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"I was inspired by the often-heard comments about modern children having lost the ability to play," Marjatta Kalliala says. For her dissertation, Marjatta Kalliala observed the games of six-year-olds in three different day-care centres.

    Marjatta Kalliala´s dissertation on children´s play

    Girls act out relationship dramas, boys fight battles between good and evil

    Leena Itkonen


Two six-year-old girls are playing outside the day-care centre. Suddenly one of them dashes to the playground slide and slides down, while the other one stands under the slide yelling for a doctor. There is much more to the girls´ play than first meets the eye. One of the girls is pretending to be a desperately infatuated woman and the other one is the object of "her" affection, who unfortunately does not love "her". Tired of being harassed, "he" jumps down a waterfall, i.e. the slide, and commits suicide. "She" is left standing there, calling out for an ambulance.

The above scene is an excerpt from Marjatta Kalliala´s doctoral dissertation Enkeliprinsessa ja itsari liukumäessä - leikkikulttuuri ja yhteiskunnan muutos ("Angelprincess and suicide on the playground slide. The culture of play and societal change") which she defended in the Fac-ulty of Arts, University of Helsinki, on 29 October. For her dissertation, Ms Kalliala, currently senior lecturer in kindergarten teacher education, studied the ways in which six-year-olds play and how their games reflect our time and culture.


Observations and interviews

"I was inspired by the often-heard comments about modern children having lost the ability to play. I wanted to establish whether or not this was true. And if it was, then why," Kalliala thinks back. "Play is bound to time and culture. My dissertation forced me to find out what that means in our complex society," she explains. Kalliala views play in relation to time in terms of three different pictures. In the overall picture, she depicts the changing modern society. The group picture illustrates the changes in childhood and adulthood, and the latter"s tendency to move from certain child-rearing practices towards uncertain ones. In the close-up picture Kalliala characterises play and the particular culture associated with it.

For her dissertation, Kalliala observed the games of six-year-olds in three different day-care centres. After observing, she interviewed the children in order to find out what the game had been about and what had triggered it. "It was because of the interviews that I chose the six-year-olds. The positive aspect of the interviews was that I got an insight into the children´s ideas. This method does not, however, give a comprehensive overview of all play, because the children described their favourite activities. Nevertheless, the most successful of the games have the power to show what six-year-olds at play can achieve at best."

Many of her colleagues have been amazed at how Kalliala managed to make the children talk. "My method emphasises the role of the researcher and the importance of interaction with the children. It is this that makes the study either a success or a complete failure. Here the child is the expert and the adult has been dismantled of her authority. I think it mattered a great deal that I was genuinely interested in everything."

The children were interviewed on their "home ground", that is in the day-care centre and at home. Parents and day-care staff were also interviewed in order to establish why some games do not work out, or are broken off or ended before they have really begun.


Girls and boys play differently

Kalliala was able to find different themes in the games the children played. Roughly speaking, girls played home and relationship games while boys played battle and action games. "Girls are interested in the relationships between people, men and women as well as mother and child. When they play, they tell a story about themselves to themselves. Their expertise is best seen when they use authentic material of their own. In play they reveal how their families eat breakfast and how the children are raised. In girls" games, feeling is equally important to action."

The feeling aspect was realised in the girls" particular way of speaking, which Kalliala denoted "emotional speech". Boys, on the other hand, used a different way of speaking in their games. The spoken lines were kept strictly to business and emotional speech was totally absent. The main theme in boys" games was the battle between good and evil, the good always coming out on top. "I found this black-and-white constellation fascinating. We might look at boys" play as mere running about and making noise, while they in fact are living out the theme of good and evil in a very straightforward way."

The same theme could be applied to a variety of games. Kalliala tells about a boy who played "hockey-football" with his friends at the day-care centre. It was football but the boys assumed the role names of Saku Koivu and other ice-hockey stars. At home, the boy continued the same theme in an unlit room; a play-city board turned upside-down serving as the rink, he called the players out one by one. As the stars came out on the ice, he followed them with a torch, like the spotlight in a real-life ice-hockey match. The game started with a rhyme of his own invention: "Who is the world champion, Sweden or Finland? That"s what we"ll see now. Pooh, pooh, out you go!" "Ice-hockey is an important feature of our culture. It completely filled this little boy"s mind, and he acted out this theme in many different ways," explains Kalliala.


Street play on the decline

One of the reasons behind the differentiation between girls" and boys" worlds of play, according to Kalliala, is the decline of street play. " There are fewer outdoor physical activities and games in which both boys and girls of different age groups can participate. In outdoor games even the youngest are allowed to tag along, and there is considerable tolerance for different abilities. Anyone may be hero or heroine for a while. Today, there is no gang in the yard as families have fewer children, children spend long days in day-care, and the children of single parents spend their weekends away with the other parent. Television has invaded a remarkable portion of what was formerly playtime, and children"s hobbies are also defined by age and gender."

Kalliala points out that hobbies are no substitute for play and games. "A hobby supervised by an adult often means competition, more blatantly than before. Children already lead very controlled lives in day-care. Scheduled hobbies come under the heading of leisure time but a child needs totally free time on top of that. It should be time that is no more than time, just to be spent with oneself. Time spent in front of the television does not qualify," says Kalliala and tells of a little girl who, in answer to her parents" questions on what hobby she would like to take up, replied that her current hobby was the day-care and that was enough.

In addition to segregation based on age and gender Kalliala found in society a tendency to push children towards adult behaviour. "The boundary between childhood and adulthood is becoming blurred. Now we think that children become independent at an early age. We make them "mature" faster and earlier than before. In the world of play and games, this is seen especially in how little girls stretch to reach adulthood."

Societal change was clearly noticeable in the urban world of six-year-olds in Helsinki. In extreme cases, there were even glimpses of oral sex and incidents from adult videos discernible in their games. "The world of such a six-year-old child is like the one of somebody who has seen it all. Children, however, lack the means to process the things they see."


Uncertain child-rearing practices

Kalliala found signs of uncertain child-rearing practices both in the homes and in the day-care centres. In the homes, there was much uncertainty, for instance, regarding children"s bedtimes. In the day-care centre, on the other hand, play and games were regarded as important but the staff did not necessarily know how to stimulate these activities. "People are happy when the children play well but get utterly bewildered when there is trouble. The predominant culture of interruption is also visible in the day-care centre. The child"s right to be allowed to play in peace is not respected enough," worries Kalliala.

"Children grow up in institutions. The day-care centre is inevitably an artificial environment; nevertheless, it should be made into as good an artificial environment as possible," says Kalliala, and calls for more active measures from adults. They should protect the children"s play and adjust the tangible world of objects around the child. "It is no easy task: the adult must be extremely sensitive in order to be able to judge when to withdraw and when to engage and support the child´s play."