An Exploration of the History and Importance of Play – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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An Exploration of the History and Importance of Play

Through all the changes of time the games and amusements of children have remained curiously unaltered. Child nature is the same the world over, and in all centuries, and little boys and little girls to-day play much as they did when William the Norman landed in England.

So writes M.L. Stollard for the The Scotsman on 21 August 1936. But what games did the children of the past play, and when was such play deemed important by the adults around them?

‘Children’s Games’ by Pieter Brueghel the Elder | Illustrated London News | 15 November 1951

In this special blog, as part of our history of childhood month here at The Archive, we will investigate just how children of the past played. Furthermore, using our newspapers, we will take a look at when play began to be deemed an important tool in the development of children, and how it was incorporated into school curriculums, as a very necessary and integral part of education.

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‘Oranges and Lemons’ | Illustrated London News | 27 June 1914

Games Ancient and Modern

M.L. Stollard, in his look at the ‘Games of Children‘ throughout history for The Scotsman, begins by claiming that William the Conqueror himself, as a child, ‘delighted in playing at soldiers with a toy wooden sword and miniature bow and arrows.’

Stollard is keen to press the point that the games that children play have remained constant from time immemorial, using the example of royalty to back up his theory. He writes how hide and seek ‘has remained the most popular of games all through the ages,’ and how:

It was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite pastime in her childish days, and the children of Charles the First, when in captivity, contrived to escape from their jailers by that historic game of ‘Hide and Seek’ in the grounds of St. James’s Palace.

Meanwhile, another staple of childhood games was blind man’s buff, also known as ‘Hoodman Blind.’ Stollard claims that this too was played by Charles I’s children, as well as centuries before, ‘for in a fourteenth-century manuscript we see a print of children playing it.’

‘Blind Man’s Buff’ by George Morland | Illustrated London News | 15 February 1930

A game that might not have survived from Medieval days was ‘Turn the Trencher,’ which was played ‘after dinner in the big hall with wooden trenchers or plates.’ But we today do of course recognise ‘London Bridge,’ or ‘Oranges and Lemons.’ According to Stollard:

This game is even older than the ancient bridge which it immortalises, and is played in nearly every European country. In France it is known as ‘French and English,’ and in Italy ‘Open the Gates,’ the two capturing players being St Peter and St Paul.

‘Children’s Games Through the Ages’ | The Sphere | 11 November 1955

And then there was skipping, which Stollard tells us ‘in the old days was enjoyed as much by boys as by girls, and trundling hoops dates from time immemorial.’ Again, he gives royalty as a proponent of the latter type of play, picturing a ‘small Stuart Princess delighting in her hoop of silver.’

‘When Our Grandmothers Were Young’ – playing at hoops | Illustrated London News | 3 January 1914

But how did the children of the lower classes play? Frances Low, writing for the Strand Magazine in November 1891, was on the front-line of children’s games, penning an article in which she describes ‘The Street Games of Children.’ Stemming from her own observations, Low tells her readers ‘when, if not always why, a particular game is in.’

One of the ‘in’ games from 1891 was ‘Buck and Gobs,’ played with stones. Low was introduced to this game by a ‘preternaturally acute little imp of five or six years old;’ and whilst her account does not illuminate us much as to what the actual game involves, it provides an amusing anecdote of her characterful young friend:

After he had dropped the stones some eight or nine times, I said to some of the bigger boys who were standing round, ‘Perhaps you had better show me,’ and remarked mildly to the small performer, who was still heroically struggling with the stones: ‘I don’t think you a particularly good player.’ He looked at me steadily for a moment, spat on his small hands, and said in the most languid manner imaginable, ‘I’m a deb’lish good player, I am!’

‘Grandmother in the Ring’ | Illustrated London News | 21 November 1908

Low also describes a popular game called ‘Poor Jenny is a-weeping,’ which was a game played in the round and was ‘by a long way the favourite:’

Any number of children can join in the game, which is played by a ring formed, with one child in the centre, who personifies Jenny. The circle moves round singing.

Lyrics to ‘Poor Jenny is a-weeping’ | St James’s Gazette | 10 November 1891

We get a glimpse of another children’s game from the 1890s called ‘horses.’ The Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, 19 October 1895, outlines the merits of ‘healthy exercise‘ by way of keeping children warm, but cautions how:

Most children like playing at ‘Horses,’ but the game should not be allowed in crowded thoroughfares, where the children, in their mad glee, are liable to get crushed by vehicles, or are otherwise running against grown people; and other children frequently meet with disastrous tumbles.

