ALL work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – and it doesn’t do much for Jill either.
Play is a serious business. It’s vital to the development of every child. It allows children to work out not only their emotions but, more fundamentally, who they are. But the opportunity to run along outside and play in the street is a diminishing one because anxious parents are afraid for the safety of their children.
Recent figures from Play England, an agency dedicated to encouraging play provision, showed that while 71% of parents had played outside their homes, only 21% of their children were allowed that independence. And though you might not want your kids to play on a World War 2 bomb site like their grandparents did, there’s nothing like using their imagination to create rich and fantastical games as they run around playing with other children.
That is one reason why playtime at school is so important. It’s still a great social occasion and while playground games may have regional variations there are often similarities between the basic activities which are handed down from generation to generation; essentially the same game may appear with entirely different names in different places.
Wherever there’s a playground full of kids you’ll find them tearing about, screaming their heads off playing a game of chase. They may call it ‘Tig’, or ‘Tag’ or something else but the format is the same. The hunter is chosen through a process of selection; it might be ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, mo’ or ‘one potato, two potato’, etc and then he or she becomes ‘It’ until they have captured the rest of the group.
What’s the time Mr. Wolf? is another game that induces excitement verging on hysteria in the playground. The ‘wolf’ turns and walks slowly away while the rest of the children follow behind chanting ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ to which the ‘wolf’ turns back and replies ‘one o'clock’ or any other time he chooses. The game is continued until the moment the ‘wolf’ replies ‘Dinnertime!’ at which point he chases the children who immediately run away yelling and screaming blue murder.
Hide and Seek
Who hasn’t squeezed themselves behind a tree or under a bench in an attempt to escape a school friend on a mission to conquer the world. Combining all the thrill of the chase with the added element of concealment this is a real pulse raiser of a playground game.
Ring-a-ring-o-roses is the simplest of all ring games and is played by even the smallest children. They join hands and dance round in a ring, singing:
A pocket full o' posies.
We all fall down! which they promptly do - to much giggling and laughter. This is a very old rhyme and is attributed to the Black Death of the 14th century : the ‘ring o' roses’ is the rash which was a symptom, the ‘pocketfull o' posies’ the herbs carried in an attempt to ward off the disease, ‘Atishoo!’ was the flu-like effects and ‘we all fall down’ – well, that’s the inevitable consequence – dropping dead!
Oranges and Lemons, The Good Ship Sails on the Alley-alley-oo and The Farmer Wants a Wife are all singing games of one sort or another and though the they are not strictly ring games, they all require children to join hands and dance around together before one or other child invariably gets polished off in cheery, no nonsense fashion!
Wherever a bunch of boys (because it’s almost exclusively a ‘boy thing’, gather together, a game of football, with a goal marked out by two jumpers or school bags, will be played.
Outbreaks of cricket and rounders will occur from time to time and you’ll always find a couple of girls practising their juggling skills bouncing two tennis balls off a wall while repeating some variation of an age-old rhyme.
The cruellest ball game (and I speak as one who was the youngest in the family) is ‘Piggy in the Middle’. Two or more smugly amused children throw a tennis ball to each other while another child – usually the littlest or the youngest – hops up and down in the middle trying to catch it first. If she ever does, the one who it was intended for has to go into the middle as ‘Piggy’.
Invariably a ‘girl thing’, one or more children will try and jump with or through a long rope held at each end by two other people. There are many rhymes chanted while this happens and new ones are being introduced all the time but ‘Sausage in the Pan’ is an old favourite.
Marbles and Jacks and Conkers
Both fine weather games – even children don’t want to be squatting down on the ground in a wet, cold playground – these have been played by generations of children; in the case of Jacks, since Roman times. The rules have been passed down the centuries and you can still find little groups of children settling down in a corner of the playground with some beautiful glass marbles or a set of five, lightweight metal alloy Jacks and a little rubber ball.
As for conkers, unless an over-cautious head teacher bans the traditional playground conker competitions, come the autumn, you’ll find pairs of children the country over threading string through the shiny brown nuts and then swinging them at each other in a bid to become conker champion in possession of a ‘fiver’, a ‘sixer’ or upwards beating as many opponents as possible!
In the days when all pavements used to be flagstones, conveniently laid in the correct pattern, hopscotch was played, mostly by girls clutching a precious piece of chalk and a small flat pebble, in the street. Nowadays, many school playgrounds have hopscotch grids painted on them.
One upon a time playgrounds reverberated to the cries of children playing British Bulldog. The ‘cries’ being an apt word because it was a game that so often ended in cuts, bruises, banged heads and even broken bones. Nowadays it is banned in most schools but it is still something of an underground favourite! Pairs of children ‘piggyback’ (one, usually the smaller and lighter, seated on the other's back) and it is played across the width of the playground. The aim of the original piggy back pair is to prevent all the other children from getting across. It can get very messy!
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