Author Archives: playingthearchive

Sally go round the moon!

Did you know that, according to Swansea schoolchildren, ‘Sally’ was going round the moon (and the sun, and the stars) back in 1952, years before Buzz and Neil set foot on its surface? With the anniversary of the first moon landing upon us we’re catching a passing sputnik to explore some lunar lore. And through children’s contributions stored in the Archive of Iona and Peter Opie at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, we’re learning that the moon loomed large over the playground in the 1950s.

Students at Glanmor Secondary School for Girls in Swansea who submitted the words of their game to the Opies weren’t alone in singing about a mysterious Sally making visits to the moon. A pupil at Sale County Grammar School for Boys c.1951-1953 reported a similar rhyme which ran:

Sally go round the sun

Sally go round the moon

Sally go round the chimney tops

On a Sunday afternoon.

(MS Opie 1 fol. 153r).


The rhyme goes back to at least the 1880s and is known in many parts of the English-speaking world. The writer H. E. Bates heard it used by girls for swinging under lamp-posts in the 1910s.

Lunar language also made its way into the popular pastime of skipping. In response to questionnaire queries from the Opies about special skipping terminology, one child from Dovenby School near Cockermouth in around 1952 replied with a skipping game called ‘Over the moon and under the stars’ (MS. Opie 9 fol. 210r) in which players had to run through the turning rope. The game was known as ‘’Under the moony and over the girdle’ in parts of Scotland, and in some cases was turned into a rhyme:

Under the moon and over the stars

How many miles is here to Mars?

Five, ten….


The moon also had meaning that went beyond games, however, and we have been coming across examples of well-known superstitions relating to the moon during our cataloguing work. Looking at a full moon through a window was thought to bring bad luck, while a ‘circle of yellowish light’ around the moon signalled bad weather brewing. Yet the moon could also be a way to harness good luck, by turning over the silver coins in your pocket on seeing the new moon.

In 1969, the year of the moon landing, the Opies published their book on Children’s Games in Street and Playground. In it, they wrote about pretending games, in which children ‘re-present, as if they were newsreels, the more spectacular national events’. What impact did the ‘giant leap for mankind’ and the Space Race have on children’s games of the time? If your own games included the moon, stars, aliens or visits to distant galaxies, why not let us know?

The Time Telephone

One of the aims of the Playing the Archive project is to activate the extensive Opie Archive in playful interactive installations.  This has led to the development of the Time Telephone, an installation that explores new forms of tangible and multi-sensory interfaces to communicate and preserve the fragile and ephemeral cultural memories of play. 


Users are invited to step into the telephone box and use an original rotary phone to call children from around the country and hear about their play adventures. The Time Telephone explores the potentiality of the kiosk to trigger contrasting experiences among visitors: older generations will find themselves plunged into a familiar activity of the past (the use of the rotary phone) that will likely trigger childhood memories;  younger generations will discover games of the past by using (or rather playing with) an unknown interface, nowadays replaced by smartphones.


At the centre of this installation is a replica of the red telephone kiosk K6 originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott customised at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London. The lightweight replica is moveable allowing it to be installed in different locations. The kiosk K6 has become an iconic symbol of the British streetscape. Historically, the kiosks were equipped with rotary phones, which are now almost completely unknown to younger generations.  In the museum space, the kiosk becomes a tangible and multisensory interface that allows the visitors to access a selection of the archival material created by the Opies (currently stored at the British Library in “The Opie Collection of Children’s Games and Songs“) and a series of recent recordings made by the Playing the Archive research group with children at schools in London, Sheffield, Cardiff and Aberdeen.


Inside the kiosk is an original GPO 746 rotary phone fitted with a RaspberryPi B+ (a small single-board computer).  The program installed on the RaspberryPi creates a list of the audio recordings stored on an SD card and decodes the pulses from the rotary dial.  When the visitor picks up the phone a dial tone is played (historical sample recordings of the dial tone are used to provide continuity in the experience).  The visitor can then pick a number to dial from the telephone directory inside the phone booth.


