'I never played kiss-chase and I had quite a normal sex life'

Clare Garner meets Iona Opie, an expert on childhood games
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The Independent Online
Nobody knows more about children's games than Iona Opie. And nobody is more appalled by the Saracen project.

Mrs Opie, who has dedicated her life to documenting the rhymes, games and customs of the playground, maintains that you cannot teach children to play. Furthermore, there is no need to do so. "Children have got the instinct for making fun," she said. "They always do it [play], I'm absolutely certain, unless someone has gone round injecting them with some deadly dope."

The social workers at Saracen Primary School are being "kind and good- intentioned" but are failing to recognise the games that are going on in front of them. "They see them skulking around and don't know that anything is going on. They could be playing war or monsters."

Surprisingly, she does not slam computers. In fact, she makes out a case for computer games being the Nineties' equivalent of marbles and fivestones. "What's the Nintendo?" she asks. "Fingers and eyes. Well, old games had finger-eye co- operation. You're using the same faculties."

She deplores the way old-fashioned rhymes have been given a politically correct gloss. "You can immediately tell the ones they've been interfering with," she said, perusing the social workers' revised versions. "'Squirrels are Quick' is so bland compared with 'Ip Dip Bullshit' [the original]."

There will always be a few children who prefer not to play, Mrs Opie added. "If you get a rather dim little girl it's [sic] not going to have many ideas about how to occupy its time. It'll be just the same when it's 50. You know, you see them creeping about with the white cardigan and the crimped hair."

But that is no reason to interfere. "I would defend the right of any child not to play games in the playground. It's their own time," she said.

She described the reduction in playtime at Saracen Primary to stop children "getting into mischief" as "iniquitous". "You've got to experience boredom and getting out of boredom by your own initiative. You've got to get into mischief and out of mischief. This goes on all your life."

But children are great survivors, she added. "It'll all come out in the wash. I never played kiss-chase and I had quite a normal sex life."