If those words have a familiar rhythmic ring you’re probably of ‘a certain vintage’ and grew up in an era when children’s games were never confined to computer screens, handheld consoles and mobile smartphones.
In a time when ‘Health and Safety’ was little more than a glimmer in a bureaucrat’s eye and grazed knees and the occasional thick ear were all just part of growing up, children’s games were full of imagination, energy, activity, fun and friendship.
Most happened in the great outdoors, the school playground or on streets where cars were only an occasional annoyance. A few, like Jacks or Cat’s Cradle, could be played on your own, but far more involved at least two, and usually a whole marauding gang of laughing, screaming kids.
Though their names and ‘rules’ might vary from district to district, even town to town, most traditional children’s games shared the same broad themes and needed little more than a piece of chalk, a handful of marbles, a length of rope, an old tin can or just good old-fashioned imagination. These were games passed on from child to child, from generation to generation, by word of mouth.
“Cowboys and Indians” might evolve to “Cops and Robbers” as gangster films replaced westerns at the local Picture House, but the games went on, and some still survive today. Here are just a few of the children’s games you might remember, though you can probably name many more.
Conkers – an autumn seasonal favourite for generations of children armed with the fruit of the horse chestnut tree! Conkers had to be carefully drilled and threaded with a string or bootlace, before two wily combatants went head-to-head. While one holds out his conker dangling on its string at arm’s length, the other used his conker to bash his opponent’s. Some rules allow for another go if the first is a miss or if strings tangle. If the target conker survives the roles are reversed and the attacker becomes the target, and so it goes on until one of the conkers disintegrates. Conkers which have claimed several opponents are known by the number they have vanquished, for example, a ‘sixer’. All kinds of myths were whispered into grubby ears about how to create the ultimate unbeatable conker, most involving soaking in vinegar and baking in the oven.
Hopscotch – while conkers was favoured by boys, hopscotch was mainly for girls. At one time you could barely walk down a residential street without passing a hopscotch ‘court’ chalked on the pavement. Players took turns to throw a marker, usually a small stone or bottle cap, into a series of numbered squares, then hopped and jumped up the court and back, collecting the marker on their return. The marker had to land cleanly in the chosen square and players who hopped onto a line, missed a square or fell over had to go again. The first player to complete all the numbered boxes was the winner (back in the days when having a ‘winner’ was allowed!).
Blind Man’s Buff – this was a popular Victorian game which still survives and can be played indoors or out. One player is blindfolded and spun around to disorientate them. This ‘Blind Man’ then walks around with their hands out in front of them until they bump into another player. If they manage to identify the other person from the feel of their face, hair and clothes, the blindfold is removed and someone else has a turn. If not, then the game carries on.
Ladders, or Ladder of Legs – another game which lives on and can be played indoors or outdoors. Players are divided in two teams, who each sit on the floor in a long line facing each other and with the soles of their feet touching, so that their legs resemble the rungs of a ladder. Each pair of players is given a number and a caller shouts out numbers at random. When their number is called, the pair of players scramble to their feet and run behind their teammates to the foot of the ‘ladder’, then run along the ladder of legs, taking care not to step on anyone or trip over. At the top they turn and run behind their teammates back to their place and the first of the competing pair to sit back down is the winner, scoring a point for their team.
Clapping games – there are countless variations of clapping games, found in cultures around the world. They usually involve two players facing each other and completing a clapping sequence as an accompaniment to a sung rhyme, such as “A Sailor Went to Sea”, “Pease Pudding Hot” or “Pat-a-cake Pat-a-cake Baker’s Man”. The memorised sequences, sometimes very complex, involve players clapping their own hands, slapping against the palms of their partners, slapping their thighs and many more crossover or high and low moves. Memory, co-ordination and teamwork are just three of the benefits of clapping games.
Kick the Can – a popular outdoor game using nothing more than an old tin can, maybe with a few stones inside, which is placed in open ground. One child is chosen to be ‘it’, possibly using the time-honoured method of “ip dip sky blue”! The rest run off and hide while ‘it’ covers their eyes and counts to a set number, often ending with a cry of “Coming ready or not!”. ‘It’ must then find and tag the hiding children who, once caught, are put in ‘jail’ –a predesignated holding area. The constant risk is that a child might dash from their hiding place and, before they can be tagged, kick the can. This means one of the prisoners, or in some versions all of them, are released to rejoin the game. Only when ‘it’ tags all the other players is the round over and another can begin.
British Bulldogs – this can be something of a ‘roughhouse’ game, seen either as ‘character building’ or a risk assessment officer’s worst nightmare! Two safe zones are designated at opposite ends of an agreed ‘pitch’. One player, the Bulldog, stands in the centre of the pitch while all the others gather at one end’s safety zone. At the sound of a whistle or a shout the players charge down the pitch towards the safety zone at the other end. The Bulldog’s job is to catch one and lift his prey off the ground, shouting “British Bulldogs one, two, three” before they can break free. The caught person then becomes a Bulldog (a catcher) so that as the game progresses there are more and more Bulldogs and fewer runners. The last one to evade capture is the winner. Over-enthusiastic playing of Bulldogs has led to it being officially banned almost everywhere, though when the grown-ups are not around.... well, children will be children!