If the user dials a number that matches one of the audio recordings stored in the phone, a child’s voice reads out the number that has just been dialled. The corresponding audio file is then played from the handset and from a loudspeaker on the ceiling of the phone booth, which allows more that one person to interact with the installation at a time (for example a child and parent). The sound stops playing when the user hangs up or if the user dials a new number. If the user dials a number that does not match any of the audio recordings, a recorded voice asks them to hang up and try again.


One Time Telephone was installed at the Site Gallery in Sheffield for the Children’s Media Conference and Sense of Play event at the end of June.  The other is in place in the entrance hall of the V&A Museum of Childhood where it has been since the 15th of April.  It has proved a very popular installation with an average of about 60 calls being made per day.  This, of course, does not include the equally important (but less easily quantifiable) calls being made by our younger visitors to imaginary friends and family!


The Time Telephone will be open for calls during the Festival of Play at the V&A Museum of Childhood this weekend.

Festival of Play

Play is for everyone. Help us celebrate all things play over this two-day festival filled with workshops, games, and activities designed for all ages.


This event is a partnership between Playing the Archive and the V&A Museum of Childhood.  As well as hosting the Time Telephone, an installation developed by the Playing the Archive team in which visitors can phone up the past on a rotary telephone, the event will see the London launch of A Sense of Play playing cards.  The pack of playing cards, another output of the research project, include descriptions of games from the Opie Archive which are printed on one side of the cards and which also link to an augmented reality experience triggered when users scan the back of the cards with a smartphone.


The Playing the Archive team have also been working closely with two groups of students from the RCA Interactive Experience Design course to create two brand-new, exciting experiences especially for the Festival of Play.  One group has developed an interactive AR experience using giant Lego blocks and AR markers, and the other has developed an immersive VR experience inspired by Place (Village), Rachel Whiteread’s celebrated artwork in which visitors will be able to explore the houses and the people who live there.


In addition to this, our very own Alison Somerset-Ward will be running a badge-making activity in the Play Market using phrases and words from the Opie Archive.  Montessori St Nicholas charity will also be bringing some of the Opie Archive games to life in group playing activities throughout the day.  These activities will run alongside the rest of the playful programme detailed below.


The Festival of Play will take place on Saturday 20 July and Sunday 21 July from 11.00 to 16.30.  It is free and open to all ages.



Build, break & re-build
Work with artist Matt Shaw to create a large-scale, changing play structure on the museum’s Marble Floor.

Outdoor games
11.00-16.30 (group games at 12.00, 13.00, 14.00 & 15.00)
Join the team from Montessori St Nicholas charity, who can teach you some fun games you can play in your garden or at school.

Play Market!
Browse through our Play Market full of fun, drop-in activities.
– A Sense of Play Playing Cards, pick-up a free pack of interactive playing cards made by the UCL research team.
– Games from around the world, tell artist Dan Jones about games you know and create a collaborative map of games.
– Museum of made-up stories, pretend to be a museum curator, and valuate toys and objects.
– Musical instrument making, ages 4+, build and play your own electronic instrument made of card with the V&A Digital Team.
– Play the Museum Game, ages 4+, try some games made by designer Matteo Manapace especially for the V&A Museum of Childhood.
– Badge making, use words and images from old books and make a badge with artist Alison Somerset-Ward.

Give it a try: AR Prototype
Ages 4+
Meet a group of students from the RCA Information Experience Design course who have created an augmented reality play idea for the V&A Museum of Childhood. Have a go and test their prototype!

Give it a try: VR Prototype
12.00-16.00, Village (Place)
Ages 4+, sign-up on the day
Meet more students from the RCA Information Experience Design course, and experience their new prototype environments through virtual reality headsets.

Time Telephone
Dial the Time Telephone to speak to children from the past and present and learn new games to play.