‘Healthful Play’

And whilst the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph edges at professing its belief in the importance of play, some twenty years before in the 1870s there was a growing school of thought which saw play as both beneficial and necessary in the education and health of children.

Local Lincolnshire newspaper the Epworth Bells, Crowle and Isle of Axholme Messenger on 8 August 1874 published an article entitled ‘Healthful Play,’ featuring these lines from Dr. Isaac Watts’s Divine and Moral Songs for Children:

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first years be passed
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

Playing at ‘Living Statues’ | Illustrated London News | 21 November 1908

The article asks its readers at least ‘to consider the importance of healthful play for children,’ stating how:

And we now ask our readers to consider the importance of ‘healthful play’ for children. In doing so we would at once say that we would not knowingly advocate anything which would injure a child in morals or manners. Neither do we advocate any kind of play which is put instead of work or honest labour; nor any kind of play which is calculated to do harm.

Epworth Bells, Crowle and Isle of Axholme Messenger | 8 August 1874

It is a mild affirmation of the importance of play. But what must be remembered that this was published in a society that had for some time seen children as workers, with many children still working in fields and factories from the age of eleven (and even younger). And so, even this gentle commendation of play would have varied hugely from the norm:

But what we urge is this, that those who take an interest in the young should take some interest in their play, and should in some way direct and teach them what to play at, and how to play.

The Epworth Bells goes on to lament how ‘Running, jumping, leaping, climbing, are accomplishments which now-a-days seem only known to a few,’ professing its ‘sincere wish that somebody would some day give a piece of ground in Epworth…as a Playground for the young.’

Children dancing in a playground | Illustrated London News | 17 March 1906

And the Epworth Bells was not alone in expressing its belief in the importance of play. The Isle of Man Times from 26 February 1876, some two years later, contains this short notice:

The Academy of Sciences, Letters, and Arts of Amiens has announced as the subject of its prize for 1876: – ‘The importance of play for children and young people, from the point of view of physical and moral education, to compare them with gymnastic exercises.’ The prize is a gold medal of the value of 200fr., to be awarded on a day to be fixed hereafter.

Academics were now taking an interest in the importance of play, and it wouldn’t be long before their ideas started to reach beyond the lecture halls and libraries into the day-to-day life of children in the United Kingdom.

The Children’s Happy Evenings Association

In March 1906, The Sphere wrote in a piece called ‘The Art of Games:’

 It is sad but true that children in the poorest districts literally do not know how to play, so the Children’s Happy Evenings Association, of which the Princess of Wales is president, is teaching them how to do so.

Indeed, this reflects how play was reserved for the children of the upper classes, the royalty that Stollard describes for The ScotsmanThe reality for children of the working classes was that they had no free time for play, that play would have been seen as something frivolous when there was money to be earned, and food needing to be put on the table.

‘Here We Go Round’ is played at Virginia Road School, Bethnal Green, organised by the Children’s Happy Evenings Association | The Sphere | 24 March 1906

But the Children’s Happy Evenings Association hoped to change this, having for the previous ‘seventeen years…given organised play in the council schools of London to the scholars attending them.’ The Association was also active in Manchester, Plymouth, Oxford, Middlesbrough, and Walthamstow.

Patronised by the likes of the Countess of Jersey and Countess Cardogan, volunteers were sought to attend such evenings. Games were played like leapfrog, tug of war and the human wheelbarrow, ‘amusing nearly 22,000 boys and girls in the poorest neighbourhoods of the metropolis.’

Leapfrog is played at Virginia Road School, Bethnal Green, organised by the Children’s Happy Evenings Association | The Sphere | 24 March 1906

These ‘happy evenings‘ were intended to provide a welcome distraction for children living in poverty, giving them the freedom to express themselves in a way they perhaps had not experienced before.

Character Building

And by the time the Children’s Happy Evenings Association was in its eighteenth year, the notion of the importance of play was gaining traction.

At a meeting of the Salisbury and District Association of the National Union of Teachers in November 1907, the Reverend Chancellor Bernard gave an address entitled ‘Moral Instruction,’ which was recorded in The Salisbury Times

There was a growing importance attached to play for children, and they were aware that it had been said by authorities that suitable organised games might be played during the hours assigned to afternoon attendance at school, and in those games much ought to be done in the way of moral training.

