Little wonder, therefore, that parents worry as much about how children will cope in the playground as they do about teaching methods or academic achievement. The frustrating thing is that parents have little or no way of knowing what happens there.
Next week a book is published which, by taking the lid off one particular playground, reveals a great deal about playtime in schools. The People in the Playground is Iona Opie's account of weekly visits to morning play at one Hampshire junior school in the late Seventies, which formed part of her fieldwork for the books on traditional lore that she wrote with her late husband, Peter.
Although her observations were made half a generation ago, no one reading them can doubt their timeless quality: parents of young children will find themselves smiling in recognition at Mrs Opie's picture of the playground.
A passive observer, she wrote down everything she saw or was told, using the children's words as much as possible. The result is a vivid insight into children's play and behaviour.
In many ways the playground of the book is a surprisingly reassuring place. It is noisy and a bit rough, but there is little bullying or bad language, and the children are generally kind to one another. Most impressive is the endless variety of worthless occupations the children invent to fill 15 minutes of non-stop activity.
But what may shock many adults - and certainly surprised Mrs Opie - is the quantity and quality of the rude jokes, stories, rhymes and songs the children tell each other. They are more the kind of thing you would expect to hear in a rugby club or a public bar than a playground for 7- to 11- year-olds.
A quick glance down the index gives a good idea of the range of rudery. Familiar games and rhymes like 'One potato, two potato' are interspersed with more intriguing entries such as: 'Blindfolded man farts in crowded room'; Fuckerard, story about a girl called; Heaven/God, located in toilet; Wanking machine; Willy (penis) severed; and so on.
The children sing scatalogical versions of 'In an English Country Garden' and 'Popeye the Sailor Man', tell jokes about dicks and Durex, farting, wanking, shagging and snogging a camel's bum. Most are fairly harmless, such as 'Mary had a little lamb/She also had a duck/She put them on the mantelpiece/To see if they would fuck', while others are just plain sick, like the one about a woman's long-dead body.
These are jokes that no child would want a teacher, or any adult, to overhear. Why, then, were they so eager to relate them to Iona Opie, a middle-aged visitor with a posh accent? It must have a lot to do with her skill in dealing with children, and the fact that they believed her when she promised not to tell the teacher.
She also passed their initiation tests: 'Do you know what a fanny is?' 'Do you know what a
penis is?' 'Do you know what a Durex is?' ('It's a condom'. 'No it's not, it's a rubber Johnny.')
Her technique was to stand or stroll in the playground, making herself as invisible as possible. She let it be known she was interested in games and jokes, but rarely prompted: 'As soon as they realised that I wasn't anybody in authority, but just an oddity who liked collecting things, they thought that was perfectly sensible. And they were so helpful. These little boys would tell me some appalling story which would make me pause to get my breath back. They would lean over my notebook, thinking I'd got stuck with a spelling and say 'Just put
S-H-I-T'. Sometimes when they said: 'It's a bit rude,' it turned out not to be rude at all according to my standards.'
More often than not, it was the boys who told the rude jokes, usually with mates to back them up and applaud. The rudest stories often fell apart before the punchline because the teller collapsed in giggles or forgot.
If girls came anywhere near they were warned off, on the grounds that it was not the sort of thing they ought to hear. Such nascent male protectiveness may seem sweetly old-fashioned, but it points to one of the book's more depressing observations - the self-imposed segregation of the sexes. Girls play endless skipping and clapping games, but will not join in with anything that might dirty their long white socks. Meanwhile, the boys play football, marbles, conkers, fighting and sniffing the smoke from exploded caps ('It tastes just like a cigarette').
Segregation breaks down only if a really hot craze takes hold. One singing game took over an entire school, even the aloof 11-year-olds, presumably because it involved the girls lifting their skirts and the boys peeping at their knickers. Kiss-chase, the only game that boys and girls regularly play together, is an enduring favourite.
Mrs Opie has no illusions about the reason: sex, she says, is a major driving force in the playground. 'The two chief interests in this playground are kiss-chase and eating crisps - that's the two main biological functions, eating and making love,' she writes. 'There's a curious relationship between boys and girls at this age. It's sex- based. The girls have got this line that boys are stupid, they smell, nothing is good about them, and yet they're extremely interested in boys. They're defending themselves against admitting any serious interest. But they're working the boys up to retaliate; they tease each other a great deal.'
There is no way of knowing whether rude stories were as popular with previous generations of schoolchildren. Mrs Opie suspects not. Her forays into playgrounds in the Fifties for The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren were very different both in method and results. In those days she and her husband took a more active role, asking children about games and rhymes. If they had tried to solicit rude stories, they would have been condemned as kinky.
In any case, says Mrs Opie, there was not so much of it about then: 'You didn't get this explicit sex on television for a start. The children hear these stories from their fathers and older brothers or they get them from the telly. They just think this is part of life and they want to know about it. They don't always understand, but they know it's exciting.'
The reports that Mrs Opie received from playgrounds in different parts of Britain during the course of her research convince her that the playground in the book is typical. The school is in a built-up area of the Hampshire countryside, inhabited by farming families, some living on council estates, and well-heeled executives who have moved to bring their children up in the fresh air. It is half-way between an inner-city primary - the best place to find traditional lore - and a too- peaceful village school.
The grapevine on which children's rhymes and games are speedily transmitted from one end of the country to the other appears to be just as efficient as television. Pretend play and war games are often pegged to television characters, but the children's bush telegraph constantly communicates new versions of tried and tested taunts and insults, knock-knock jokes, clapping and skipping rhymes, and the structured games that have been the mainstay of children's play for centuries.
But Mrs Opie is not just interested in the traditional lore that has been the focus of her life's work. She wrote this book because she wanted to put the lore - previously set out 'like stamps in an album' - in the setting of the playground, to give it a real living context. She has a strong sense of writing things down for future ages, so that people will know what it felt like to be a schoolchild in the mid-20th century. She wishes someone had done the same 100 years ago.
But there was an ulterior motive, too: 'I wanted to give students at teacher training colleges something exciting and lighthearted to quote when they're putting together the theses the poor dears have to write.' The end result is just as amusing and enlightening for parents.
'The People in the Playground' is published on 18 March by OUP at pounds 15.95.
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