Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Republic of Childhood

“What's our waitress' name?” I asked.

“Mary Jane,” said Marjorie.

“What's your name? Mary Jane,” I chanted. “Where d'you live? Down the lane. What d'you eat? Pigs' feet. What d'you drink? Black ink -- “

“What?” cried Marjorie, flummoxed.

“What's your number? Cucumber.” I laughed. “You don't want to know how far back in the previous century I last said that rhyme.”

“What is it?”

“I don't know. A children's rhyme.” I thought for a moment. “I think it's a skipping rhyme.” I started it again, emphasizing the rhythm.. “What's your NAME? Mary JANE. Where d'you LIVE? Down the LANE. Yeah. Do kids still have skipping rhymes, I wonder? ”

“I never see girls skipping,” Marjorie said. “I don't see kids playing hopscotch, either.”

“Right. Or conkers, with big old chestnuts. Or marbles. Almost the only game we played when I was a kid that still seems to be played is street hockey. There's a whole kids' culture that's almost completely lost.”

Years ago, my friend Lloyd Bourinot asked me, “What ever happened to peggy?” I assumed he was talking about a woman – but in fact he was talking about a childrens' game, played by batting a short piece of broomstick with another longer piece. The short piece, sharpened at both ends to make it fly better, was the “peggy” or “piggy.” In Isle Madame, almost everyone my age remembered the game very fondly – but it had disappeared completely, except for the occasional sentimental match played when some of its middle-aged aficionados got together at reunions.

I wrote a radio drama called “What Ever Happened to Peggy?” The play was about the game – and also about a woman named Peggy. It later became “Peggy,” a Gemini-nominated half-hour TV drama. While I was writing the radio play, I asked my friend George Jordan to mention the game on-air during CBC Radio's rolling-home show, and ask whether anyone else had ever heard of it.

George's phone rang off the wall. People knew the game as peacock, kippy, and tiddly. Listeners reported having played it as far away as Toronto, Saskatchewan and Scotland. In New England it was known as "one-a-cat." One listener reported that such a game was also played in Pakistan.

Everyone thought this game was local, but it had been played all over the world – and there's something miraculous about that. How did a game like that travel around the globe? Evidently there was – perhaps there still is – a kind of international republic of childhood, with its own rules, its own forms of heroism, its own folkways, its own recreations.

Or maybe it's just that there are only so many simple toys – a bat, a ball, a swing, a teeter-totter – and that, given the same toys, kids the world over will invent the same games.

So what did happen to peggy? And to Red Rover, and British Bulldog, and Kick the Can, and Anti-Anti-I-Over, and even Hide-and-Seek?

Part of what happened, surely, was television. In a year, we are told, the average child spends 900 hours in school and nearly 1,023 hours in front of a TV. That's close to three hours a day, seven days a week. A kid who watches that much TV – and spends additional hours at a computer – hardly has time for anything else.

I also blame the corporatization and commodification of play, and of sports in general. In my day, sonny, kids who wanted to play hockey found a frozen pond, established a makeshift goal with a couple of rocks, laced up their leather skates and played. It was a rare kid who had any more equipment than a pair of gloves, some primitive shin-pads, and maybe a Maple Leafs sweater.

Today, childrens' hockey is a scale-model imitation of the NHL – indoor rinks, organized leagues, complete suits of equipment, even hockey cards showing mean-looking 12-year-olds in full regalia. All this organization certainly has benefits – we would have loved the equipment, and the opportunity to play during thawing weather – but the game is firmly in the hands of adults, and its participants are a corporate market. It's no longer part of the independent republic of childhood.

Finally, and most sadly, I suspect we're over-protecting our children. We may complain that they watch too much television – but if we were honest, might we admit that we'd rather have them at home in front of the box than out chasing around the neighbourhood, trespassing on the neighbours' property, climbing trees, playing with fire and batting pointed sticks at one another?

The kids didn't get rid of the republic of childhood, and replace it with this elaborately-regulated playpen. Adults did. Will the new, safe arrangement yield outward-looking, risk-taking, self-confident kids? I doubt it. And that's an enormous loss.

-- 30 --

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