Robot Sculpture
11.00-12.30 & 14.00-15.30
Ages 4+
Work with our Activity Assistants to create wonderful and bizarre robots from recycled and upcycled materials.

Baby Sensory Play
Under 3s
Explore materials and play things prepared specially for little ones.

Workshop: How to make a video game
11.30 & 14.00 (60mins)
Ages 8+, sign-up on the day
Come and make your own 3D adventure videogame using the MissionMaker software with a team from UCL.

Play Films
Watch a series of archival and recent documentary films about children’s play.


Playing the Archive at the UKLA International Conference 2019

Playing the Archive: Possibilities, performance and palimpsest in children’s oral and media cultures, past and present

The Playing the Archive team will be coming together in Sheffield this weekend to present at the UKLA International Conference 2019.  As we near the end of the project, this will be an insight into the work that has been done on the project over the last 2 years, with explorations of some of the themes and findings that have come out of our research.  This symposium applies the conference themes of ‘Literacy and Play for All: Improvisation, possibility and imagination’ to the Playing the Archive project.


This promises to be a very interesting session covering different streams of the project through five papers as follows:

Researching children’s media-related play using participatory and multimodal methodologies (Kate Cowan and John Potter)

In their studies of children’s play (1950s-1990s), folklorists Iona and Peter Opie aimed to capture the ‘kaleidoscopic vitality’ of UK playgrounds through written observations, surveys and audio recordings (Opie, 1993). The ethnography strand of ‘PTA’ builds on this work, exploring contemporary play alongside children as co-researchers.  The presentation will consider the use of digital tools, including wearable GoPro cameras, 360 degree video and iPads, to the ephemeral and multimodal nature of children’s play from new perspectives.


Children’s contemporary play practices remediating digital culture in the third space of the playground (John Potter, Kate Cowan and Jackie Marsh)

This paper will explore how the methods in the project focus closely on details of the lived experience of the children and to analyse data which is rich and redolent with the changed ways in which meaning is made in the digital age. We will discuss how the children’s games remediate popular cultural reference points, particularly from YouTube which is arguably emerging as a hub for digitally mediated meaning and play, as a central part of a media ecosystem.


Meshwork, Playlines and Palimpsests: A Tracing of Play Over Time (Jackie Marsh, Julia Bishop, Andrew Burn and John Potter)

This paper presents an analysis of children’s play over time in one primary school playground. Drawing from data collected in two separate studies over a nine-year period, an account is presented of the continuities and discontinuities of play as it is instantiated across space and time. It is argued that these two areas are inseparable in any study of children’s play, and that theories derived from social anthropology and new materialism can inform an understanding of the dynamic between children and their playground environments across both dimensions.


Experience imagined worlds: co-creation and interpretation of play’s memories by the means of tangible and digital technologies (Andrew Burn, Valerio Signorelli and Andy Hudson-Smith)
Virtual, Mixed and Augmented reality is opening up new ways to experience archive materials, both in museum contexts and in the wild. This presentation explores tangible and digital interfaces as means to communicate the co-creation of historical play’s memories. It delves into the use of auditory stimuli and playful digital activities as creative process for interacting with and taking part in games from the past in the present time and space. It presents a collection of imaginary environments and experiences aimed at preserving the ephemeral condition of the intangible cultural heritage.

In and Out the Dusty Archive: Literacy and Play in the Collection of Iona and Peter Opie (Julia Bishop, Catherine Bannister and Alison Somerset-Ward)

The research underlying Iona and Peter Opies’ now classic works on children’s lore, language and play (1959, 1969, 1985, 1997) was pioneering in its engagement with young people as informants. Their contributions were mostly written ones, submitted to the Opies by an ‘army’ of school teachers from locations throughout Britain. Now deposited at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, these have been digitised and catalogued in detail, and are being made available as part of the PTA project. In this paper, we will describe what the archive reveals about the role of teachers as intermediaries in the collecting process, reflecting on the literacies which shape the students’ responses, and sharing the responses of young people today to these documents.


