Lessons learnt through play

Joanne Hart
While compiling part of our family history for a project, I had to write about my paternal grandmother, Joan Wilson. Those few paragraphs suddenly made me realise the huge role she’d played in my life. Besides granting me the genetic gifts of her London sense of humour and an incredible capacity for coping, she laid down deep tracks in my personality without me even noticing.

And there’s the nub of it – through the simple mediums of play, make-believe, rhyme and song, Grans, as we called her, laid the foundations of who I was going to be.

In a world where there is so much debate on punishment and parenting styles, I can’t believe how lucky I was.

Living in Green Point when I was four, the Cape winters would pull in off the Atlantic and keep us pretty much indoors. No problem for a woman who had been raised in rainy London. While Grans cooked, mended and ran a guesthouse, she involved me in everything. I made my first (much pummeled and slightly grey) sausage roll that winter, I got a chance to use the iron under strict supervision, and I was always put on guard to check whether the Yorkshire pudding was rising.

But besides domestic chores, Grans would lay down a square of tissue paper and, starting at one corner, have me scrunch it up with my toes. Then she would have me balance books on my head and reward me with a biscuit if I could walk the entire length of the hall. Who knew that I was learning correct posture, co-ordination and balance?

Ma’am, it’s time to retire to bed

On other days we’d pretend we were the Royal family and she’d teach me how to walk, curtsey, how to enter and leave a room, how to address the Queen and various dignitaries. Sometimes we’d pretend that we were having the Royals to dinner and Grans would show me how to lay the table, how to serve and remove, how to pour, and how to use the bewildering array of cutlery. It was immense fun being addressed as ‘Your Highness’ while being taught to move your soup spoon outwards, and not slurp!

It was from Grans that I first learnt how to rhyme, and the ability to hold a tune. It happened by accident while lustily singing: “My Old Man’s a Dustman”. She also got my mind around complex memorisation by having me recite the entire Lord’s Prayer every night. I was prone to nodding off halfway through, and Gran’s solution was brilliant – she’d have us SHOUT it joyfully. I remember meeting our neighbor at the gate one morning, she smiled at me and said: “I heard you saying your prayers last night.”

Even the hard lessons were swift and smart. I was a very picky eater, fiddling with my food – building mashed potato sculptures and pea pyramids, and generally taking two hours to eat just a forkful. Grans cajoled and threatened, but I turned every meal into a marathon.

Until the fateful lunch time.

I’d been picking at one sautéed potato for an hour, waiting for someone to say something. Grans came into the dining room and asked: “Have you had enough?”

Hmmmm – this was new approach – no begging me to eat?

“Yes, Grans”
“Are you sure?”

And, miracle, she removed my plate! I went off to play feeling sort of triumphant. I had my bath at five and, now actually hungry, presented my pyjama-ed self in the kitchen for supper. Grans looked up from whatever she was doing, smiled sweetly and said: “Oh no, AJ, there’s no supper tonight, love.”


I remember pleading, and rolling my unbelieving eyes as I lay on the hall carpet chanting mournfully: “But I’m SO hungry”.

The only person who appeared to give a damn was my black cat. Grans was made of cheerful stone.

I was given a cup of cocoa, my teeth brushed and sent sobbing to my bed. Not an angry word, just implacable cheerfulness. Needless to say my weird eating pantomimes were over. Forever.

And it doesn’t stop there. I went on to raise a daughter, and now I see how much of Grans emerged in me. We lived in Gauteng and my little girl was terrified of thunder. I remember the two of us kneeling at the lounge window waiting for each loud roll, and then shouting: “HELLO THUNDER!”

Today she’ll tell you that she loves thunderstorms, and the solution was pure Grans.

(Joanne Hart, Health24, August 2009)

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