  Last year we got money to spend on playground games, but the bats were soon turned into weapons and the skipping ropes used for abseiling.  They lost interest after a day or two."

The playground, as in English schools, tells a different story.  The chasing games alone include Disney tig (you shout "Mickey Mouse" if caught), toilet tig (requiring a flushing arm movement) and ghost tig (played with eyes closed).  Children sing traditional skipping rhymes about "Cinderella dressed in yella, went to a ball to find a fella", as well as modern pop parodies that set Aqua's Barbie Girl in a bowling arcade: "I'm a cheatin' girl, in a bowlin' world ..."  They still clap to rhythms that the Opies knew - "Under the apple tree / My boyfriend asked to marry me. / Kissed me, hugged me, / Said that he loves me..." - even if one girl adds a more contemporary last line: "Punched me, slapped me, / Said he doesn't love me..."  There is also firm evidence of continuity.  Glasgow, like Hackney and Ingrow, knows "I Went to a Chinese Restaurant", but here it is a skipping rhyme.  There is also no sign of Andy Pandy wrapping the loaf of bread.  Instead, Golfhill children sing:

...They wrapped it up in a £5 note,
And this is what they said:
My name is Elvis Presley, I'm a movie star,
I do the hippy hippy shake and I play the guitar.
The boys are hunky and the girls are sexy,
Sitting in the back seat, drinking Pepsi.
Where's your father?  Round the corner,
In the harbour, drinking lager,
He feels a bit dizzy and he drops down dead!

And when, to giggles, the singers are asked where they learned the rhyme, they confidently source it to an older brother.

Nor is there any less variety at the more affluent Mosshead Primary, in the Glasgow suburb of Bearsden.  Here the self-generated games include Pop Idol, tv advert parodies, Chinese ropes, thumb wars, kerbie, skipping, hopscotch, and a pulling game called Monster that evolved from the particular design of the playground.  The children are more self-censorious than in the city-centre school, with teachers hovering to punish any "rudeness", but they still find plenty of ways to subvert the adults' norms, whether through lyrical explorations of bodily functions, or the aggression of physical contact.  "There's definitely been more violence in children's play over the last few years," says McVicar, a cheerfully avuncular 64-year-old who travels the country as a professional school story-teller.  "Rude songs also seem to have got cruder since the '80s, and songs about violence have got more bloody.  But then, so have tv and the movies."  McVicar, something of an expert in Scottish playground lore, is impressed with the variety of new material in evidence at the Glasgow schools: "I've caught new variants today, learned new types of tig, heard so many kids asserting with confidence that they'd made up songs," he says.  His only disappointment is that the following day, at the remote 74-pupil primary in Auchenblae, overlooking the Mearn hills near Laurencekirk, he identifies a "startling lack of rhymes and songs".  He attributes this to the school's size, which limits the flow of material from outside, and perhaps to growing parental anxiety about leaving children unattended.

That is not, however, to suggest that the children need adults to stimulate their play.  During morning break at Auchenblae, a group of older girls is playing Big Brother by the timber-framed obstacle course, the girl elected to be Davina keeping a secret tally of her playmates' votes.  Others skip, rehearse dance routines, and exhaust themselves in a running game called White Horses.  While most boys are engrossed in a football match, one small group is playing Lord of the Rings, turning the school gate into a castle turret and evading make-believe arrows.  Elsewhere, final-year girls are teaching younger ones to play Pop Idol so that the rules are preserved intact.  "Just look at the way they're working off current tv programmes," McVicar says, fascinated.  "The creativity is already there, it's just that the format is being replenished by tv.  Most of the beautiful traditional songs might be museum pieces now, but the impulse to stamp your own identity on play is still there.  It's a human instinct, and tradition just keeps on being reinvented."

Back at Gainsborough School in Hackney, modern media pressures are exerting a similar dominance on playground activities.  Ten-year-old Danny is performing his rewritten version of a Mario Winans song: "I don't want to know / If you're beating me. / Keep it on the low / Cos my buddy can't take it any more ..."  Muhima is practising a clapping sequence chanting the words: "That's the way, aha aha, I like it, aha aha, / Scoobie Doobie Doobie Doobie Do, / Ice cream!" And 10-year-old Colin is delighting his audience with his rewritten raps to songs by Michelle and Nelly.  Yet even here, in one of the capital's most ethnically diverse primary schools, some traditions are preserved almost untouched.  In one corner of the playground, 10-year-old Siseway is skipping while chanting: "Rosy apple, lemonade tart / Tell me the name of your sweetheart / With an A, a B, a C, a D ..."