Affordances of playgrounds for play and literacy in the Collection of Peter and Iona Opie (Helen Woolley and Alison Somerset Ward)

Embedded within the Opie Archive is a depth of experiences of how the outdoor spaces of streets and playgrounds support children’s play. Elements within the spaces provide affordances for the use of language in play. This paper will focus on these playgrounds and the landscape elements within them.

The session will run from 10.40 to 12.20 on Saturday 13 July in Lecture Theatre 12.0.06.

Professor Andrew Burn will also be giving a keynote speech entitled ‘Play: From the archive to the playground and back again’ on Sunday 14 July from 12.00 to 13.00 in Lecture Theatre CH.0.06 .

The full programme for the conference can be found here.

A Sense of Play

Join the Playing the Archive team from 11am to 4pm on Saturday 29 June at ‘A Sense of Play’ – a fun day of classic and new games for families at a temporary outdoor playground in Sheffield city centre.

Site Gallery

Site Square in Sheffield (Photo: Alison Somerset-Ward)

Site Square, opposite contemporary art space Site Gallery, will host a packed day of traditional and brand new games like Spiders Revenge, Dodgeball Rush and Master Spinner, created by Sheffield schoolchildren and Paperfinch Theatre.

Inspired by the work of the Opies, ‘A Sense of Play’ will be a day of experimentation and play that invites people of all ages to help us turn Site Square into an outdoor playground.

Site Gallery 2

Photo: Alison Somerset-Ward

Badge making

Badge designed by Alison Somerset-Ward (Photo: Catherine Bannister)

Visitors will be able to drop in and join the hunt for special symbols across the square, using their phones to unlock secret stories and myths.  We will also be inviting people to share stories of play at a Memory Station and to use their imaginations to invent new games.  Players will take home a pack of special playing cards developed by the Playing the Archive team which feature secret messages left by children from the past.

Time telephone Sheffield

The Time Telephone (Photo: Valerio Signorelli)


Alison Somerset-Ward has designed a series of badges featuring children’s language from the Opie archive, which people will be able to make on the day.  The event will also host one of Playing the Archive’s Time Telephones, an installation which invites visitors to step inside and call the past to hear stories, games and rhymes from children around the country!


Archive films featuring children’s play from the 1950s will be screened inside the Site Gallery’s Project Space with Kollective Coffee and Kitchen at Site Gallery serving hot and cold refreshments throughout the day.Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are also available inside Site Gallery.  Pay and display parking is available nearby on Brown Street and Sidney Street, and multi-storey car parks on Arundal Gate and the Moor.


Please share this event with anyone who may be interested, it is free and open to all!

Are you going a little ‘Brumas’? The Opie Archive opens a window onto a 1950s phenomenon

The cataloguing of the Opie Archive of school-children’s play, lore and language is yielding some fascinating examples of playground terminology. Some is familiar from our own childhoods but one contribution from Sale County Grammar School for Boys dating from the early 1950s had us puzzled. The contributor had submitted the word ‘Brumas’, translating it as ‘a little bear on top – a bald man’.  Our confusion was compounded by further information from the child’s teacher and Opie correspondent who indicated the presence of some punning word-play, ‘A bald man – Brumas (the “Bare”)’. It took some 21st-century web-surfing to shed light on this bald spot in our knowledge.

