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Child's play: Dorothy Howard and the folklore of Australian children
A book review and personal comment

Jean-Pierre Rossie

Darian-Smith, Kate & Factor, June (Eds.) (2005). Child's play: Dorothy Howard and the folklore of Australian children. Melbourne: Museum Victoria, VII + 231, index, ill. The book can be ordered by e-mail: (costs $AUS 24.95 plus postage),

Book review

On receiving this book I had the intention to write a usual book review. However, when starting to read I was immediately touched by what Dorothy Howard wrote down in 1950 about the need to build a bridge: from the children's home culture, and the oral literature and traditional games of the playground, to formal school subjects such as reading, composition and social studies (p. 3) (note 1). From that moment I felt, as an advocate of the study of Saharan and North African children's toy and play cultures and of its pedagogical and sociocultural use, a strong interest in her research and practice oriented approach. So, I could not refrain from making personal comments and linking my research to hers. Yet, as the analysis of the book must come first I put my reactions in the Comments given at the end of this review and numbered as follows (1) in the text of the review.

June Factor's introductory article A forgotten pioneer (p. 1-17) offers a penetrating analysis of Dorothy Howard's exceptional career. Born in 1902 in a rural area of Texas (USA) she started her career as teacher in 1923; a career she ended as professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Nebraska in 1969. Almost from the beginning of her job as teacher she became an ethnographer and analyst of children's playlore and verbal lore. At the same time she developed a personal unconventional approach in teaching English based on the conviction: … that by ignoring its pupils' lore and language, a school was also teaching children 'to be ashamed of their… backgrounds, so they are silent about the language, beliefs and customs of their homes'. (p. 3) (1). Already in the beginning of the 1920s and after establishing her failure to teach Standard English to immigrant children in the classic way she innovated teaching by: Bringing the 'play poetry' and the 'patterned cadences' of the schoolyard into the classroom (p. 3) (2).

Reading this outstanding book seems to me so much more of interest because of the pertinence of Dorothy Howard's research and findings even today. June Factor's analysis shows that Howard's insights and attitudes were well ahead of her time. Insights and attitudes such as:

· Refusing to see traditional games as 'a museum collection of fossils' (p. 5).
· Being aware of the particular situation of doing research in Australia as a 'foreigner' (p. 7) (3).
· Using a research method combining questionnaires, interviewing children and adults, observation, taking photographs and recording audiotapes.
· Promoting a positive view on the role of so-called unacceptable, vulgar or aggressive play among children (p. 11).
· Criticising adults and especially educationalists who value only 'adult-planned and supervised play' (p. 13).
· Searching for the two threads of folklore: continuity and change and recognizing that the strong conservative force in children's play activities and verbal lore remains 'in perpetual conflict with its opposite, the creative imagination' (p. 9).

The next article Children, families and the nation in 1950s Australia written by Kate Darian-Smith situates Dorothy Howard's research on Australian children's play within the political, economic, social and cultural context of the mid-1950's. This research, conducted between July 1954 and April 1955, took place shortly before the long-awaited introduction of television… that by the early 1960s… irrevocably transformed the practices of everyday life (p. 21).

In her article Darian-Smith mentions some important aspects of Dorothy Howard's Australian play research project:

· A large-scale comparative research looking for tradition as well as change brought this American scholar into contact with a remarkably wide cross-section of the Australian population (p. 20) (4).
· The use of questionnaires issued to children aged 11 and 12 assumed a competent command of written English; children belonging to middle-class families (p. 31) (5) (note 2).
· A study being conducted by a female researcher in an official position as visiting Fulbright fellow based at the University of Melbourne (p. 19). In this respect Dorothy Howard recalled that one of the problems she faced in Australia was 'the position of women in Australian society, especially of a woman who posed as a scholar and more especially of an American woman' (p. 33) (6).

This insightful article situates the Australian play research under discussion within the context of the post-war Rebuilding of the Australian family whereby children were seen as crucial components of national development (p. 22) but at the same time an interest in children's culture and in its study was lacking. Under this heading the problems of unemployment, insufficient birth rates and housing facilities are also discussed.

In a following section The Australian outlook Darian-Smith analyses the prominence of British culture in the construction of Australian identity, a viewpoint that lead Australian scholars to believe that any children's folklore… in Australia would consist of traditional games originating from the British Isles (p. 25). This viewpoint was clearly contradicted by Dorothy Howard who found in Australian children's games not only local adaptations but also influences from other European countries and America. The role of a visiting American scholar in the context of a growing post-war American influence and the controversies it aroused are also discussed (p. 26-29), together with the mass-immigration in Australia of 1.3 million Europeans and its incidence on school population (p. 29-31).

