Macabre or madcap, it’s all child’s play

In the Nazi concentration camps, the Jewish children played “Germans and Jews”. Everyone wanted to be German because they got to chase and hit the others. They played gravediggers, digging a pit for one child – the “Hitler” – to lie in and pretend to be dead. Sometimes, in the ghettos, they played in the street near the bodies of children who were not just pretending to be dead.

Dr June Factor, who has been studying Australian children’s games and folklore for 25 years, tells the stories to illustrate the significance of play.

She says that children’s need for play is acted out in even the most desperate situations. Play helps children make sense of their world, and is often an expression of themes in the adult culture.

For Jewish children under the Nazis, she says, it was “play as resistance … Play doesn’t necessarily ensure your survival, but it may ensure your sanity as a human being for the moment”.

Dr Factor has preserved thousands of mementoes of children’s play in the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection, an archive she donated this month to Museum Victoria.

It contains more than 10,000 card files listing children’s games, rhymes, riddles, jokes and superstitions, as well as photographs, audio and video tapes and playthings.

The toys Dr Factor has collected are mostly home-made, make-do playthings that recall another time, and sometimes another place: a rolled-up wad of newspaper tied with string that was some boy’s footy; old milk tins that were pulled along with wire in the “roller races” of outback Aboriginal children.

The card files list thousands of playground chants, taunts and rhymes recorded by Dr Factor and her students when she was an academic at the Institute for Early Childhood Development (now part of Melbourne University).

The most vulgar are bluntly joyous about sexual and bodily functions.

Dr Factor is a free speech advocate (she is a former president of the Council for Civil Liberties) but acknowledges she was shocked – and amused – when she first heard what comes out of the mouths of our babes when they think themselves out of adult hearing.

Knowing that adults are the gatekeepers of children’s reading material, she censored out the ripest rhymes (as well as the racist ones) when she published some of them in the children’s books for which she is best known (Far Out Brussel Sprout!, All Right Vegemite!, Real Keen Baked Bean! and Unreal Banana Peel!)

She didn’t censor enough for some parents, and her books are among the most challenged items in Australian school libraries.

Dr Factor is now a research fellow at the Australian Centre at Melbourne University and is writing a dictionary of children’s slang.

She has long fought to dispel the adult fantasy that childhood is a time of sweetness and light. She argues for children’s right to play and talk largely as they please, without too much adult regimentation.

Her fascination with the gritty realities underlying children’s free play was sparked when she was teaching literature and found that her young students were appalled by the ferocity of portrayals of children in books such as Lord of the Flies.

Realising that few of the students had had contact with children since their own childhood, Dr Factor told them to go into the playground on teaching rounds and document what they saw and heard.

She was fascinated by what they recorded: “It seemed to me that here was a window on the nature of being human.”

It also confirmed her suspicions that children were not the Brady Bunch characters her students had imagined them to be. “All those rhymes they learnt at their parent’s knee when they were wide-eyed innocents have been changed by the time they are seven or eight and growing in independence. One of the means by which they express that independence is in parody: Ding dong dell, pussy’s in the well, if you don’t believe me, go and have a smell.”

She says much cultural – and multicultural – transmission continues to happen in the playground.

She has a recent photograph of a small Turkish-Australian boy in an inner-city primary school playing marbles with a technique the children called “the Chinese flick”; Vietnamese and Cambodian children had taught them to put the marble on a raised middle finger and shoot it like a shanghai.

Dr Factor is particularly fond of shanghais. They embody much of what she loves about children’s play. Little boys have been making them for generations – she has a fine specimen from the 1920s – despite adult strictures on their dangers.

In a world where over-zealous schools are banning marbles because they are “too competitive”, she says :”I take much encouragement from the evidence that children are continuing to engage in the kind of play they wish to engage in, adapting whatever materials are at hand with very little regard for adult proscription. Children are making shanghais all over Australia.”

First published in The Age.