As Iona Opie could have told her, girls have been singing that one on London's streets for more than a century.

Jenny was a baker
Living in Jamaica.
Had tree daughter,
One named Baker
Drop out tha window
Broke her little finger -
Ooh!  Ribena!
Girls' clapping rhyme, Gainsborough School, Hackney, East London
My father was a baker,
Yummy yummy. Yummy yummy.
My mother was a dentist,
Gummy gummy.  Gummy gummy.
My sister is a showoff.  Oh girlie.  Oh girlie.
My brother is a cowboy.
Ban bang, you're dead, 50 bullets in your head,
Turn around and freeze.
Skipping rhyme, 9-year-old girls, Glasgow
I was walking down the lane, sniffing cocaine.
Police went by and shouted my name.
I threw the tin out of the window,
Shouting: "The mother f--er."
I legged it!
8-year-old boys' playground rhyme, Bradford, West Yorkshire
Mrs McGuire peed on the fire.
The fire was too hot;
She sat on a pot.
The pot was too wide;
She sat in the Clyde.
And all the wee fishies ran up her backside.
9-year-olds, Glasgow
Mary, Mary, quite contrary.
How does your garden grow?
I live in a flat, you stupid prat,
So how the f--- should I know?
10-year-olds, Bradford
My boyfriend gave me an apple, my boyfriend gave me a pear.
My boyfriend gave me a kiss on the lips and threw me down the stair.
I gave him back his apple, I gave him back his pear.
I gave him back his kiss on the lips and I threw him down the stair.
I threw him over Scotland, I threw him over France.
I threw him over the universe and he lost his underpants.
His underpants were yellow, his underpants were green.
His underpants were multicoloured and that's not all I've seen.
I took him to the sweetie shop to buy some bubble gum.
And when he wasn't looking, I shoved it up his bum.
He took me to the cinema to watch a dirty film.
And when I wasn't looking he kissed another girl...
Current clapping rhyme, Fettercairn, near Laurencekirk, Scotland
Jingle bells, jingle bells, Santa's lying dead.
Teletubbies Teletubbies stabbed him in his head.
Barbie girl, Barbie girl tried to save his life.
Action Man, Action Man stabbed him wi' a knife ...
11-year-olds, Glasgow
Jingle bells, Batman smells,
Robin flew away.
Uncle Billy sold his willy for a Milky Way.
10-year-olds, Keighley, West Yorkshire
Tweet tweet tweet, on the way we go,
Walking in the city all way long.
Mama's in the kitchen, cooking rice chicken.
Daddy's in the loo, doing number two.
All the girls in Bombay Stores say the same thing.
Tweet tweet tweet ...
9-year-old girls, Bradford
My friend Billy's got a ten-foot Willy.
He showed it to the girl next door.
She thought it was a snake,
Hit it with a rake.
Now it's only three-foot four.
9-year-old boy, Islington, North London

Source: The Times Magazine 21 May 2005

All Work and No Play?  Make Jack a Drugged Boy!

Lack of playtime could be a factor in the rise of ADHD

Hyperactive children may suffer from the modern world's restrictions on play said the BBC's Horizon programme, Beyond a Joke.  They reported evidence that restricting play at US schools increases attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  One in 18 US school children suffers from ADHD (½ are being treated with the psycho-stimulant drug Ritalin).  Their numbers have increased by 600% since 1990 (the US has five times the cases of the rest of the world combined).

In the UK, 2,000 Ritalin prescriptions were issued six years ago; today: more than 90,000.

Children with this disorder are extremely hyperactive and find it difficult to concentrate for even short periods.  They act on impulse and often appear to have no sense of danger.  Professor Alan Fridlund, an American behavioural psychologist, believes part of the reason for the steep increase is restrictions on play.  "There is increasing emphasis on children being able to sit still for a long time.  Play suffers as a result," he said.  "There is a danger in pathologising and medicating ADHD."  He said this could lead to children being "doubly victimised" by being denied playtime, then being treated for the resulting problems.