So who, or what, was Brumas? Our search for the answer opened a window onto a phenomenon of the early 1950s – the first ever polar bear cub born at London Zoo in 1949. Although a female bear cub, the press had reported that the bear was male. Given her portmanteau moniker through the combining of her keepers’ names (Bruce and Sam), Brumas was a sensation. Her presence at London Zoo boosted visitor numbers as members of the public flocked to catch a glimpse of the new arrival. A report from The Observer newspaper in April 1950 records people standing ‘in solid blocks’ around the polar bear enclosure from 9am to 7pm to catch a glimpse of ‘the baby’, as this clip shows:

Not only a celebrity bear, Brumas was also a brand, with books, toys (such as this mohair model of Brumas and her mother Ivy held at the V&A Museum of Childhood), and even soap manufactured in her image. Her popularity also made her the subject of song, as this cabaret performance demonstrates. Not surprisingly, Brumas became a national phenomenon. Sir Michael Palin remarks in his 1992 account of his travels from ‘Pole to Pole’ that he is keen to see a polar bear, having been ‘brought up on Brumas’.

Equipped with this knowledge we’re now able to interpret this multi-layered archive entry. The joke rests in the use of the homophones ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ and relies on the widespread awareness of bear-of-the-moment Brumas, who came to public attention via popular media and commercial influences. Perhaps too, the widespread assumption in the media that Brumas was male affirmed the connection with male pattern baldness.

Reference to Brumas in teacher’s letter to the Opies (cropped). Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Opie 1 fol. 146v

We will never know who the unfortunate ‘Brumas’ of Sale was and are as yet unclear whether the epithet was common or confined to this area. However, this data demonstrates how assemblages can act as a prompt for our own cultural responses, informed here by the ‘desire for fun’ that the Opies observed as embedded in schoolchildren’s language, with nicknames an exemplar (The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, 1959, p. 154). In this case, Brumas’ fame became a stimulus for playful use of language that now, at this historical distance, recalls an event that impacted on the national consciousness.  Brumas died in 1958, but her linguistic legacy lives on in the Opie Archive.


Header image: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Opie 1 fol.143r

Playing the Archive begins Motion Capture work

The Playing the Archive team have been busy working on sound recording and motion capture for the interactive elements of the project. Children from schools in London, Sheffield, and Aberdeen were recorded reading out children’s descriptions of games from the Opie archive.

These descriptions will be used as part of an interactive ‘Time Telephone’ that will be displayed at the V&A Museum of Childhood and other locations around the UK. The CASA team also used motion capture equipment with the children to create a virtual avatar which will be used as part of our interactive Clapping Hero game, where users will be able to hone their clapping skills with the avatar.

Playing the Archive team present their work

On October 26 at the British Academy, the Playing the Archive team held its first interim conference, with a number of members of the Advisory Board in attendance.

Courtesy of @dylanyamadarice

After an introductory presentation by Andrew Burn, who talked about the project’s emerging themes of memory, nostalgia, continuity and change, and the structures of time and space, Julia Bishop and Cath Bannister offered an introduction to Iona and Peter Opie’s historical archive. Their presentation focused in particular on the Opies’ surveys as a means of better understanding their research methods. Afterwards, Cath and Alison Somerset-Ward offered an inventive account of the archive as an interactive ‘box of delights’, whose many-faceted exploration of the archive fascinated our attendees. Steve Roud then rounded off the morning session with a discussion of the challenges of creating a classification scheme for the Opie archive.

Box of Delights. Photo courtesy of @shelleuk

In the afternoon Jackie Marsh looked at the palimpsests of play across two projects conducted at a nine-year interval, drawing on social anthropology and new materialism to illustrate the mutually reinforcing relationship between children and their playground environments. This was followed by a fascinating presentation by John Potter and Kate Cowan, who looked at how children remediate popular culture (in particular YouTube), and how the use of GoPro cameras, 360 degree video and iPads offer a variety of perspectives for researchers of children’s play. John introduced us to the ways that the VAR technology showcased during the 2018 World Cup has made its way into playground games of football, and how ‘Neymar’ has now become a synonym for unconvincing play acting.

