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How We Played
Games From Childhood Past
By Caroline Goodfellow
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Caroline Goodfellow
All rights reserved.
Games with Little or No Equipment
Anywhere there are children, they will be skipping or running, playing with a ball, or walking backwards. This is not restricted to school playgrounds or organised events, children use their bodies to express themselves, to show the sheer exuberance of being young and fit. Handstands, cartwheels and wheelbarrow races, intricate step movements and rolling on the ground are some of but many games children will play by themselves and with others without adult supervision.
One child or many children in any open space may play such games. At one time, children moved freely around their neighbourhoods, played in the parks, fields, school grounds and even in the streets. Sadly, many areas in the developed world are now restricted through health and safety or traffic. Parents and school authorities are often worried that their children will be harmed by games they themselves played. However, many adults do not see what the children get up to when by themselves; they will organise tag games and running games and play conkers.
Some games require an object to facilitate play and there is always a crossover between playing a game and playing with a toy. The simplest, or arguably the most complex, are games without equipment or formal rules. Many of these games formed the basis of the original Olympic Games which represented feats of skill and endurance.
Running around is a real child characteristic, particularly for those under fourteen. It may be a simple chase between two, a well defined game of Tag or perhaps a run with a start and finish point.
The most common game is Tag. Found throughout the world, it has many names such as It, or Catch as Catch Can. This is a simple game requiring more than two people, with energy and imagination. The players divide with one person being the chaser or IT, and the rest being chased. The aim is for the single player to catch one of the others, so that the caught player becomes the IT. With the cooperation of all the players, games with more sophistication can be played. There are many variations and these are but a few of the well-known universal games.
Hide and Seek is the best known variation of Tag. The chaser must turn his back on the others, count as quickly as possible to a set number, usually 100, while the others attempt to hide. When the counting has finished the usual statement is, 'Ready or not I am coming.' The player turns, locates the others and chases around while attempting to catch one player from the group.
Some games bear simple names reflecting the activity. For example, the players may decide that some items may be deemed Safe Spots, such as trees if in a park, so any chased player is safe if he is touching one. Hold the Spot requires a player who has been caught to hold that part of his body that was touched by the chasing player. If it is a sunny day, a player may be caught if the chaser steps on his shadow, thus Shadow Tag.
Line Tag has lines of players, each holding the hand of the one in front, attempting to block the chasing player from attaching himself to the end of a line. Should he do so, the player at the front of the line becomes the chaser.
In Follow my Leader, the players form a circle by joining hands, with the IT inside and the player being chased outside. The chased player may go in and out of the circle, the others allowing him to do so by raising their hands and the IT must follow exactly or forfeit the game. When tagged, the player returns to the circle, the IT becomes the chased one and a player from the circle is chosen to be IT. A similar game of Cat and Mouse may be played where the cat inside the circle attempts to escape to catch the mouse. In this game, the hands are not linked but the players may use their bodies as blocks.
Another circle and blocking game, sometimes called Fox and Rabbits, can be played when there several children from which one is chosen to be the rabbit and one the fox. The rest of the group divide and link hands to form warrens, each with a resident rabbit, in which the chased rabbit may hide. The aim of the fox is to catch the rabbit, which may enter any of the warrens but in doing do displaces the resident rabbit who then must evade the fox. Once the fox catches a rabbit, he joins one of the warrens and the caught rabbit becomes the fox.
Blind Man's Bluff also requires a circle but less running about. The chaser within the circle wears a blindfold and his aim is to chase another player. However, there are some rules to give him an advantage. Initially the players move round and when he says stop, he points and the player who is pointed at must move into the circle. If this player is caught, the chaser must identify him either by feeling his face or by asking questions. If successful, the chaser retires to join the circle.
All these variations require the group to play as a unit, all know the rules and yet there are no formal rules. Children of all cultures play these games and while there are many variations, the games of Tag are still ones of running and chasing and being chased.
Racing games are more formal than the Tag games as they have a start and finish point. Running in a straight line is the simplest but there are many variations, which bring skill as well as talent into the equation. To introduce a challenge to any race, these are a few of the changes players can make.
Three-Legged Racing with a partner requires much cooperation and coordination between the runners. One leg of each player is tied to his partner's and together they must run the race as a unit. Not an easy exercise, which often results in laughter as the runners fall, get up and fall again. A variation of the game that is a combination with the Sack Race is to tie the legs of each runner together at the knee forcing them to hobble along rather than run or hop the race.
