Child's Play in Classical Athens

Lesley Beaumont looks at how children's games were not just seen as pastimes but as active stimuli to learning and good citizenship in the world of Plato and Aristotle.

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 children’s' 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)

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