A glimpse into the secret yet enduring world of childhood games, the magic and mystery of its culture.
“The value of a game as recreation depends on its inconsequence to daily life.” (1)
The games children play when left to their own devices are ones that have been tried and tested down the centuries and passed on from one child to the next. They are the result of both continuity and change. Belonging only to children, a secret world exists that is not meant for adult ears and remains to this day largely uncharted. (2)
When adults organize games for children, or even simply oversee children’s games, they spoil the nature of delight by intruding their grown-up version of the outside world. Individual performances become a matter for congratulation or shame. While play is unrestricted, children do, however, follow their own rules. They don’t want an umpire, rarely do they bother about keeping scores, and they attach little significance to who wins or loses, or even whether a game draws to a conclusion. Enjoying games that can restart almost automatically to give players a new chance, children gain reassurance from repetition and setting procedures. In the confines of the game there can be excitement and uncertainty and, in contrast to real life, children can feel sure what actions are correct. They rationalize absurdities while assimilating realities.
1. Chasing games
The pleasure in the simple ‘endless’ game of chase is in the exercise and thrill of chasing and being chased. The chaser touches someone with the tip of his finger and doing so transforms him into the chaser. Usually the only restrictions are that the chaser must not chase the same person all the time and that once touched—‘tigged,’ ‘ticked,’ ‘tagged,’ ‘dabbed,’ dapped,’ ‘dobbed,’ or, alarmingly, in Orkney ‘stoned’—he cannot immediately return the gentle tap, but must chase someone else first. This rule of no double-touching is widespread and has been observed around the world: “The one he tiggies tries to tig one of the others, but he can’t tiggy the one what tug him.” When the chaser is slow or hesitant, a player may goad him by chanting a rhyme: “Ha ha ha, hee, hee, hee, Can’t catch me for a bumble bee.” “Look at ‘im, look at ‘im, Chuck a bit of muck at ‘im.” (3)
The idea that the touch is wounding or contagious is a common theme. The chaser then has no power of touch unless one of his hands is covering his affected spot. The fun is to touch an awkward or embarrassing part of the body, so the chaser then has to run with hand on head, bottom, or hopping on one foot. The noxious nature of the touch is often considered foreign. For example, in England, “French Touch” or “Chinese Touch” and, consistently, children in Germany have called the same game “Englisch Zeck.” In Valencia the game is “Tu portes la pusa” (You carry the flea) and in Madagascar the chaser is boka, a leper. (4) The children’s belief in the pretence can be absolute. The feeling that the chaser’s touch is unhealthy is unfeigned; leaving a lingering sense of disquiet long after the game is finished. Some games have a suspense start, so the players do not know when the chaser will begin chasing. “What’s the time Mr. Wolf?” and “Bogey” introduce the idea of the chaser as a scary predator and are classic examples of children really enjoying being scared and of the brilliant nightmare of childhood.
2. Counting-out games
For children, counting-out precedes most games in which one player has a role different to the rest. This ‘dipping’ (a term that became general in the 1940’s, but was first recorded in 1897) is as much a part of play as the game that follows it. Impatience with juvenile affairs is a well-known adult characteristic, so when grown-ups try to join in, they want to speed up these preliminaries, which can take as long as the game itself, failing to understand the importance of the procedure.
The durability of the nonsense rhymes is a living thing. The eight counts in the words “One, two, sky blue, all out but you” have been found in playgrounds since Victorian days in Manchester, England, and in Maryland, USA, and no doubt predate such records. How intriguing it is that apparently meaningless words have been carefully preserved and passed down by children as a talisman.
