Questions – Camilla Gryski

By Cesar Obeid

Ms. Gryski, I thank you for answering a few questions about string figures to Brazilian People. You are a reference in this work and for us it is a pleasure to listen to you.  The first question is “Where were you born and what was your first contact with string figure?”

1. I was born in England - my family immigrated to Canada when I was a child. I think the first string figure I ever learned was Cat's Cradle. I seem to have always known all the steps. Perhaps my mother taught me, or maybe I learned it in the school yard. When I started to do some research for my books, I learned that the steps I knew had different names in different cultures and it became a hobby of mine to collect some of these names.

 

2- Why did you decide to use string figures and the Cat's Cradle string game for two in your work in libraries and schools?

2. I just fell in love with string figures - it was 1980 and I was volunteering in a children's play area at a folk festival. A man named Ken McCuaig brought some of the children he had been working with at their school - he called them his "string band." and suddenly everyone was playing with string. I learned Cup and Saucer and Owl's Eyes that day and I never looked back. I was fascinated that string figures came from all over the world, and that they were collected by anthropologists. And I loved the stories that went with them.

In 1982, I was asked by Ricky Englander of Kids Can Press to write the book that became Cat's Cradle, Owl's Eyes, and the workshops and school visits followed naturally once the book was published. I had trained as a teacher and was working at that time as a children's librarian and storyteller, so I was very comfortable with children. And by this time, I had my own family too. My kids were 7 and 4 when my first book came out. My older son was my first reader, and I knew that seven-year-old fingers could make every figure in the book. Some of my favourite author tours took me to the Canadian Arctic, where I was able to both teach and collect string figures.

 

3- Sometimes someone tells me how difficult it is to make one more complicate figure. What do we really need to be an expert string-figure maker?

3. I always told the children that each string figure was like a puzzle to be solved, and I encouraged them to work together. Some children learn the figures more easily than others - it doesn't necessarily have to do with intelligence. Canadian schools, particularly in Toronto, have children from many countries, and lots of them know string figures from home. That was always fun - to see a child who had learned from his mom or dad, or grandma or grandpa teaching his fellow students.

A teacher of string figures or writer of a book must be very clear and learn to break down the figures into manageable steps. I always taught simple ones first, and then had all the children help each other. For a book, good pictures are important too.Tom Sankey was a great illustrator, and I always had good editors. Once each figure becomes more than a set of steps and becomes a flow of movement, the hands remember it, whether it is a short or a long sequence of moves.  It doesn't have anything to do with the brain!

4- Today our kids loves to play on computers and electronic interactive games. But as they learn how to make one string figure, they can’t stop moving their hands until the figure comes up. What’s this magic and do string figures have future in this electronic world?

4. String figures >are< magic - and very human. People from so many cultures in the world play with string. It is so satisfying to be able to make something beautiful with just a loop of string. To make it, and then take it apart and make it again and then fold up the string and put it in your pocket for the next time. I still carry a loop of string in my bag...

When I finished my workshops, I always told the children that they could keep their strings because they had earned them. It was as though I was giving them something much more precious than a piece of string - there was always this shout of delight from them.

String games are just one of many traditional games, like tag, and ball games, hide and seek, skipping and marbles. I know from doing workshops for Let's Play, my own book of traditional games, that children do play and still love to play - but often this culture of childhood is hidden from adults. Kids sometimes don't share these games, but I do think they are still there.

In our modern society, though, there are many concerns about safely. Children have much less freedom than they did even when my children were young. They don't get to climb trees or explore nature because we are so worried about keeping them safe. Some schools have banned skipping ropes and hard balls because of concerns about safety. But I think there are people who realize the value of these kinds of experiences for children - and hopefully kids will still get to play freely.

 

5- You have published a lot of fantastic books on play (strings, hands, bracelets, traditional games). What’s the importance of play for childhood?

5. Play in childhood - that's a whole book and I spent a lot of time thinking about this when I was studying for my M.Ed. degree.
Each time - and I guess I mean era - redefines play to fit it into its own world view. One of my favourite books on play is by Brian Sutton-Smith who has been researching and teaching about play for more than 50 years - it's called The Ambiguity of Play. Many people today say that play is the "work" of a child. That is because adults want to give it an adult value. Sutton- Smith says that play is simply play, and that should be enough. Certainly, children learn about their world through their play, and they learn about others and how to be creative and skilful at things. But play and children's games must always belong to them.

There is also a theory that free play gives a child the opportunity to "breathe out" when he or she spends so much time "breathing in" information.  And it's not just children who need to play - we all do.

6- The last one: Could you tell us about your fantastic Job as a Clown in a Hospital?

6, I worked as a therapeutic clown at SickKids Hospital in Toronto for almost 15 years. For nine years, I played and worked with children who had cancer, then for the last five years of my time there, I worked as the therapeutic clown for the Palliative and Bereavement Care Service. These children had illnesses that threatened their lives, and many of them died. I visited them and their families at home as well as in the hospital, and brought them play during a time when they and their families were dealing with very serious issues.

For these children and families the therapeutic clown gave them permission to play, and invited them to play, even when their lives were full of illness and pain and the unknown. The clown and the child created between them a play space - it was a space that was inside the hospital, but separate - an imaginary world where we could make the rules - and the therapeutic clown always gives away power and control to the child. I got bossed around by the child all the time, and that meant I was doing my job.

 If there were some things about the play that changed, I would pass on my concerns to the medical team. One child had all my toys attack me, for example, and the play seemed to be getting violent - so I told the team about that. I learned during this time that children need so much to play that they would play with me as long as they were able, even up to a day or two before their deaths. It was a privilege to do this work, and I am a different person because children and families like this shared their lives with me.

I left SickKids a couple of years ago, after 33 years altogether. I still have string figures in my fingers, and lots of songs and finger plays in my head - and now a little granddaughter to play with...