The Sack Race needs balance, speed and the ability to hop. The players are each in a sack or pillowcase, which they themselves must hold up. They travel the course hopping rather than running. Again, usually there are tumbles as feet are caught in the sacks thus overbalancing the child.
Follow My Leader, a slight variation on the game Simon Says, requires the runners to follow a variety of movements governed by a chosen leader. If he runs, the rest run, if he hops, the rest hop and so on. Anyone unable to follow drops out and the winner is the one who remains at the end. Many decide a time limit on this game otherwise the same person tends always to be the leader.
Egg and Spoon Race is often a more organised party game, as the eggs need to be hard boiled; however, it is a good race game where the winner is the first person to finish with his egg and spoon intact. Sometimes cheating is involved, usually holding on to the egg, but again it is a laughter run.
The game Musical Chairs requires the cooperation of an outsider, often a parent or older child who supervises the music. A group of chairs numbering one less than the number of children is placed in a circle. While the music plays the children run around the chairs and when the music stops they must gain a seat. The child who does not sit down leaves the game and a chair is removed. It is played until only one chair and two children remain and the child who sits on this last chair is the winner.
Relay Races are formally arranged with two or more groups competing to win. When seen in the Olympic Games there is a baton passed between the runners; however, in the less formal arrangements of a school or children simply enjoying this game, the runners tap the next people to run. This type of race may be augmented by having a goal at each lap such as carrying a spoonful of water to a receptacle while running, the winners being the ones who transport the most water in the quickest time.
And finally, the all-time favourite with a song to match is Oranges and Lemons. Two players, one the orange and the other the lemon, form an arch through which all the others must run. As the song reaches its end with the words 'Chop! Chop! Chop!', the 'arch' collapses trapping one of the runners. He must say either orange or lemon and replace the appropriate player forming the arch. As with many other games, this one reflects a period of brutality in London. Other such games are Mary, Mary Quite Contrary and London Bridge is Falling Down. This is not restricted to England; many European events are retold as children's games, often with nursery rhymes to accompany them.
Hopping, Skipping and Jumping
Not all games require so much running around. There are hopping games such as Hop Scotch and Leap Frog, skipping games with one or two ropes and quieter games such as Conkers and Pass the Parcel.
The traditional game of Hop Scotch is played around the world. It requires a grid, marked out with chalk on a pavement or scratched into earth. Some school grounds have the design permanently painted on the tarmac. The grid may have as many as twelve or fifteen spaces, be a square, oblong or spiral. A counter is thrown onto the grid, sometimes square by square, and the child hops to that space, picks up the counter and tosses it forward again. The aim of the game is to throw and hop both up and down the grid without either the counter or the player's foot touching a line. Variations include hopping with both feet together and hopping on alternate feet at each throw. Children often make their own rules for the game and, of course, it is a game that may be played by one child alone.
A rather aggressive hopping game, not encouraged now, had a number of different names but in England, it was called Cock Fighting. The players held on to one foot and hopped while attempting to push each other off balance so the opponent drops his foot or put his foot to the ground.
Leap Frog, on the other hand, needs more than one person. In recent years, however, cities and towns have provided ideal objects to be leapt in the form of bollards. These a child may leap instead of walking around often down the whole length of a road. In the original game, one child bends over to form an obstacle over which a second child leaps by placing his hands on the first child's back. He then in turn bends over while the second child leaps. If there are more children, they can form teams and make the game into a race.
Skipping may be a simple step, somewhere between running and hopping or it might be hopping over puddles, sticks and other items found on the ground. However, skipping games tend to be augmented with a rope. It may be a rope about four feet long held by the skipper, or a much longer one held by two people for a third or more persons to skip. This may also become a set of two ropes, turned alternately for the more practised skipper. This is often referred to as Double Dutch Skipping. Skipping with ropes needs practice and some dexterity. It is also a favourite exercise form for boxers to maintain their agility.
A slight variation, especially if there are a number of children, is a game of Rope Skipping or Jumping. One child holds the rope quite close to the ground and spins it around for the others to jump over. It usually results in much pushing and shoving. The last child to remain standing is the winner and has the rather dubious pleasure of becoming the spinner.