Over the last century, the gibberish rhyme “Eenie, meenie, macca, racca” crops up repeatedly, with little variation, in many places round the world. Just three examples, in Scotland: “Eeny, meeny, macca, racca, Rae, rye, doma, anca, Chicca, racca, Old Tom Thumb.” In Australia: “Eena, meena, icka, macka, Eyre, eye, domma nacka, Icky chicky, Om, pom, puss.” In Sweden: “Ene, mene, ming, mang, Kling klang, Osse bosse bakke disse, Eje, veje, vaek.” It’s wonderful that children who frequently can’t remember the most simple of instructions are able to carry such a mixture of rhythmical nonsense in their heads with such constancy, so that the gibberish remains recognizable when heard in different centuries, in different countries, and even by children speaking different languages. (5)
3. Clapping games
While these are a living link to times past, the children playing the games and singing the songs often claim to have just invented them. Popularity of clapping games has risen since the 1960s in connection with African-American traditions and popular music (though “Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake” was documented as early as 1698) and, currently, the games can be seen in just about all primary school playgrounds. Tricky rhythms and synchronized movements are all performed at great speed, including body percussion, and often involving 12 or more beats before repeating. The words chanted or sung are often humorous, nonsensical, and frequently incorporate mild sexual innuendo. Recently, the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect made popular The Cup Song credited to A. P. Carter and Luisa Gerstein of Lulu and the Lampshades. (6) The movie version by Anna Kendrick went on to become the official theme song of the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. (7)
4. Exerting games
These games lack the subtlety of many others, but give expression to the boisterous vitality of youth, and provide pleasure to the strong. Tussles for the high ground, “I’m the king of the castle, get down you dirty rascal” are little more than contests to capture the fortress, and often involve some savagery and the sustaining of knocks and bruises.
“Tug of War” between two people or two teams is another elemental playground struggle. Usually two leaders pick sides and both sides take hold of a rope (usually a skipping rope) with the heaviest child at the end of each side to act as an anchor. Each side tries to pull the other across a line or until one side lets go. As with many games of strength there are often quarrels. A similar old game was “Pull Devil, Pull Baker.” An engraving with that title by George Cruikshank (published in 1819) can be seen in the British Museum. (8) Doubtless such rough and tumble amongst children will endure forever.
5. Skipping games
In the second half of the twentieth century long rope skipping was a common activity for three or more girls, with two of them (‘enders’) holding the ends of the rope and turning it for the children to jump in and skip, while all of them sang or chanted. Until the late nineteenth century, boys skipped as much as girls. As the songs became as much a part of the game as the jumping, skipping became a gender-marked activity, while boys were drawn into increasingly organized ball games during this period.
The theme of calling a playmate to jump in, the choosing, and booting out of partners were (and still are) common elements:
“In and out the dusty bluebells,
In and out the dusty bluebells,
In and out the dusty bluebells,
Who will be my partner?”
“Acka wacka soda cracka,
Acka wacka boo.
If your father chews tabacca,
Out goes you.”
The process of variation by substituting the names of current or local personalities can sometimes make rhymes seem new, when their roots may be several hundred years old. (9) The skill, poetry, and versatility of this persisting game were captured on film in Edinburgh, in 1951: “I’m a Little Orphan Girl” illustrates how children view the tragedies that shape their parents’ lives. (10)
While the variety and number of games have notably dwindled, there has been something of a revival of skipping as a competitive sport, with the rise in concern over children’s physical health. The combination of single and long rope skipping with dance and gymnastics to create an athletic display, performed to pop music, may well bring the game back to the uncramped imagination of the playground. Sadly, it’s unlikely many of us will see children skipping in our streets again. With heavier traffic on the roads and the busy, controlled lives most children lead, skipping in the lane is little but a memory. (11)
6. Daring games
These games encourage what are often foolish acts of courage. Nowadays children are more protected from perceived threats than they used to be, and arguably this makes them safer. Inevitably, protection does constrain the places and possibilities for play. An inability to appreciate the consequences of dangerous action can be a common characteristic in children and daring games may serve to help some children understand the nature of risk-taking, even teaching them the value of prudence. Anthologists Iona and Peter Opie describe these as games of “misplaced audacity.”
One game that surely is not tolerated in any school playground is the knife game. Spread-eagle your left hand and with a sharp knife in your right, stick the knife as fast as you can in the spaces between the fingers without stabbing yourself. Experienced players make it harder by thrusting the knife between the third and fourth fingers, then back between first and second, then between the second and third, then between the thumb and first finger. Less hazardous may be “Truth or dare,” though this can also include an element of real danger. Each individual in turn has to choose to either answer a question truthfully or to carry out a dare, often a provocation against the adult world, such as knocking on a front door before running away. “Follow my Leader” and “Chicken” likewise require children to carry out a test of nerves as instructed by someone bold. The rituals and glory to be found in foolhardy dares will likely continue to lead exuberant youth into trouble. (12)
7. Pretending games
Children’s pretending games are reflections, however distorted, of real life. Throughout time, their performances have simply varied depending upon their surroundings. When they play at being a family, children mimic tedious everyday incidents, but the thrill is in assuming the grown-up’s roles. Some pretending games portray events that may happen, such as “Hospitals,” which appear morbid, but are actually about wanting to put things right and a need to feel reassured that should they be unwell, they too would be taken care of. It’s a comforting and enjoyable game.