Two shorter sections refer to aspects of Boys and girls at play and of Childhood Freedoms. In the section Boys and girls the strong gender division in the games described by Dorothy Howard is stressed. However, there is also evidence that this distinction was by no means uniform across Australia or among Howard's informants (p. 33) (7). The final section of this article refers to the changing attitude towards children's self-determined play in unsupervised areas, on the one hand, and growing adult intervention in children's leisure activities on the other (p. 35).

Kate Darian-Smith's article, discussing the broader Australian context in which Dorothy Howard conducted her research, clearly shows how important it is to link a scholar's research methods and research results to specific times and places instead of situating them in a geographic vacuum and a sociocultural no-man's-land. Yet, much of this contextualization necessitates a retrospective view, something that is difficult to do by the one conducting the research.

The central part of the book offers in chronological order ten articles on the 'undirected play life of Australian white children' Dorothy Howard wrote between 1955 and 1965 (p. 41-185). The first and last articles with the same title Folklore of Australian Children (published in 1955 and 1965) give useful details on the context, methods, problems and results of her research. These two reflective articles show that she viewed her Australian research as 'no more than a preliminary study' and proposing that local young scholars should be supported to continue this study (p. 43-44). Although Dorothy Howard touches upon these topics already in her 1955 article, it is in her 1965 article that she analyses more in detail her personal situation as a visiting American scholar (p. 170). It is in this last article (p. 171-185) that she answers more fully the question whether 'indigenous Australian games exist' hereby stressing that change is a fundamental aspect of folklore and that 'scientific scholars find no place for nationalism, provincialism or commercialism in the study of folklore which is a part of the history of the human race.' (p. 47) (8). She also pays attention to the role of the 'juxtaposition of cultures – Anglo-Australians and Aborigines' that 'produced reciprocal exchanges, a few of which can be observed in children's play' (p. 178); and concludes with a discourse on some philosophical and moral aspects (p. 181-183).

Five out of the ten articles written by Dorothy Howard and reprinted here discuss typical games of skill such as knucklebones, hopscotch, ball-bouncing games, marbles games and string games and one article analyses counting-out rhymes. These articles offer much detailed information often but not exclusively gained through written and oral reports. Really interesting is the way in which this scholar analyses the evolution of Australian children's play, play activities 'influenced by history; climate; economy; topography; flora; fauna; by association with their Aboriginal inhabitants; and, most of all, by children's inventiveness… (p. 171). A two-page article shows and describes a probably extinct 'unique handmade gambling wheel' (p. 119) and another describes the autograph albums that 'Australian children in 1954-55, in the upper elementary grades were keeping' (p. 101) (9). As one can expect from a former teacher of English doing research among English-speaking children the 'verses and formulae' used in these games and written down in autograph albums receive great attention (10).

This book's final article Courage in the Playground: A Tribute to Dorothy Howard by Brian Sutton-Smith (note 3) offers the reader a look behind the scene of Dorothy Howard's work as play and child scholar (p. 187-203). He hereby stresses her originality, courage and pioneer place linking this to her personal philosophy of childhood play (p. 189). In his challenging and inimitable way Brian Sutton-Smith then starts to analyse several underlying features found in Dorothy Howard's approaches. To do so he mostly refers to information his female PhD students at the University of Pennsylvania have gained from their research in folklore and children's play over the past 30 years (p. 190). This comparison highlights topics such as Play as theatre (playing is a form of acting… or …acting is a form of playing) (p. 190-192); Violent caricature as a subtext (mock violence and real aggression in play) (p. 193-195); Play as Machiavellian caricatures of power (issues of power in children's play) (p. 195-197); Profanity as caricature (play… is always potentially a flexible duality of mimicry and mockery) (p. 197-198) and Player as trickster (p. 198-200).

Brian Sutton-Smith concludes his article with a clear message: We need our archives of childhood to take on a somewhat more heroic character, to represent the fact that through play children come to an existential reckoning of their place within their own cultural worlds (p. 201). Such a message seems an adequate tribute to Dorothy Howard who herself was both an observer and crusader (p. V).

I hope my review shows that Child's play: Dorothy Howard and the folklore of Australian children offers important information on children's playlore and folklore. However, it also contains a detailed analysis of Dorothy Howard's career and Australian research (note 4). This certainly can stimulate students of play culture and folklore from whatever discipline to reflect on their viewpoints and practice, something this book surely did for me. Reading this interesting and useful book (note 5) I learned to know and to appreciate a remarkable scholar. I only regret this did not happen earlier.