One of the most popular running, skipping and jumping games, played for many centuries, has completely disappeared from most developed countries in the last fifty years – the Whipping Hoop. A small stick was used to propel a large hoop along the ground. A child could play with this toy by itself or with his friends. In the 1950s, the hoop was turned into the Hula Hoop. Said to have been based on seeing Australian children swinging bamboo hoops, Wham-O-Toys issued plastic hoops made from petroleum by-products in 1957. Swung around the body and kept up by moving and swaying the body the player aimed at the greatest number of turns of the hoop before it fell down.
Whipping Tops is a similar game to the Hoop but not as active, there is no running involved. The top is set spinning and kept spinning by 'whipping' it with a small stick or piece of leather.
A child sitting astride a stick, hopping and running in imitation of riding a horse is an old game, thought to have been played in Greek and Roman times. The Hobby Horse represents cowboys and indians, knights on horseback and warrior princes. On your own or with a group, games of all kinds could be played limited only by one's imagination.
Less Running, Skipping and Jumping
Not all games require huge amounts of effort. Some require dexterity and agility. As with the more energetic games, most have been known for hundreds of years and are played all over the world by many different cultures.
The Yo-Yo, featured on a Greek vase, is still a favourite game requiring a fair degree of ability to keep the disc spinning. It is merely a slit disc tied to a length of string. As a player becomes more skilled, he may perform 'tricks' making the movement of the yo-yo a significant part of the exhibition. International competitions take place and it is often adults rather than children who enjoy the play.
Similarly, Cat's Cradle may be played by all ages. A simple knotted length of string and a few hand movements create a web of patterns. This game was a particular favourite with the Inuit people of the Arctic long before Europeans explored the region. It may be because during some months each year it was impossible to be outside to exercise. There are also tales that it could only be played by girls or women as the string was too intricate for the male hand. However, some of the greatest exponents of the game are men.
Cup and Ball or Bilboquet is another international game now played by everyone. Eye and hand coordination skills are needed to catch a ball in a stick end. More recently in England, a like game was the Biff Bat, a table tennis bat with a small rubber ball attached by a length of elastic. The game was to count the number of times the ball could be hit before being missed.
Not seen in England for some years now but still a firm favourite in China is the Diabolo – a double cone shaped block played on a string between two handles. Thought to have been introduced into Europe from China in the eighteenth century, the aim is to keep the diabolo on the string while it spins and moves along it. Accomplished players and professionals such as jugglers will toss the diabolo and catch it again or perhaps pass it to another player.
Less skill but patience and dexterity are need for Spillikins or Pick Up Sticks. During the nineteenth century, manufactured sets of this game were made; however, it needs only a group of similar sticks, matches or toothpicks to play. The group of sticks are held upright in the hand on the floor or ground, then let go. They will fall in a haphazard manner one upon another and the aim is to pick up the sticks one at a time without the rest moving. Aids were added such as small hooks and much cheating tended to occur.
Sheer strength of the children is tested in games of Tug-of-War, whereas it is the size and durability of a chestnut that determines the winner in a game of Conkers. This is a European game played in the autumn when the fruit of the horse chestnut tree ripens and falls to the ground. The hard shiny chestnut contained in a prickly outer skin is not edible but makes a good weapon. A conker is made by passing a string through a hole drilled into the chestnut and knotting it at one end. The aim of the game, requiring two or more people each equipped with their favourite conkers, is to smash an opponent's conker by a downward strike. When a player has run out of whole conkers, he retires until he can collect another batch. The winner is the one whose conkers survive.
Many of the 'quieter' games have become party games. There are many hand and hand clapping games, such as Pat-a-Cake and This Little Pig Went to Market. These could be played with very young children. Many of the games for the very young have quite delightful verses which may create a diversion for a fractious child.
Pat a cake, pat a cake, baker's man!
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Roll it and prick it and mark it with a T,
Toss it into the oven for Thomas and me.
[The letter and name are substituted for the child's.]
This little pig went to market
This little pig stayed at home
This little pig had roast beef
This little pig had none.
And this little pig ran all the way home.
This last rhyme has several endings, such as the little pig went 'squeak, squeak, squeak'. Often while reciting the verse the adult will tweak the child's toes or fingers.
Excerpted from How We Played by Caroline Goodfellow. Copyright © 2012 Caroline Goodfellow. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1 Games with Little or No Equipment,
2 Games for One or More Players,
3 Board Games,
4 Race Games,
5 Games for Juveniles of Both Sexes,
6 History Made Easy,
8 Snakes and Ladders,
9 Monopoly and Cluedo,
11 Card Games,
12 Dissected and Jigsaw Puzzles,