Tug of war at Virginia Road School, Bethnal Green, organised by the Children’s Happy Evenings Association | The Sphere | 24 March 1906

Meanwhile in April 1909 the Hendon & Finchley Times writes how games are ‘character-builders’ for children:

Tennis and hockey teach agility of the mind and body, croquet develops the powers which go to make a diplomatist and tactician, but I think that the finest game of all is archery, either played on foot or, when girls and boys grow up and are able to ride, on horseback.

Unfortunately, these games (archery on horseback!) were out of reach for most children, but in the following decades, in the 1920s and 1930s a spotlight was shone on the importance of play in a way that had never been seen before, as the notion of free play was introduced into schools and nurseries across the country.

Free Play and Personality in Action

In January 1928 the Aberdeen Press and Journal published a piece entitled ‘Baby’s Right to be Noisy – Vital Importance of Play to Children.’ The article quotes one Dr. J. Reaney, a lecturer in hygiene at Fursedown Training College.

He gives the example of a child banging on a table with a spoon. Reaney explains how ‘it is no good taking away the spoon…He wants the noise, and should have it,’ further commenting how:

Play is of enormous importance in the child’s life, and only by full freedom in play can he reach his full stature in body and mind.

It is his belief, furthermore, that the nervous disorders seen in people aged forty or fifty years old stemmed from ‘suppression during the first seven years of their lives.’ If they had been allowed to play, and express themselves, like the noisy baby with his spoon, they might have avoided such neurosis.

Five-month-old ‘baby of Belgrave Square’ | The Sphere | 20 June 1936

The importance of free play and expression was again underlined by Miss J.E. Payne, a teacher, during her address to the Hull Education Society entitled ‘Play and handwork for five years old and under.’

The Hull Daily Mail, 20 October 1933, reports how:

She strongly urged that freedom should be given to young children in school, as they were instinctively urged in certain directions, and it was there, instincts, especially in play and handwork in constructive and creative ability, that should be encouraged. After many years of teaching children of all ages, she believed that free play was the most educative activity.

Miss Payne advises that ‘from their start at school’ children should be given the opportunity for free play – and materials like paper, sand, water and clay could be made use of in facilitating such play.

Playpark at Tanner Street, Bermondsey | The Sphere | 19 March 1938

Meanwhile, Mrs Coleman, the superintendent of North Hill Nursey School, Leeds, addressed the North of England Education Commission in 1938 regarding the science of play. The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer features some of her address:

‘Our knowledge of children and their psychology has been considerably extended of recent years,’ she said, ‘and this advance has resulted in a great deal of scientific observation of children’s play and an increased awareness on the part of educational workers of its importance.

She continues:

The child played in order to learn. This was his natural way of solving problems, and this was why all children played at being grown-ups. Briefly, play was the means by which the child discovered the world around him, and the means by which he learned to control his body. Through games the child gained mental and emotional stability and came to make social contacts and adjustments.

In order to foster such mental and emotional development, Mrs Coleman advocated for a ‘free play activity period’ to be introduced into the classroom. She suggests for five-year-olds the introduction of ‘materials for home play, building and modelling,’ and for older children, ‘meccanos, jig-saws and shops with weights and measures and cardboard coins.’

‘Children at Play’ | The Sphere | 17 March 1906

Mrs Coleman then sets the scene of these ‘free play activity periods,’ and the benefits they produced:

The usual desk environment gave way to an informal arrangement of furniture with empty floor space, and the class overflowed into the corridor and hall. These periods lasted never less than an hour, and the scene in the classroom when this method was used was most illuminating. The entire personality of each child was in action…

She ended her talk with this rallying cry:

…children begin life with a love of learning, thinking and doing. It is a disturbing thought that many of them leave school having lost even the desire to think and learn. The new methods are full of hope, for children who have experienced them continue to retain their love for all three – learning, thinking and doing.

Playpark at Tanner Street, Bermondsey | The Sphere | 19 March 1938

And so, from being the preserve of princes and princesses, a frivolity not for the few, play was gradually introduced into the mainstream as education professionals began to realise its importance. We are sure we all have memories of break time at school, and playing tag or however it was locally known. And meanwhile, the type of play enjoyed by children has endured across the centuries – from hide and seek to hopscotch – the oldest of games still endure, and long may playtime continue!

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