Tag Archives: Playground

Two countries, separated by a common language of play

In America kids play with their hands; in Britain they use their feet.
Blowing off steam in the playground

No doubt you have heard the phrase,  “two countries, separated by a common language,” reportedly used by George Bernard Shaw in reference to England and America. Having lived about half my life in each now, I am often on the look out for differences. Its common knowledge that the Brits like to use lots of “u” to round out words like flavour, or add extra syllables to make aluminium even harder to spell (or should I saw the Americans like to drop them….).  Brits like “warm beer,” Americans like “cold fizzy beer.” The Brits like their footballs round, while the Americans will take them oval any day. The list goes on.

Watching my son in the playground the other day I was struck with another difference: one that starts early and just keeps growing.  Britain’s national game is definitely football (that’s soccer to us Americans).  America’s national game is a little harder to determine — perhaps baseball, or basketball, or football (the one with the oval ball to us Brits). In other words  Brits like to play with their feet: the American’s with their hands.  My latest theory is that this starts early.

CIMG5255 [Ronald Wong / Flick]

Playgrounds in America and Britain are pretty much the same. Hundreds of kids running around playing games with their friends while they blow of steam. And on both sides of the Atlantic balls and walls play a big role. Growing up, I spent hours playing football against the wall.  The idea is simple. You line up and take turns kicking it against the wall. If you miss, you stand on the wall and try to block the next shot. My son also spends hours with a ball against the wall, but he always hits it with his hands. Otherwise its pretty much the same game, even down to the arcane rules governing “cherry bombs,” “across the world,” and “no holdsies.”  Look further across the playground and in Britain you’ll see balls of all sizes being kicked around. In America almost no kid kicks the ball, they all use their hands to hit tether balls, play four-square, or just toss them around.

I don’t know which came first, the kids aping the professionals or the professionals outgrowing kid games, but its clear that in America kids are being groomed to play ball sports with their hands; and in Britain to ball play with their feet.

What’s missing in our playgrounds?

Every day as I drop my oldest son off at school or collect him at the end of the day I walk across a maze of white and yellow lines that mark the playground. Straight lines, perfect curves, right angles and more. My son is beginning to recognize that marks that seemed random at first actually come along with a whole set of rules that describe the lore of the playground. To me it all seem both familiar, and somewhat sterile.

Lines mark space in the playground
Lines mark space in the playground

What fascinates me about the lines is that although similar to what I grew up with, many of the games he plays are as new to me as they are to him. I am having to learn a whole new vocabulary: cherry bombs, water melons, no-holdsies and across the world.  While we played football-against-the-wall, run-across, and if the teacher wasn’t looking “British bulldog,” my son plays four-square, wall-ball and tether ball. He’s starting to learn the elaborate rules that dictated the play — passed on no doubt from one year to another with slight mutations along the way. I wonder if one day he’ll spend as much time talking about “kiss chase” as we did — not that we ever played it of course….

Four Square
Four Square

I was fortunate that our playground had more grass — fields for football, rugby in winter and cricket in summer. They also had trees we’d build bases for our tiny lego-men and hedgerows that bordered the neighboring farmers field.  The greenery and semi-wild spaces added a whole new dimension — a dimension that is lacking in my son’s urban school. As California looks to renovate the failing infrastructure of its schools, I hope it will give some thought as to how the school playground can be transformed into part of the learning environment. Some schools have made a start by incorporating vegetable gardens for the kids. Adding to these tended gardens some wild spaces — the occasional patch of untended grass, dipping pond, or miniature forest groves — would go a long way to bringing nature closer to our kids. In an era when the school day is crammed and money for busing kids on a field trip is tight, anything we can do to enrich the school environment seems like a good option for our kids, their education, and our environment.

Tether Ball
Tether Ball