“I wanted,” says Iona Opie in her Preface to The People in the Playground, “above all, to call up the sensation of being surrounded by the kaleidoscopic vitality of the eager, laughing, shouting, devil-may-care people in the playground” (ix). From January 1978 to July 1980, Iona Opie stood in the playground of her local village elementary school watching the children play and recording what she heard and saw.
The Opies are famous for their work with what I might define as the anthropology of childhood. If you are interested in the folk tradition, you are probably familiar with their Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes and with their Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. I found The People in the Playground in a second hand book store one Sunday morning not too long ago.
I bought it for two reasons, I think. One because it was there and I was surprised to find it. And two, because I had a sense of doubleness, if you like. The book itself is now twenty-two years old, and the years it records are even further away.
The children Opie describes in the late seventies run around the playground. Soccer is an almost constant activity. Other games seem to go in cycles: marbles, jacks, skipping, and other invented games. They tell jokes, often depending on puns. Much of what she describes seemed familiar from my own childhood: the older, maternal girl, the rough boy, the shy children, the naive curiosity about things sexual, the alliances and the rivalries.
After a while, however, the record did become a little repetitive, and I found my interest flagging. I also found the conclusion rather abrupt. I would have liked something such as an “Afterword” or “Conclusion” to sum everything up. Yes, Opie does put her observations into context in her Introduction, but I couldn’t help feeling that she needed to round things off at the end with some further thoughts about what she had observed and what she thought about it.
For me, I think a great part of the interest evoked by the book was the glimpse it offered of every day life of children over thirty years ago. The children Opie observed are now middle aged and will have children themselves. Today’s people in the playground—it’s the children who refer to themselves as “people”—will probably have cell phones. They will have computers in the classroom and in their homes. Their playgrounds will be controlled by far more stringent health and safety regulations than were in place in the seventies. Do today’s children still play ring games, tell dreadful jokes?
Several years ago now, a friend who was an elementary school teacher told me that his students didn’t make up games in quite the way his previous students had. Rather, they would ask for sports equipment and play baseball or hockey. The children who live near me still take noisily to the driveway to play an almost constant game of street hockey. They chase each other with water guns. Every now and then, the girls engage in what appear to week-long marathons of hopscotch, which stop almost as suddenly as they began. Right now, Hide and Seek seems to be the favourite neighbourhood game.
If you are interested in children, in education, in social history, you might find this book interesting if you come across it. Opie writes lucidly and often lyrically about her young subjects and their world. For me, as I said earlier, the charm of the book lay in its bringing the voices of over thirty years ago alive.