Children nowadays have a wealth of media to draw upon for material. Computer games, which are often blamed for limiting outdoor play and imagination, in fact provide great raw material for fantasy playground games, involving quests, combats, and magical worlds. They provide the opportunity to display shared cultural knowledge, something that’s important to children and adults alike. (13)
8. Seeking games
Games in which a player tries to find others, who obtain safety by remaining out of sight or by getting back to the starting place. “Hide-and-seek” is more than a thousand years old and was known in ancient Greece as “Apodidraskinnda.” In the game “Sardines” one person hides while the other participants shut their eyes and count to the agreed number. The searchers look independently and if one seeker discovers the hiding place, he surreptitiously gets into it, and hides there too. It can become quite cramped the more ‘sardines’ squash into the ‘tin.’ The basic game can have many elaborations. Contests between the sexes with a kiss as a forfeit are popular. The games usually involve calls that are curious and often poetical. (14)
9. Guessing games
Children do not care very much whether the guesser guesses correctly or not, and the games are ritualistic, appealing to the senses rather than the intellect. The more insignificant a game appears, often the more remarkable is its history. The game of giving someone a clout and having him guess who hit him has been popular in England for four centuries. Traditionally, played at Christmas, the guesser is blindfolded and kneels, while the other players slap him in turn on the head or back, hoping their blow will not identify them. Bruegel may have depicted such a game as early as 1560 where, in his picture of children at play, he shows a group of boys with their hands on one boy’s head, but only one is actually pulling his hair. (15)
10. Duelling games
These are games in which two players put themselves in direct conflict with each other. In England, conkers collected from the Horse Chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastannum) have been played with since at least the nineteenth century. The tree was introduced in the seventeenth century, so it’s likely English children have collected these beautiful shiny nuts for much longer for their games.
For the classic game of “Conkers,” specimens are carefully selected, a hole is driven through the middle with a skewer, and a piece of string or boot lace threaded through, long enough to wind twice round the hand with about eight inches hanging down, which is tightly knotted to ensure the conker doesn’t fall off. The aim is to smash the opponent’s conker with yours. In order to secure the privilege to strike first blow, the child shouts out a rhyme, which is a variant of this one:
“Obbly onker, My first conker, Obbly oh, My first go.”
His opponent dangles his conker, keeping it still, for the striker to swing his conker, aiming to strike it. When a conker breaks another into pieces, the winning conker becomes a ‘one-er’ and if it breaks a second a ‘two-er’ and so on. Competition can be fierce but the season is short-lived. These days, children are more likely to collect conkers to turn into model animals with googly eyes and match-stick legs than they are to do battle with them, but the urge to collect the most beautiful specimens is still strong. (16)
Most of us feel a connection with the magic games we played in our youth and experience nostalgia for what we guarded as a secret, while it was always out in the open.
Childhood games are a captivating mystery, seemingly endless, and then suddenly, gone forever.
1. Opie, I. and P. Children’s Games in Street and Playground
2. Bishop, J.C. The Working Papers of Iona and Peter Opie. Oral Tradition, 28/2 (2013):205–216
3. Roud, S. Chasing Games. The British Library
Opie, page 63
4. Bronner, S.J. Explaining Traditions: Folk Behavior in Modern Culture
5. Opie, pages 29, 31, 40-45
6. The Cup Song
7. Rosen, M. An introduction to Clapping Games
8. Cruikshank, G. Pull Devil, Pull Baker
9. Skip-hop. Skipping Rhymes
10. British Library. Orphan Girl
11. Bishop, J. British Library. Skipping Games
12. Opie, page 272
13. Arts & Humanities Research Council. Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media. Children’s Playground Games and Songs in the New Media Age 2009–2011
14: British Library. Hide and seek (1951)
15. Bruegel, P. Children’s Games
16: Opie, page 229