New digital archive will be a treasure trove of child’s play

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ACCORDING to those who have studied these things, many of the play rituals each generation of children use to express themselves and explore the world are centuries old. There are paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries showing youngsters playing games that are still recognisable today.

But time also introduces new ways of playing, and how children amuse themselves has been influenced not only by developments in technology and manufacturing but also by historical events – for example the playground rhyme Ring a Ring of Roses, a ditty and circular skipping game associated by some with the Black Death or Bubonic Plague.

The study of childhood and how children play has been an area of growing academic interest in the last century, with educationalists, sociologists, historians, behaviourists, psychologists and many others carrying out research into how children develop, learn and relate to each other and the outside world through play.

Between the 1950s and 80s, the world renowned folklorists Iona and Peter Opie, whose works include The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes and The Playground, carried out seminal research in which they mapped out from observational work, written surveys and sound recordings the lives and pastimes of 20,000 children aged seven to 12 across Britain.

Now for the first time the entire collection of Opie archives, deposited at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, the British Library Sound Archive and the collections of the Folklore Society in London, will be brought together in a major digitised resource that will be accessible for research by academics and the general public internationally.

Sheffield University has received funding from the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences to set up the Childhoods and Play website, launched by the university’s School of Education as an invaluable resource to anyone who’s interested in history of children’s games, songs and nursery rhymes – from the different versions of Incy Wincy Spider to football and how children feel and talked about it.

At the time of their research the couple were told by some experts that they were doing the work “too late” because children’s play was in decline due to the rise of television. The 70,000 sides of paper and countless hours of sound recordings they accrued testify to the fact that this was palpably untrue. Even today technology has not replaced other kinds of play.

The University is now fundraising £500,000 to pay for the transcription into digital form of the vast Opie collection of 150 boxes of documents.

It’s hoped that, if the money is raised, the entire collection will have been digitised and loaded onto the interactive website by 2017. As well as digitising the collection, the project team will carry out research into the history of play and childhood cultures in the UK.

These papers are a national treasure, says Julia Bishop, one 
of the team working on the project. “(They’re) a time 
capsule which throws light on 
the everyday lives of British children in the late 1950s-80s, 
and contain descriptions 
noted down by children themselves.

The papers also show how the Opies, whose publications have had enormous public appeal as well as setting a benchmark for scholarly study, went about compiling their books. We are in touch with Iona Opie (Peter died in 1982), and she welcomes the project.”

Dr Bishop says there’s a lot of continuity between the present day and the decades when the Opies collected their data, as well as some changes in how children play.

“Play is changing but it is definitely not dying out. We 
hope that adults may be inspired to note their memories of 
playing out in childhood, and some of the rhymes and 
sayings they had. We also hope that children will be interested in the ‘back story’ to some of the games they currently play, and may be inspired to document them for generations in the future.”

Researchers are keen to hear from adults who participated in the Opies’ research decades ago.

“The potential uses of the archive are enormous,” says project director Professor Jackie Marsh. “It’s important for inter-generational understanding as well as scholarly interests. Unless we get the collection digitised soon some of the flimsier pieces of paper will disintegrate and be lost forever.”

If you were involved as a child in the Opie research contact: j.a.marsh@sheffield.ac.uk

sheena.hastings@ypn.co.uk