An international team who studied children in schools in Georgia concluded children were more likely to fidget and lose attention the longer they were deprived of exercise.  [It took an international team to figure this out?]  Boys were more likely than girls to have problems paying attention in class, Professor Tony Pelligrini, one of the team members, said.  "There is a danger in minimising the importance of play."

Some US schools have replaced playtime with academic classes, which may influence ADHD.  Fears about traffic and crime also inhibit children's ability to play.  Professor Sydney Zentall, a clinical psychologist, says teachers restrict play as punishment when they should be doing the opposite to have well-behaved pupils.  She worries that parents and doctors may become too reliant on drugs such as Ritalin which she says is good at improving attention in class and ability to do subjects like mathematics, but has bad effects on creativity and problem solving.  There are also concerns about its long-term effects.

The causes of ADHD are unclear, but it is thought to be an inherited condition.  Scientists find the frontal lobes of the brains of children with ADHD to be about 5% smaller than average.  Professor of Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, based in Ohio, has been researching animal emotions for many years.  He says rats with the front part of their brain shrunk are more playful because reducing conscious thought makes them less able to regulate primary impulses.

Play helps humans learn how to be sociable; it is related to laughter, one of the first reciprocal interactions between mother and baby.  Professor Robert Provine, US neuroscientist, researched the sounds of laughter and says they are "equivalent to an animal call or bird song."  He found laughter was often automatic and spontaneous - sometimes difficult to provoke in laboratory conditions.  He says laughter is about social relationships rather than humour.

Professor Panksepp's study of animals found that rats also "laugh" and enjoy play.  Using a highly developed sound monitor, he measured chirping noises coming from rats when they were tickled.  He deduced laughter and play were ancient responses, part of mammalian evolution.  Los Angeles neurosurgeon Professor Itzak Fried discovered, when he tried to locate the area of the brain controlling an epileptic patient's seizures, that she would laugh when a certain part of her brain was stimulated.  Professor Provine believes laughter is both an ancient and modern response.  He thinks the fact that humans laugh spontaneously and also laugh at jokes shows they've taken an ancient response and further developed it in a more advanced part of their brain.

Children with ADHD have problems with social relationships, may have poor self esteem and/or feel rejected by their peers.  Teachers and professionals often don't understand them; they feel blamed and their parents are under great strain.  Jacky Coole's son Louis has ADHD.  She said he only slept for two hours a night as a baby.  By the time he was seven the family were at their wit's end.  He was put on Ritalin.  "No parent wants their child on any form of drugs," she said.  "But Louis cannot manage socially without medication."

The UCLA Child Development Centre is developing alternatives such as teaching ADHD children how to learn through play, keeping their minds' constantly stimulated.  Some children will still need drugs and also the individual attention required is expensive; so scientists continue to seek alternatives because the numbers of children affected keeps on rising.

Source: Internet news Friday 6 November 1998

Pills versus Talking

by Bryan Robinson


In February, 12-year-old Daniel began displaying some symptoms that his father suspected were related to the use of Ritalin.  "He was losing weight, wasn't sleeping, wasn't eating," Taylor told ABC News affiliate KOAT-TV in New Mexico.  "[He] just wasn't Daniel."  So Taylor took Daniel off Ritalin, against his doctor's wishes.  And though Taylor noticed Daniel was sleeping better and his appetite had returned, his teachers complained about the return of his disruptive behaviour.  Daniel seemed unable to sit still and was inattentive.  His teachers ultimately learned that he was no longer taking Ritalin.  School officials reported Daniel's parents to New Mexico's Department of Children, Youth and Families.  Then a detective and social worker made a home visit.  "The detective told me if I did not medicate my son, I would be arrested for child abuse and neglect," Taylor said.

A spokesman for New Mexico's Department of Children, Youth and Families told KOAT-TV that they could not comment on the case because of state confidentiality laws.  John Francis, a detective for the Rio Rancho Department of Public Safety, said that Taylor was not threatened but told KOAT-TV that parents could be charged in situations like his.  "People can be charged with child abuse, child neglect or various other crimes involving a child," he said...

Preschoolers up to age 5, the study found, were the fastest-growing users of prescription antidepressants.

