By Gaby Roughneen
I once read that play is really children’s work. That’s how they develop learning skills, solve problems, create, and work out peer relationships, skills that are now usually associated with the classroom. If that’s the case we certainly worked hard in the ‘40s and ‘50s!
Play was intense, close to home and unsupervised. It was mainly outdoors, because that’s where many of our playthings and the space we needed for them could be found.
Pristine cleanliness was not a fixation then, so clambering over fences, racing around lanes and fields, climbing trees, sloshing through water or leaves, getting drenched or muddied didn’t really matter. Washing could fix it all. Falls, cuts and bumps were accepted as occupational hazards.
Sometimes we went home bawling, but mostly, the grazes and bruises were dealt with when play ended for the day. There was even the occasional competition to see whose knee was the bloodiest.
So with all outdoors as our playground, it’s not surprising that our games, like nature, had seasons. Spring and summer were the richest. After winter, we had the mild weather and dry ground necessary for marbles. It was tough enough, played in a bent position, with knuckles permanently on the ground, and the first thumb joint, used repeatedly to shoot the marble.
The game had its own vocabulary shouted at high volume and top speed – taws, allies, aggies, mibs, dubs and keepsies. We didn’t know it, but we were developing hand/eye coordination, concentration and memorisation.
Then without anybody actually deciding it, the next game was already making its presence felt. Diagrams were chalked on any flat surfaces, and Beddies was underway.
One diagram was simply two columns divided into five numbered boxes each. We had to pitch a chaney into each box in turn and hop on one foot through each box to retrieve it without touching a line.
The other diagram was a big square, with a wide box top and bottom and a big X joining all the corners. We had to jump while turning in this one, and both diagrams taught us something of judging distance and balance.
As Beddies faded, the skipping ropes came out, and someone always seemed to make it more challenging –the footwork, the number of ropes, participants or speed, and it was usually done to a chant.
As Spring moved on into summer, we heard the sound of small rubber balls being bounced off the walls and it was time for the game called ‘Alera’ . The chant went ‘One Alera, two Alera,..’ as the bouncing, catching, twirling and hopping went on to as high a number as possible.
Sometimes, more than one ball was used, and intense concentration and coordination were needed for juggling two or even three balls bouncing back off the wall, while timing twirls and jumps and keeping count.
Then we’d hear the noise of wheels, and small gangs would run by, with sticks, walloping blazes out of old tires, bicycle wheels, or some kind of hoop, while avoiding collisions and obstacles – and fights – and gauging distances, judging direction, force and pressure.
In the summer holidays, when we had the long days to make things, we used tin cans and twine to make telephones, or we looped the twine though two holes in the top of a can, and made mini- stilts to walk on, irritating the neighbours with the clattering, and howling when we crashed and fell. But we got up, and kept going.
The summer also gave us piles of cut hay out on the green and we used it to build forts, cars and ships – time machines of magic to take us far away. We created the stories, developed the scripts and acted them out, sometimes battling for being ‘the boss’.
When the game ended, there were no orders from grown-ups to tidy up; we just followed nature’s way, leaving the hay lying around. Next day, we re-built, and entered the world of make-believe once more, our imaginations creating the magic.
It was always a bit sad when as dusk fell, and the swallows skimmed low, we had to stop, say goodbye to comrades, and go home – dirty, tired and happy. We didn’t realise it, but while playing outdoors with all that freedom, unsupervised, we’d been in the nicest possible classroom in the world. ■