The team from CASA, Duncan Hay, Valerio Signorelli and Andy Hudson-Smith then presented their experiments in re-purposing old or obsolete technology as a means of engaging the public with the Opies’ work, and asked how these evocative, sensorially-rich technologies might constitute an ‘interface’ to memory. Finally, Helen Woolley drew on the Opies’ The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) to look at the calendar of play, and the distinct temporalities of time (daily, weekly, seasonal) that they revealed. In a tasty conclusion to the event, she offered the attendees a home-baked ‘soul cake’, a small cake made to remember the dead on All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. It provided a tasty conclusion to a wonderful day of discussion. Thank you to the Advisory Board for all their useful and far-reaching comments!

Mathias Poulsen, an advisory board member, has written a blog post with his comments, which you can read here.

Cataloguing by the Book

The Sheffield cataloguing team are currently constructing the Place Name Authority in their catalogue of the Iona and Peter Opie Archive. The authority establishes a consistent way for these places to be referenced in the archive. Once created, it will allow end users of the digital archive to search for information by place and enable the mapping of items of children’s folklore. Those familiar with the Opies’ books will recall the engaging maps they contain charting the distribution of such specifics as ‘spitting death’ and truce terms.

Cover of Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles

In order to include the locations of the schools from which the Opies drew much of their data, we have needed to hit the books this week, to ensure that future users will be able to search for games and rhymes in places whose locations have altered – on paper at least – since the Opies first began collecting.  Legislative changes to county boundaries since the Opies began their survey will impact on users of the digital archive searching for the childlore of a perhaps now obsolete area, or alternatively searching in a county incorporating places which were historically ‘elsewhere’. To address this, the digital archive will contain details of a place’s current county, and its county around the time data was collected.

The weighty volume pictured is Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles, a topographical dictionary first published in the 1800s and regularly updated, and which features condensed but detailed information on the cities, towns and villages of Britain and Ireland. The edition currently proving its worth to the cataloguing team is a 1966 reprint of the 1943 edition, including additional amendments and entries from the year of its publication. While it’s second nature to turn to web for information these days, this compendium, contemporaneous with the period when the Opies were collecting, is helping us to identify the relevant counties. It’s the kind of reference book that we’re sure would also have been on the Opies’ bookshelf!

We are turning to the web to include longitude and latitude for each of the cities, towns and villages represented in the archive. These will amplify access to the rich and varied data gathered by the Opies and their ‘army’ of correspondents and collaborators.

A further task currently underway is the establishing of controlled vocabularies for defining attributes of the documents and the children’s folklore items contained within them.  Joining the team last week in Sheffield was project consultant Steve Roud, a respected folklorist, writer and creator of the Roud Folk Song Index and author of The Lore of the Playground (2010). Drawing on his knowledge and expertise, he is creating a thesaurus by which we will index the items in the archive.

Playing the Archive Visits the Bodleian Library

The newly-appointed cataloguers joining the Sheffield team, Alison Somerset-Ward and Cath Bannister, accompanied by Helen Woolley, Julia Bishop and Steve Roud, recently got a taste of the task ahead during a visit to the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library to view documents from the Opie archive.

Helen Woolley with Sarah Thiel from the Bodleian Library

The team members were warmly welcomed by Bodleian project archivists Svenja Kunze and Sarah Thiel, creators of the Opie archive finding aid funded by the Wellcome Trust. Svenja and Sarah shared their own experiences of cataloguing the material and their growing sense of familiarity with Iona and Peter Opie’s distinct characters as their work progressed.

The Sheffield team were delighted to be able to view the original materials, which included some of the children’s papers, teacher correspondence, and the Opies’ working files on an array of subjects – from ‘pavement lore’ and the consequences of treading on cracks, to rhymes romantic and otherwise for Valentines’ cards, including light-hearted instructions to the postman. Of particular interest were the Opies’ questionnaire templates which were a key means of data collection.

The visit helped make the team more aware of the human stories behind the Opies’ remarkable collection, their contributions, all in different handwriting, bringing alive the variety of people who were involved.

Banner image: Archive of Iona and Peter Opie, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Opie 90.

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