Wednesday 15 August 2018

'Tip the can... Mother, May I? Why it's time to bring childhood classics back into play' - lecturer at Dublin City University


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Girls play 'A farmer wants a wife'. Photo from the National Folklore Collection
Boys play chariot. Photo from the National Folklore Collection
Play today tends to be in more structured places such as playgrounds

In the era of iPads and playdates, how many old-school outdoor games have survived? Peter McGuire asks if reviving these traditions could be the key to fixing our obesity crisis

'Tip the can, free the gang."

"What time is it, Mr Wolf?"

"Mother, may I?"

Boys play chariot. Photo from the National Folklore Collection
Boys play chariot. Photo from the National Folklore Collection

These cries will be familiar to most adults, bringing to mind long days of playing on the street. We learned these games from slightly older friends or siblings and they gave us our first sense of autonomy: we, rather than any grown-up, controlled what happened.

But in the era of iPads and playdates, how many of them have survived? And if we could persuade our kids to return to these old favourites, might it improve our childhood obesity crisis?

"We know that not all children like sport, but all children do love to play, so games - especially games with an emphasis on running - can keep them fit and healthy," says Dr Carol Barron, a registered nurse, anthropologist, lecturer at DCU's School of Nursing and Human Sciences, children's play researcher and chair of Súgradh, an organisation promoting the rights of children to play. "They want to play outside and they love playing in nature, particularly park and forestry areas. Of course, the children aren't playing games with fitness in mind - they're doing it because it's fun."

The old games are resilient. For her work, Barron has delved into the Schools Manuscript Collection, an extensive archive of folklore collected by children across the 26 counties between 1937-8 for the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin. She also drew upon Eilís Brady's (1975) work 'All in! All in!' a selection of Dublin Children's Traditional Street-Games with Rhymes and Music, the only published source on Dublin children's play in the 20th century. Barron's work on chasing games was carried out with Susan Gannon, a mature student taking the BSc in Health and Society at DCU.

So what has survived, what has transformed and what has ended? "There have been some changes in children's playing games, but they are more gradual than people think," Barron says.

"Chasing is so common and everyday that it can become invisible in its ordinariness. Chasing games remain the most common play activity in school playgrounds and on the streets, both in Ireland and internationally. Red Rover and British Bulldogs - games familiar to many adults - are still played in every school ground. Chasing game Relievio was recorded in Ireland in 1894, in the Schools Manuscripts in 1937, in Brady's 1975 work and by our own research in 2007 and today. About a quarter of the games children played in 1937 were chasing games. Tag, tig and tip the can are all still around. I also collected many examples of kerbs - a game where children try to hit the football off the kerb - back in 2007 and 2008, and it's still played today."

Play today tends to be in more structured places such as playgrounds
Play today tends to be in more structured places such as playgrounds

A game called 'Mother May I', built around movement and where the players might be told to run, walk, hop, skip or crabwalk, features prominently in the 1937 Schools Collection; Barron says she encounters it less often today, but it hasn't disappeared entirely. Meanwhile, 'What Time Is it, Mr Wolf?' - a chasing game where the children get progressively closer to the player chosen as Mr Wolf, and are eventually chased until one of them is caught - may have undergone a few name changes, but the rules and format have stayed the same.

Rounders (a bat-and-ball game similar to baseball) is still popular, and hopscotch and skipping games, both of which might date back hundreds of years, are going strong. Marbles appears to be in decline, with Barron finding "very few examples" in her extensive research.

There are challenges for children who want to play freely, but Barron is wary of the notion that technology has destroyed play. "That's not a new idea," she says. "In the 19th century, we blamed national schools and the coming of the railways. In the 20th century, it was cinema and TV. Today, we hold social media, games and computers responsible; yes, there are some problems with these mediums but they are here to stay and we have to help children use them in a healthy way."

She accepts that lifestyles have become more sedentary. "In many countries, parents are worried about traffic and stranger danger. Some schools have restrictions on running because of injury and litigation concerns, or because they only have a small yard - although children usually run anyway. But the biggest problem for kids is having the time and opportunity to play."

Modern children play a lot of imaginary games, but today we can see more influence from TV, Barron says. "They might, for instance, re-enact The X Factor, and that's fine. Kids have fantastic imaginations and, once they have friends to play with and a safe space to play in, they can thrive. Adults need to recognise that play is vital for children."

The Heritage Council runs a scheme to get children out of the classroom and out playing in nature. For more details, see


Children's games aren't just good for their fitness; they also encourage imagination, creativity and teamwork. There's a huge body of international research which shows that children learn best through play, rather than chalk and talk, and this concept is increasingly being embedded into the primary school curriculum.

Play isn't just a nice idea for children; they need it. Play helps children to develop their life skills and peer relationships and, indeed, article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says that every child has a right to play.

But there are impediments to that right being exercised and, while many adults might wistfully recall their days of roaming freely, children are more restricted today.

Dr Carol Barron recently worked with Kildare County Council to develop a play and recreation policy, which involved consulting with over 1,200 parents online and over 400 children and young people in person. Children with disabilities as well as children from the Traveller community were included. Barron is now working with Limerick City & County Council on similar work.

Barron found that, when it comes to playgrounds, children love slides, swings, climbing frames and, in particular, birds-nest swings where a bunch of children can all climb on together. Sandpits and seesaws were less popular. Children with special needs want more than wheelchair-accessible swings; they may also need sensory gardens and calm, quiet spaces in their playgrounds.

However, Barron points out that play is about more than just throwing up a few playgrounds. "It is about having a space to play, whether a back or front garden, a cul-de-sac or street. Children and young people want well-lit spaces and safe footpaths. We need to keep communal green areas, and we need to welcome children and young people to them. It may even be that play spaces are located on the roof of an apartment block."

In 2004, a National Play Policy required all local authorities to put play and recreation strategies and place, and most have now done so, with children's voices more prominently heard in local development plans.

Debby Clarke is the play development officer for Dublin City Council, which organises an annual play day to highlight the importance of children's play and to support parents in creating more opportunities for their own children to play.

"Central to our strategy is consulting with children and young people about what they want," says Clarke. "They need a space that feels safe to them. Play facilities and spaces are required in new residential developments; it is essential that places are set aside for social infrastructure.

"We're working closely with other departments and agencies including the Office of Public Works, the Department of Education, An Garda Siochana and The Ark Children's Cultural Centre to make sure children's voices are heard."

In 2017, DCC opened Weaver Park in Dublin 8 which includes a skatepark, playground and green spaces for all ages to enjoy, and they're currently working on a new play park at St Audeon's near Christchurch.

"Children need to play every day," says Clarke. "There are spatial and time obstacles, but the aim of our play day is to help parents adapt everyday play to their own circumstances.

"There are good summer projects and community and voluntary organisations helping young people to play. Ultimately, we need streets and spaces designed for children to come out and play."

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