children's games and perspectivism

The last day Tom and Kiyo were here, I asked their four year old son, Takeo, what his favorite things in Paris were. The boat? [the Bateau-bus which goes from Hotel de Ville to the Trocadero]. The Eiffel tower? Take bit into his ham, admired the way he had made it look like a fish, and said, one was the boat, two was the Eiffel tower, and three was the playground. And thus Take miniaturized into mere dust the Notre Dame, the noble façade of the Louvre, the Trocadero and all the tourist must-sees in comparison with a quarter acre of sand and rubber with climbing equipment in the small park at the end of Rue des Archives.  Some find the ultimate statement of perspectivism in Jenseits von Gut und Boese – but these simply haven’t had a discussion about the state of the world with a four year old.

There is no better exercise in perspectivism than watching kids play on the playground. We had let Take loose there, and at first he had clung to a small exercise bar that was around his height. Around him swirled mothers and kids, mostly speaking French, and over on the bench his dad and his friend, Roger, were making encouraging noises (which sometimes even penetrated the filter that nature erects in the brain of the child to keep it from being cretinized by adults too early), and Take was sizing up the place. A playground is an experiment in perspectives. There are the sizes of the kids and the sizes of the equipment; there are degrees of difficulty and fun; there are the adults, the sprinkling of kids that are just too old to be there, and then the enormously different tribes, the one and a halfs, the three year olds, the six year olds, etc. It is one of those rare human moments in which the verbal and the tool do not dominate. The play is directly connected with perception (the metaphoric base of perspective). Huizinga’s much disputed distinction between the ludic (play) and games has its best evidence here. Back in the fifties,  one of my favorite anthropological  couples, Peter and Iona Opie, parked themselves in playgrounds in Liss, Hampshire, England and just recorded the games, rhymes and interactions. Jonathan Cott did a wonderful profile of them for the New Yorker back in 1983. I’ll quote Iona:

“Adults sometimes ask us why my husband and I use the word “people’ in our book in children’s games – as in, “you need six people to play a game.’ But that’s what they themselves say. We’d never like at all to make fun of children, because this isn’t what we’d want to have done to us. So if a child makes a mistakein saying a world we would never print it that way. But if it’s his ordinary way of talking, that’s fair enough, that’s the right way of saying things.”

The book is “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren”, and it is a great guide to such things as Wall Street and Intellectual property. The Opies have recorded numerous game crazes, where one game will take over a  playground – and then it will be suddenly dropped, with the muffled thump of a Facebook stock being offloaded by a punter. And they record verses that have been around for centuries being claimed by children who have altered a word, or even think they made it up.