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Children's Play

Older than schools, the games, rhymes, chants, insults, superstitions, riddles, jokes, sayings, secret codes and languages of children's folkloric play are ubiquitous and often of ancient pedigree. By listening and watching, children learn the verbal and kinetic patterns of their playlore. Sometimes shared with adults, the lore is generally learnt from other children in the long, anonymous chain of preservation, adaptation, innovation and decay.

Aboriginal children were masters of a variety of playlore at the time of Melbourne's foundation. Many of their games, reported by settlers or visitors to the colonies, were recognisable as variants of childhood traditions familiar to the observers. The playlore of these children included imitative and make-believe play, finger games, throwing and catching games, chasing and finding games, play with home-made toys, verbal play and many singing, dancing and story-telling games. At least some of these play traditions were learnt by non-Aboriginal children and became integrated into the colonising culture's childhood lore.

The development of schools, especially after the institution of compulsory primary education in the 1870s, provided a new, concentrated locus for children's playlore. Gradually most pre-adolescent children were withdrawn from the labour market and separated from the adult world for six and a half hours a day, five days a week, gathered together and allowed free playtime two or three times a day. The unintended consequence was a flowering of children's folklore: their diverse, intense, often comic and subversive traditions of play.

In the school playground, folkloric play coexists with the adult games such as cricket and football encouraged by teachers. Most schoolyards consist of differing surfaces: earth suitable for marbles games, asphalt and brick walls for ball games, nooks for hiding, tree roots for imaginary houses, shelter shed seats for games like Statues. The performance of rhymes, riddles, jokes and insults takes place both inside and outside the schoolroom: like all playlore, it is a way of bonding with friends and excluding enemies.

The verbal lore can reflect changes in community attitudes. Thus the lessening of religious enmity among Christians has led to the virtual disappearance of sectarian taunts such as 'Catholic [or Protestant] dogs/ Jump like frogs/ In and out the water!' However racial and ethnic slurs - 'Drop dead, pizza head!', 'Ra, ra, refugee/ Go back to your own country!' - continue to mirror current prejudices.

The Australian Children's Folklore Collection, a vast archive of children's lore and language, was acquired by Museum Victoria in 1999, which also publishes the bi-annual Play and Folklore on the Internet. The Melbourne Museum exhibits some of this material in its schoolyard display. Despite regular predictions of the demise of children's folklore, the verbal and kinetic play traditions of childhood continue to be practised, adapted and renewed in Melbourne schoolyards. New technologies, such as television and computers, are integrated into the playlore; a new resource, not a death-knell, for children's play.

June Factor