Source: 7 June 2004

See also:

bulletThe Frivolity of Evil (in the section on Drugs) - There is something to be said here about the word "depression," which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life.  Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said that they were depressed...
bulletChill Out: Pupils Queue for Dose of Adjustment (also in the section on Drugs) - in the white, well-heeled suburbs, savvy parents know that a child officially listed as suffering from ADD is entitled to continue working on his Scholastic Aptitude Tests long after his undosed friends have been ordered to put down their pens.  Since American colleges use those same test scores to determine who will get a place, that extra time can mean the difference between Princeton University and Podunk Tech...
bulletTurn out the Lights (in the Society and Culture section) - "The doctors don't have time to make an assessment.  The fastest thing is to use chemical straitjackets on the kids - and some of them probably need it," said Stephen M Stahl, a University of California at San Diego professor who teaches psychopharmacology.  "You're forced to use drugs because the group homes are understaffed and they're unnatural environments."

Playtime Conkers Deemed Too Dangerous

The best education consists in immunising people against systematic attempts at education.

- Paul Karl Feyerabend

by Glen Owen

"Barren and sterile" playgrounds are seeing children playing less at school

The game of conkers, a staple of the playground for generations, is being outlawed by British primary teachers, who are classing the chestnut as an "offensive weapon".

Conker fights are among a raft of playtime activities such as skipping, rounders (a game similar to softball) and bull rush which are being banned by teachers who are nervous about legal action from parents if the children are injured, according to a survey by Keele University.  The argument against skipping is that girls may trip and hurt themselves.  For similar reasons 3-Iegged races are also out of favour, while even games of football are being phased out as antisocial.  The findings, from a study of the playtime pursuits of 1000 children in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Lancashire, concludes that playgrounds are now often "barren, sterile and unimaginative" because of over-cautious staff.

A MORI poll has found that 57% of parents would ask for compensation if their child was injured at school.  Teachers are also worried that Education Office inspectors might be critical of any dangers posed to children.  Sarah Thomson, the survey's author, says one headmaster said he would prefer to "ban all playtimes, as they are a nightmare".  She adds: "All the schools I visited saw playtime as a time that could not be left entirely to the children's wishes.  Many of the children's attempts to play were extinguished by the same supervising adults who complained that children 'did not play'."  She says the children she met generally preferred to play outside, rather than with computer games - but that schools inhibited them because of a lack of clarity in health and safety rules.

Experienced conker players know how to harden the chestnut by soaking it in vinegar, or by heating it in an oven, before deploying it in the playground.  The danger is from the shrapnel that may fly from the shattered nut. - The Times

Source: The Dominion Tuesday 19 December 2000

English Pair Conker the World

English conker competitors have cracked the foreign opposition and smashed their way to victory in the World Conker Championships.  Brian Stewart, 39, from Corby, Northamptonshire, and Debbie Oates, 24, from Walthamstow, east London, beat vikings, priests and soldiers in a spectacular display to be crowned King and Queen Conker.  The pair have each received a year's supply of ice cream for their efforts in front of over 5,000 spectators on the village green in Ashton, near Oundle, Northamptonshire.

More than 300 competitors from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Ukraine and Canada entered the annual contest, many sporting fancy dress costumes.  Event secretary John Hadman, standing on a carpet of crushed conkers covering the green, said: "It has been an absolutely fantastic day.  The games were really good.  The conkers came up to standard and we had some very exciting matches."  When asked what the champions won, he replied: "Honour, glory, embarrassment and a year's supply of Ben and Jerry's ice cream."

Ms Oates beat the 1991 champion in the women's event to take her seat on the prestigious throne under the horse chestnut trees, while Mr Stewart was up against another Brit in his final.  It was the second year running that English winners swept the board, making amends for the 2001 contest when a French woman snagged the women's title.

Last year's champions - careers adviser Liz Gibson, 49, from Hurstpierpoint in West Sussex, and 52-year-old builder Richard Swailes from Finedon, Northants - were both knocked out in the first round.

Source: Monday 13 October 2003

See also:

bulletAshton Conker Club (an external site) - The picturesque Northamptonshire village of Ashton hosts the World Conker Championships on the second Sunday in October every year.  Thousands flock to Ashton to watch this great spectacle as modern day gladiators fight for glory armed only with a nut and 12 inches of string...

For articles on education covering subjects taught, tests, costs, boredom, honour, rites of passage, rigid rules, cliques, thinking, learning, homeschooling, creating, brilliance, ongoing education and more, click the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this section.

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