PLAY IN A PANDEMIC

Judy McKinty – Independent Children’s Play Researcher

April 9, 2020

No more pencils, no more books, No more teacher’s dirty looks. – Traditional children’s rhyme

Children all over Australia are now in the midst of their extended end-of-term holidays. When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the early closure of primary schools at the end of Term One, the focus of governments, teachers and parents was on finding ways for children to continue their lessons from home, for an unknown and perhaps greatly extended period of time. But it isn’t only the children’s education that is being affected by the empty schools. The ‘stay at home’ and ‘social distancing’ directives, designed to ‘flatten the curve’ of new coronavirus cases, has changed the way children can play.

To most children aged between five and twelve, school is the place where they can play with their friends almost every day, beginning on their first day in Prep or Foundation and ending on their last day of Year 6. Seven years of playing Tiggy, Downball, Elastics, Mothers and Fathers, Cops and Robbers, Marbles, Skippy, digging in the sand pit, climbing on the play equipment, doing handstands, cartwheels and somersaults, swinging on the monkey bars, running, jumping, clapping and chanting ‘Apple on a stick, makes me sick…’.

The schoolyard is where children’s play culture flourishes. Rules, rituals and oral traditions are created, adapted and passed on through generations of children, mostly by word of mouth and without any adult involvement. The games, rhymes, riddles and jokes adults remember from their own school days are all part of the dynamic culture of children’s traditional play. In Australia, as in other parts of the world, a primary school playground is one of the last remaining places where conditions are just right for this type of play to thrive. Most children can play freely at recess and lunch time and can decide for themselves what and how they will play. There is usually enough outdoor space for hiding, chasing and sometimes making cubby houses, and unless something drastic has happened play traditions will already exist in the playground, a legacy of past generations of children who have played there. 

Before the schools closed, children had already taken COVID-19 into their play repertoire. In Victoria, schools in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, the Dandenong Ranges, the Surf Coast and no doubt other places were playing versions of Coronavirus Tiggy. The speed at which this game sprang up and spread is akin to the behaviour of the virus itself. There is also an element of subversion – in the US it was reported that children playing the game were coughing on each other rather than tagging; dangerous behaviour when put in the context of reports of people deliberately coughing on paramedics and police. 

To play Coronavirus Tiggy, and many other typical schoolyard games, you need a reasonably-sized cohort of roughly the same age, who can spend sufficient time with each other to develop the game and play it often enough to change the rules if necessary. You also need to be able to chase and catch each other, either by tagging or by holding on while a ‘vaccine’ is given. Social distancing dictates that both these actions are now forbidden, particularly with children who are not part of your own family. It would be hard to maintain the pace of a chasing game at home with only a couple of siblings playing.

Traditional children’s games and rhymes often reflect what is happening in society, and help them to come to terms with it, either by empowering them in some way or by enabling them to mirror adult values as they perceive them. Often they’re just for fun. In Coronavirus Tiggy, the act of giving a ‘vaccine’ kills the virus and heals the victim, and during the last US Presidential campaign Trump Tag, played in Boulder, Colorado, reflected children’s perceptions of this candidate. In Trump Tag, the chaser was called ‘The Donald’, and ran around fluffing up his hair and yelling ‘I’m Trump! I’m Trump!’, while tagging other players. The person tagged had to get down on the ground and start building a tower. When it was done he yelled, ‘I’ve built a wall! I’ve built a wall’, and was then free to run away. In this game, the children hadn’t figured out a way for ‘The Donald’ to be replaced.

Back to the coronavirus. To help children stay at home there are countless screen games designed to amuse and entertain, with movies and TV programs on demand, but these are passive activities and no substitute for the games of the schoolyard. Each day from my window I watch a passing parade of parents with children on scooters or bikes or walking along the footpath, out for their daily exercise. Parents and children are now spending much more time together, both indoors and outside. This is a really good time for adults to dig deeply into their childhood memories and get in touch with their inner child.

What did you play when you were at school? Did you play Hopscotch? It’s surprising how many children don’t know how to play the game properly, using a ‘taw’ or playing piece. Although the traditional ‘Aeroplane’ hopscotch pattern is found in almost every schoolyard, most children just hop and jump through the numbers like they do with tiles on the floor of a shopping mall. It might be time to get out the chalk, draw a ‘hopscotch’ on the footpath, choose a stick or piece of wood to be your own ‘taw’ and teach your children the game. Then they’ll have a ‘new’ game to share with their friends when they go back to school, and this one can be played safely under the new ‘social distancing’ rules.

The rhyme at the start of this article is an old one, chanted by schoolchildren as they stream out the door at the beginning of their holidays, and used by both Alice Cooper and Bugs Bunny to imply freedom from authority. Sharing rhymes, riddles and jokes can lighten the hours spent together at home, and make it a fun time for adults as well as children. 

Q. Why did the computer go to the chiropractor? A. It had a slipped disc.

Q. What gives you the power to see through walls? A. A window.

Q. What do you get when you cross a centipede with a parrot? A. A walkie-talkie.

And when washing your hands for 20 seconds, instead of singing the usual version of Happy Birthday, try one straight from the schoolyard: ‘Happy birthday to you, You live in the zoo, You look like a monkey, And you smell like one too’.

Just because we can’t go away for the holidays doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. Play with your kids as much as you can, and find that elusive spark of childhood again.

Judy McKinty is an independent children’s play researcher, based in Melbourne, with a special interest in children’s folklore and traditional games. Her work has mainly focussed on play in primary schools and the relationship between play and place. She has a Master of Cultural Heritage, is an Honorary Associate of Museums Victoria and was a co-editor of the online journal Play and Folklore. Her favourite games are Marbles, Jacks and string games.

Published by A Hidden Culture

Ruth Hazleton: Cultural & Oral History / Folklore / Musician (singer/banjo/songwriter) / Independent Music Advocate / Mum & big fan of broccoli.

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