The Speaker, November 30,1901
In a previous article I ventured to maintain the general position that children were in several matters, of which the institution of play was the strongest example, more human than adults; I had almost said more mature. For, indeed, a great many adults, such as undergraduates and young stockbrokers, do give rein to the instinct of play, light bonﬁres, break windows, wrench off knockers, and celebrate the British Empire. But the play of the adults is really childish; it is blundering, designless, and inconclusive, whilst the play of children is rounded, rhythmic, and intelligible. And from this I ventured to deduce that there was an actual gap in the life and culture of the adult, that they had left behind half their human nature as much as if they were monks or lunatics, and if this is so, it is clear that children can alone supply the gap. Grown-up people may be in some small degree useful to teach children to work, but children are even more urgently needed to teach grown-up people to play. As it is, we set one adult to teach a room full of babies. In the future, perhaps, we may set one baby to teach, with considerable severity, a room full of adults.
In this article I wish to suggest something of the practical side of the necessity and its relation to the various games which children play. But, ﬁrst of all, I must point out a distinction the neglect of which may give rise to some confusion. Games as ordinarily understood do not constitute play, they constitute sport. In a game, as the adult understands a game, the essential is competition, and the aim victory. In a game as children understand it the essential is rather a certain artistic delight in the grouping and ceremony of the ﬁctitious characters of the affair. They do not play for victory, they play, so far as their aim can be deﬁned, for self-deception. It is a matter of art for art's sake; they wish to pass into that kind of pictorial trance which we are all seeking when we read books or listen to music. Perhaps the impulse most resembling a child's love of play is the impulse which leads us to go to the theatre. It is significant that the theatre was originally what children's play is, a festival, a strictly ceremonial rejoicing. Children merely reproduce the theatre in a more human, direct, and powerful manner, by being themselves both the spectators and the actors. In any case, in short, we must rid ourselves of the notion that children take chiefly a competitive or sporting interest in play. One of the most universal and popular forms of play amongst children is that represented by "Here we go round the mulberry-bush," which consists of nothing but running round in a ring. It consists of the circle, the very type of equality and communism, the ﬁgure in which all points are equally distant from the centre. Such games as "Here we go round the mulberry-bush" may be said to constitute the ﬁrst class of children's games, the purely ritualistic. In an age when the sense of ritual is supposed to have been revived it is nothing short of scandalous that human beings in the fulness of life and strength have not revived these elementary and beautiful movements. The aesthetic school may plaster a whole world with dados and deck it with peacocks' feathers before they invent anything so beautiful as six children dancing in a ring. These ceremonial games might be the means of re-introducing that happy ritualism, that hilarious love of order, that passion for rules and observances, which is the mark of children and wise men. The formal games might, in the hands of great artists, become national and decorative dances. The rude rhymes which are sung to them might blossom, as the ancient legends have blossomed, into elevated poetry. Perhaps the unfortunate adult intellect would be more reconciled to them if this were so. The song
"Here we go round the mulberry-bushmight take the form of
On a cold and frosty morning."
"Though the ale day be paler with the snow,"Oranges and lemons" (that noble ritual) might begin with the verse:
Yet round the mulberry laden boughs we go."
"St. Clement, clanging all his thund'rous chimes,While the newer poet, imitating that admirable quickening of the metre towards the end of the poem which is the charm of the original ballad, would conclude:
Tells of the golden fruit of gladder climes."
"The bell of Martin, throbbing in duresse,
Laments lost wealth and over-generousness."
"Before thy path the light doth creep,These games, which I have described roughly as ceremonial games, are, however, not the only games, or even the most typical ones. High above them, and at the head of another class, towers the great and Royal game of "Hide and Seek," the noblest of all earthly games, and the game that includes all others. How the majority of men and women in this world can waste their time in childish amusement, such as golf and rabbit-shooting, while neglecting pastime of the gods, is indeed one of the riddles of existence. "Hide and Seek" is the greatest of games, because, like war, it has the whole earth for its chess-board. Every object of the landscape, tree or hole or hedge, has, like a huge chess-man, its own peculiar powers and functions in the game. A tree may be valuable because it is high, a wall because it is low, a bank because it is slippery, a rock because it is ﬁrm. The game includes planning, thinking, remembering, inventing, running, climbing, jumping, seeing, hearing, and waiting. The player has the emotions of all the outlaws since the world began. We may think long and hard before any of us can understand why this great terrestrial warfare, this ancient and earth-born strategy, should be considered childish, knocking little balls about with sticks considered manly. "Hide and Seek" is surely a greater thing than the absurd shooting of tiny little beasts and birds, which does not, to the really sportsmanlike spirit, differ very much from shooting bluebottles. For "Hide and Seek" is the noblest of all sports and chases, the hunting of man.
Thy guiding light, the star of sleep.
Beyond the years that wane and wax
Waits the dark headsman with his axe.
A ﬂash, a thud, and falls the head,
The last of Adam's kin is dead."