A brief history of children’s games (played outside) • Brooklyn Paper

A brief history of children’s games (played outside)

It’s been a summer or two since kids suddenly burst outside in pursuit of virtual Pokemon. Now the question is: How to get them outside again, considering the lure of all things air-conditioned and pixilated?

The games that most of us adults played managed to entertain not just us, but children for hundreds or even thousands of years. Get your kids to try them and they just may play long and hard enough to need some water from the hose. And then you know what they’re drinking in?


Take a look at how old some of your favorite games are:

Hopscotch: If you were a Roman soldier, you would have hated hopscotch. That’s because the game began as a grueling exercise. Soldiers in full armor had to run or hop or somehow make it across 100-foot long hopscotch grids, the same way football players have to hop through
all those tires.

But to kids it looked like fun — at least if you only had to hop through 10 squares. Back in the day, the word at the top would be “London,” because that’s where Rome’s famous 400-mile road led. (You’d think it would lead to “Rome,” but no.)

The word hopscotch itself comes from hopping, of course, and “scotch” which is a bastardization of “scratch.” Kids would scratch the lines on the ground. When I was growing up, we called the top “Blue Sky,” which may harken back to the fact that when Germans played this game they called it “Himmel und Hölle” — Heaven and Hell. (Those cheery Teutons.) You’d get to the top and you were in heaven, or the sky.

In any event, it is a nifty game and requires only chalk and a stone. Roman soldiers optional.

Jacks: Jacks go back to Ancient Greece. You can see pictures of the game on urns (if you look really hard). Back then, however, no one had balls.

Well, I mean, no one had a bouncy ball. Or jacks, per se. They had, instead, the knuckle, wrist, and ankle bones of sheep, so the early name of the game was “Knucklebones.” Kids would toss these into the air and have to catch them either in their palms or on the back of their hands or some other way that made it hard, hence fun.

When rubber finally made its way to Europe in the 1700s, the first bouncing balls were introduced and these made their way into the games. But for centuries before that, kids played jacks with whatever they had on hand (literally — ;), including apricot seeds in Egypt and little bags of rice or sand in China.

And by the way, jacks is short for “jackstones,” which came from “chackstones” which came from chucking stones — throwing them.

Capture the Flag: This one is depressing. The game is just too glaringly modeled on war — and not just war exercises, like hopscotch. In a real war — in the Civil War, as a matter of fact — you’d come upon your enemy and shoot or stomp or bayonet them, all in the service of literally capturing their flag. At the end of the skirmish what mattered most, insanely enough, was not how many people died, but who’d captured the other team … er … the other side’s flag.

I realize I haven’t watched nearly enough Ken Burns or I’d have known that. But it wasn’t until reading up on this particular game that I learned that the soldiers stuck trying to keep their flag from falling into the enemy’s clutches were called “color guards” — for guarding their side’s colors. I’d thought color guards were just a Boy Scout thing.

Anyway, the game is played just like war, but without the bayonets.

Blind Man’s Bluff: The bluff is that because you are blindfolded you “accidentally” end up touching anyone you want, anywhere you want. No surprise that this game was a big hit with the original #MeToo despot, Henry VIII and his friends. Back then, it was an adult
game. Very adult.

Kickball: Sit down. Here’s a shocker. Kickball was invented not in ancient someplace, but in Cincinnati in … 1917! Unlike baseball, or even jacks, which require some serious hand-eye coordination, in kickball a giant ball rolls right toward you, for gosh sake. It is like being a human bowling pin. Because it was so much easier than any game ever, gym teachers pounced on it and by the 1920s it was already a physical education staple and today it’s still alive and, well, you know.

So here’s the deal. Kids love their video games. But a study often quoted by Peter Gray, author of a basic textbook on psychology used at Harvard and beyond, found that 86 percent of kids prefer playing outside to computer play.

Summer’s here. Send ’em out.

Lenore Skenazy president of Let Grow, and founder of Free-Range Kids.

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