Personal comments

1. Dorothy Howard's statement is still fully relevant in relation to today's situation in Moroccan schools and probably also in many other African countries. Although the school reform commended in the Charte nationale d'éducation et de formation of the Commission Spéciale Education Formation, Royaume du Maroc (1999) (note 6) recognises the necessity of putting the child in the centre of the school's pedagogical preoccupations there is no reference to the child's active participation in this process by using local children's folklore and playlore. Only in relation to physical education is it stated that the methods and activities should favour among other possibilities ancestral games, collective games and outdoor activities.
ATFALE, until some years ago located at the Faculty of Education of the University of Rabat, worked out an innovative in-service training for preschool workers ( In one of the brochures of the series Guide d'activités pour le préscolaire on play in the preschool one reads that the preschool teachers must collect the counting rhymes, finger games, dancing games and children's songs of their communities so that they can use these regularly in their school program (Gaëtan Morin Editeur Maghreb, 1997: 8-9). In the next volume of this series of practical guides, on the physical activity of the young child, it is said in the context of a physical education centred on the child's needs, that to be able to do so the spontaneous play activity of the child must be favoured (1997: 3). Yet, the proposed examples do not reflect the Moroccan children's play experience but are linked to a European background.

2. Just as Dorothy Howard went to a teacher college and worked as a teacher before becoming a scholar, I studied for social work and was employed as such for a few years before studying African ethnology and becoming a researcher. This is probably the reason why we have both been interested in finding practice-oriented possibilities for our research on children's toys and games. My ideas and experiences on using Saharan and North African children's toy and play cultures for pedagogical and cultural action in developing countries or for intercultural and peace education in a Western context are described in Toys, play, culture and society. An anthropological approach with reference to North Africa and the Sahara (p. 189-210) (note 7).

3. I feel sympathetic to Dorothy Howard's sensitivity about being a foreigner and to the necessity of situating oneself within the community where research is done. In her article on Marble Games of Australian Children she wrote: A tourist-collector, such as I, may profitably report a few careful observations. That is all. Wise conclusions demand many years of fieldwork and study (p. 143). Although the situation in Australia in the mid-1950s was closer to her own background, be it only because the same language was spoken, than when I did fieldwork in the Tunisian Sahara in the mid 1970s or in Morocco since 1992, similar disadvantages and advantages of being an outsider will have played a role.

4. June Factor mentions that this was not Dorothy Howard's own choice; she wanted 'to limit (her) study to one school in one community'. However, a Fulbright research grant was refused for this project. She only got a grant when proposing to 'survey' play life in the whole of Australia' (p. 6). This example shows how a research project needs to be adapted to specific circumstances, something that cannot be avoided in many cases. A researcher should only be aware of this and as much as possible explain the consequences of the choices that had to be made.

In retrospect I can now do this for my own research that oscillated between micro-scale and macro-scale research but I certainly have not been aware enough of all this until these last years. After a micro-scale research on children's play and toys among Ghrib families of the El-Faouar oasis in the Tunisian Sahara between 1975 and 1977, I started to look in the bibliography and in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris for data on children's games and toys from North Africa and the Sahara. This was not the result of a deliberated choice but of a change in my career making this kind of research the only one possible. When another change in my career gave me the freedom to do fieldwork again I decided in 1992 to go to Morocco with the idea of verifying and supplementing the information gathered from the bibliography and the museum collection. After about ten years of regular two months stays in different regions the need to do micro-scale research in order to find more detailed information on children's toys and play became evident. For this and other reasons, I chose to settle down in the small southern Moroccan coastal town Sidi Ifni in 2001.

5. I never used this method of questionnaires. Such questionnaires are only efficient with older children who master the used language and can read and write it quite well. Mastering English sufficiently may not have been a problem for Australian children of European descent although it could have been the case in the 1950s for such children of non-British families. Handing out questionnaires in Standard Arabic (the official school language) could already be a problem for Moroccan Arabic speaking pupils and certainly much more for Amazigh (Berber) speaking pupils. What I did instead was use extensively the technique of informal talks with older children, adolescents, adults and elderly people, if necessary being helped by a French-speaking relative or friend of the questioned person. Another methodological problem with questionnaires distributed and collected by schoolteachers is that pupils answering it will automatically censor themselves.

6. A researcher should be aware of the inescapable condition related to his or her sex, age, position and nationality and Dorothy Howard took most of this into account as her article on Folklore of Australian Children published in 1965 shows (p. 170). Her officially endorsed status as American scholar certainly helped her to make the necessary contacts with schools and to have the right to hand out questionnaires to children of the last years of primary school. On the other hand being an American female scholar will have influenced her contacts with Australian male and possibly also female adults.

