Child’s play

My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”

Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):

This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …

—What?

Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?

“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie” was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…

That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.

The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.

That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.

Its value, inestimable.

Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.

And our children?

They’ll keep on playing.

And watching.

“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”

-Janusz Korczak

Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger. CC BY.

20 thoughts on “Child’s play

  1. What an incredible post, Fran. In a strange way, I loved learning some of the intricate details of the history of the Bubonic Plague from your writing. Like your granddaughter, my four-year-old daughter has also learned to perfectly pronounce “coronavirus”, and it’s heartbreaking but fascinating at the same time.Love these lines: “That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world… play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.” There is hope in these words, and as we head into remote learning I pray I can bring some of that hope and thinking along with me next week. Thank you.

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    • Thanks so much, Lanny; clearly I was also drawn by the horrors of the times and the plague – those images have stayed with me all these years! Probably not what the teacher intended us to remember, but now I can at least celebrate all our amazing sanitation systems (!!) and knowledge of disease transmission -We are well-equipped to fight and overcome. The main thing – wisdom. How well you sum it up: “heartbreaking but fascinating” to see our little ones’ responses.
      So true.

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  2. It is so hard to watch childhood innocence tainted by dark reality. Keeping it all in perspective, as you do, is difficult sometimes. Thank you for the lessons in this slice today.

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  3. Children listen and learn even when we don’t think they are! One more reason to explain to them what is going on, in terms they can understand, so there is no misunderstanding or misguided fear. I am glad you didn’t downplay or prevent your granddaughter from acting out through play (though I wouldn’t expect you to, wise woman that you are!). I wonder how much she will remember of this time when she gets older?

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  4. “That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety.” Yes! And this is why I am trying to be very low-key about “homeschooling” my children. I have to believe that they (and we) can learn through play – maybe not *quite* the same skills, but important ones nevertheless. Also, not to cast doubt on your high school teacher’s veracity (because I learned about the plague origins of the song, too), but it seems like the game probably didn’t come from the plague: https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2014/07/ring-around-the-rosie-metafolklore-rhyme-and-reason/

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    • Wise words re: low-key homeschooling at present. Kids don’t need to be loaded up with work “just because.” This seems the perfect time to explore and even discover things of interest. Lifelong passions could develop now! About my teacher’s lecture: I know he must’ve been setting up a unit on 17th century British lit but alI I can remember of that is this introduction with the plague & the RATR origin. It was (xx) decades ago (😱). Still haunts me to this day and at least got me thinking about how culture and events shape literature… fascinating to contemplate, even if more recent/better research tends to disprove the game’s plague origin theory. Nevertheless – when he spoke, I materialized in the horrifying, plague-riddled London streets like a ghost from the future. So vivid, even now; what a relief to find myself in the current times, better armed against a pandemic.

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  5. When I taught seniors British literature, we sometimes played Ring Around the Rosie, and I shared with them the history of the game. Your post makes me wonder what games will emerge from this time. Maybe it will be a new video game focused on self-isolation. The generation of children we’re raising already self-isolate more than previous generations. They’re also more compliant. These traits likely impact how they’re handling this new reality. I love the way you acknowledge the importance of play as it “defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light.” Your granddaughter’s knowledge of what’s happening, well I have no words for the sadness I feel thinking about all the ways children must handle our world these days.

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    • I would have loved your class, Glenda!! How true about kids self-isolating more than generations before – what are the repercussions? Less empathy? Never realizing our real need for one another? It is sad – alarming – to think of what children must navigate today … we can only be the buffer and balance where we can. And, it really will be interesting to see what creations/inventions come out of this time.

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  6. Strangely enough, one of my favorite social studies units to teach is one that centers around the bubonic plague: Can disease change the world? We all knew it was true based on history. But here is one of those times where history meets our present reality and foreseeable future. Eerie…

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    • I can see why it would be a favorite unit and it IS eerie … yes, disease changes the world. I once saw a college course entitled “Death and Disease in the Roman World” and I thought that would be fascinating to take (I wasn’t even enrolled at the time) — because of what can be learned from history and decisions people made at the time – knowingly or not knowingly,

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  7. Wow! This is awesome.

    In my Friday letter to my students, I wrote to get outside and play/run/walk, but I had to also write to be aware of your social distance to others. It crushed me to write this, but for now, this is the reality. I love the connection that you made to the Black Death. This is not as bad as that, but the idea of social isolation is the same (for now). The virus is terrible, and I am hopeful that it will run its course quickly (rather than slowly), but I am nervous about the results of this social isolation. We need social interaction. We need each other.

    Thank you for this wonderful, thought-provoking post. I totally miss my classroom, but one real positive is that I’m learning so much from reading other people’s posts during this March of writing.:)

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    • We DO need social interaction, we DO need each other – I’ve thought it so many times in the last week (how’s it possible I’ve only been out of school five days??). The distance (for now) will be the saving of us, though … let us hope it won’t have to be for too long. You’re right – the extra time to read and comment on posts is a gift – thank you for the gift of your words and thoughts here! 🙂

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  8. Like so many, my favorite line is, “That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light.” I mean it literally gave me chills. I thought this post would head in the “what would the song of this day be” direction, and I’m so glad it didn’t You named the way our kids are making sense of things, brought us back to Barbie and gave us all hope. Thank you!

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  9. I guess the only comfort we can draw today is that we know so much more about this virus than they did back then! I grew up with ring a ring of rosies (at school in England) and learnt all about those times in our history lessons, but no one told me the real meaning behind the game till years later.
    From the kids I work with now and their pretty miserable lives and also what I read about kids in refugee camps and other awful places, is that kids are incredibly strong and resilient and they can pull through all of this stuff. Somehow your granddaughter will be the stronger for all of this.

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    • The kids ARE astonishingly, miraculously resilient; how would our species survive if they were not? They can always find wonder and joy, despite all. They make wonder and joy. Yes – as I wrote this post, I was deeply grateful to be living in modern times; even with a novel virus, we are far better-equipped to fight. And – again – I have to say how much I admire your work with the children in their desperate circumstances. It’s a profound thing. You give them hope for their tomorrows … which we ALL need, right now. Thank you 🙂

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