In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sports and Organized Games

  • Introduction
  • Scholarly Tradition
  • Contemporary Patterns of Urban Resistance
  • The Issue of Competitiveness
  • Childhood, Schooling, and Games before Modernity
  • Privileged Childhoods and the Emergence of “Civilized” Sport
  • Childhood, Disability, and Physical Activity

Childhood Studies Sports and Organized Games
John Harris, Stephen Wagg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0150


Comparatively little has been written by scholars on the specific theme of childhood, sport, and games. This is largely for two reasons. First, childhood only comparatively recently became the subject of full-scale academic inquiry. As a substantial academic enterprise, it goes back no further than the 1960s. The principal tenet of the study of childhood is that childhood is a social construction; that is, something that human societies have developed at a particular time in their history. (Anthropologists had been making similar arguments since the early 20th century.) Second, sport, which is generally defined as a pleasurable, competitive activity with written, universally accepted rules (and, as such, is confined to the modern era), has invariably been regarded as unproblematic for children. Few contemporary parents, teachers, politicians, or other adult authority figures would want to quarrel with the view that sport was good for their offspring. That said, issues of a political and social nature arise from the relationship between sport and childhood. Moreover, much of the writing—especially historical writing—about sport is incidentally about childhood. A good deal of work on the history and politics of sport, for example, is concerned with its place in the school curriculum in various countries, and any discussion of schooling is, by definition, a discussion of childhood. In this regard, crucial arguments have been conducted over the implications of sport generally—and of particular sports—for the socialization of young people. We can review these arguments in relation to topics such as social class, gender, and ethnicity. This will be, in essence, a bibliographical article in which the bibliography, which often refers to considerable bodies of scholarship, will be indicative. It begins with a consideration of games, which are historically antecedent to modern sports.

Scholarly Tradition

The word “games” has a number of related applications, of which we might note two. In this section it refers principally to a myriad of structured but playful activities borne by tradition and carried out across a range of preindustrial societies (see, for example, Alison Schmauch’s The Role of Children’s Games in Ancient Greece). Many of them survive, albeit in many cases either in rural areas comparatively untouched by modernity or performed for tourists. The maintenance of the word “games” may convey a sense of historical deep-rootedness—as in “Olympic Games” or “Highland Games.” Scholars have been engaged in retrieving and cataloguing folk games from around the world for some time (Milberg 1976). Many were most often played by children away from adult supervision. One leading researcher (Peter Opie) liked to quote the 17th-century philosopher John Locke thus: “Children have as much a Mind to shew that they are free, that their own good Actions come from themselves, that they are absolute and independent, as any of the proudest of your grown Men.” The foremost British researchers of children’s games (and the lore and language of children) were the anthologists Peter and Iona Opie (see Opie and Opie 1969 and Opie 1993). Peter Opie died in 1982 and Iona Opie passed away in 2017. Another British writer, the anarchist Colin Ward (b. 1924–d. 2010), built on the work of the Opies, as seen in Ward 1978 and Ward 1988. Ward relished the expressiveness and creativity that children showed in their games, and he wrote a good deal in praise of the child’s autonomy at play. He also argued that child’s play represented a form of resistance. Play, he suggested, marks out territory and derives from the conflict that children have with the adult world. Urban play by children and adolescents remains, of course, a strong feature of contemporary societies, and claims similar to Colin Ward’s are made for it. Skateboarding, for example, has afforded opportunities for the young to “take over” urban spaces in purported defiance of adult and civic authority.

  • Milberg, Alan. Street Games. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

    This is now out of print but is a valuable book that explores the origins, rules, variations, characteristic language, records, and playing fields of red rover, jacks, leapfrog, and many other American street games.

  • Opie, Iona. The People in the Playground. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    This is a book about the patterns of play in British school playgrounds in the 1970s. It shows the Opies’ characteristic respect for children and their culture—note that the title acknowledges children as people in their own right—and it reports, among other things, some interesting gender differences that recur at playtime.

  • Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. Children’s Games in Street and Playground. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

    As anthologists, the Opies’ interest was initially and primarily in literature, and their best-known work is about children’s verse, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. This book extends their research to include a compilation of children’s games. Republished as recently as 2013 (Edinburgh: Floris).

  • Schmauch, Alison. The Role of Children’s Games in Ancient Greece: Coming of Age in Ancient Greece; Images of Childhood from the Classical Past. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College.

    This is a short, but useful, web article with analysis of the place of children’s games in ancient Greek society and a description of a number of the games themselves.

  • Ward, Colin. The Child in the City. London: Architectural Press, 1978.

    This lyrical piece of work, supported by some striking photography, may be regarded as a classic. Ward was committed to the notion of children creating their own social worlds. He describes the ability of the working class, and the disadvantaged urban child, to “win space”—cultural as well as physical—for themselves in the city. Chapter 10 examines play as a means of protest.

  • Ward, Colin. The Child in the Country. London: Robert Hale, 1988.

    Here, Ward does for the rural child what a decade earlier he had attempted to do for the child of the city. Challenging historical stereotypes both of the countryside and of rural childhood, Ward once again speaks for the marginalized child. Pages 97–104 look specifically at the countryside as a place for children to play.

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