The conditions in which I conduct fieldwork in Morocco since 1992 are completely different. First, I am an older Belgian man from a country with no past or present influence in Morocco. Secondly, I don't use any official or professional status. I present myself, with few exceptions, as someone who enjoys living in Morocco and whose favoured pastime consists of observing children's play and toy making activities (note 8). These contrasting research contexts partially explain the diverging methods and results between both research projects.

7. I reached the same conclusion about Moroccan children's play. From the age of about five years a clear borderline exists between toys and games for boys and for girls. This is especially evident in the data obtained by talking to older children and adults. However, when observing children's play this borderline is sometimes less strict than claimed and its transgression not that exceptional.

8. Fifty years later Howard's point of view resonates in the introduction of my books in the collection: Saharan and North African Toy and Play Cultures when I write that these children's games and toys "… will, I hope, reveal the diversity of cultures, due to the geographical, historical and sociological specificity, as well as the universality of human culture, due to fundamental responses to comparable existential situations".

9. After consulting the list of the works of Dorothy Howard found in Appendix III it seems that most information gathered during her Australian research period relates to rule-bound games and games with verbal lore (note 9). The age group of the questioned children, the greater value of such games according to adults in general and to scholars of folklore in particular, certainly in the 1950s, together with Dorothy Howard's interest in verbal lore coming from her background as teacher of English largely explain this research result.

My research on the play activities and toys of children between roughly three and fifteen years being based on living for longer periods with or amidst families in the Tunisian Sahara or in Morocco has resulted in much more data on games of make-believe.

10. When, as in my case, a researcher's knowledge of the children's mother tongue is limited, the collection of these verses and formulae is a difficult task. I therefore must rely on interpreters, mostly male or female friends often belonging to the concerned children's family or living in the same neighbourhood. So, the lack or limited availability of verbal lore in the description of play activities must be seen as a result of the researcher's limitations not as a limitation of the verbal expressions of the playing children. In making comparative conclusions on children's play activities living in different communities one should always be alert for such specific research conditions.


1. Words in italic are quoted from the reviewed book. When the words in italic are put in between '…' they refer to lines written by Dorothy Howard herself.
Special thanks to Gareth Whittaker for his help with improving the English text and for his useful comments.

2. Kate Darian-Smith remarks that this factor together with other factors may well account for the scant mention of the presence of migrant children in Howard's research notes (p. 31). Aboriginal children where also left out of the research project. Yet, Dorothy Howard was very much interested in Aboriginal children and their play with string games and other toys (p. 32).

3. Dorothy Howard had already been reading Brian Sutton-Smith's PhD thesis of 1954 The Games of New Zealand Children before she visited him in New Zealand the same year and prior to starting her Australian research period (p. 188).

4. Dorothy Howard's research and its relation to recent play and playground research are also discussed in number 46, July 2005, of the review Play and Folklore. This review is available on the web at

5. 21 black and white photographs by the author, of playing children and of playthings, together with 33 hand-drawn designs, all of hopscotch figures except one, illustrate this book in a first-rate edition, which lacks only a list of these illustrations. In the appendixes one finds a list of traditional games and play of Australian children by Dorothy Howard, a list of Australian schools visited or contacted by this scholar, an overview of the works by Dorothy Howard, and a list of key resources for Australian children's folklore. Information on the contributors and an index complete the book.

6. This document is available at - see number 131c.

7. Rossie, J-P. (2005). Toys, Play, Culture and Society. An Anthropological Approach with Reference to North Africa and the Sahara. Foreword by Brian Sutton-Smith, Stockholm International Toy Research Centre, Stockholm: Royal Institute of Technology, 256, 144 ill. CD included with the volumes of the collection: Saharan and North African Toy and Play Cultures.

8. Some information about the context, methods and limitations of my research can be found in the introduction and the autobiographical notes of Toys, play, culture and society. An anthropological approach with reference to North Africa and the Sahara (p. 11-16, 243-247). More information should be available in my forthcoming book Saharan and North African Toy and Play Cultures. Domestic life in play, games and toys.

9. Dorothy Howard's unpublished typescript Traditional Games and Play of Australian Children (University of Melbourne, 1954-55) contains information on other types of games, e.g. games of make-believe, as indicated in her own list of Traditional Games and Play of Australian Children (Appendix I). As she did not write any article on these games this makes me think that any information about such games that may be found in this manuscript will be quite limited. June Factor confirmed this presumption in her reply to my question about the content of Dorothy Howard's unpublished typescript.

© 2005-2008, , Jean-Pierre Rossie