Child's Play in Athens

By Beaumont, Lesley | History Today, August 1994 | Go to article overview

Child's Play in Athens


Beaumont, Lesley, History Today


In recent months the British Government has made the recommendation to schools that team sports should once again form a significant and integral part of the educational curriculum. The reasoning behind this, in these times of widespread juvenile delinquency, is that if children learn mutual co-operation and team spirit, they are less likely to turn to aggressive and socially destructive criminal acts, and that furthermore as adults they will be more likely to exhibit socially cohesive and responsible behaviour. The idea that childrens' games form an important part of juvenile development is, however, by no means a new one. It can be traced back almost 2,500 years to the fourth century BC, where at Athens the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle were already advancing such theories.

Both men thought that children's play should be directed towards their education -- intellectual, practical and ethical. They also at the same time recognised the value of play in learning, that in the words of Plato; 'nothing that is learned under compulsion stays with the mind'.

Anticipating the modern theory that the early years are the formative years, Plato wrote, '... because of the force of habit, it is in infancy that the whole character is most effectually determined', and added that, 'To form the character of the child over three and up to six years old there will be need of games'. Though Plato admitted that young children 'have games which come by natural instinct; and they generally invent them of themselves whenever they meet together', he also advised that their play should be moulded into a training which would prepare them for their adult professions:

... if a boy is to be a good farmer, or

again, a good builder, he should play,

in the one case at building toy houses,

in the other at farming, and both

should be provided by their tutors with

miniature tools on the pattern of real

ones. (Laws I. 643B)

Aristotle concurred with this recommendation, and proposed that in the first five years of life, when a child was free from chores and lessons, he should be encouraged to play, but:

even the games must not be unfit for

freemen, nor laborious, nor undisci-

plined ... For all such amusements

should prepare the way for their later

pursuits; hence most children's games

should be imitations of the serious

occupations of later life. (Politics VII,

1336a)

Plato also attributed a broader social significance to the formative aspects of children's play: he believed that children's games, toys, songs and dances should be prescribed and, once established, remain fixed and unchanged. For, he says, when 'the same children always play the same games and delight in the same toys in the same way and under the same conditions', they will grow up to respect and follow the state's laws and leave them undisturbed. Changes and innovations in play during childhood would lead to a desire for change and innovation in the institutions and laws of the state when adult. If only life were so simple!

For information about specific toys and games we must consult the second century AD writer, Pollux, who in his Onomastikon gives a long catalogue of children's games. For illustrations we must turn to representations in vase-paining and sculpture. Athenian vase-paintings of the fifth century BC are a rich source of information about everyday life in classical Athens, and help to fill the void about the subject left by the literature of the time. The craftsmen who decorated the vases recorded many of the scenes they saw daily around them, and during the second half of the fifth century they began increasingly to paint vignettes of women's and, to a lesser extent, children's lives.

In addition to the literary and artistic representations of children's playthings and pastimes, we also have the evidence of the archaeological record, which has preserved for us many of the actual ancient toys themselves. …

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