Fed Up with Frenzy? Play Some Old-School Playground Games


By Susan Sachs Lipman

Just this week, another entry in a long line of studies has confirmed the endangerment of play. This one, from England, notes that 36% of parents opt to pay others to entertain their children because they no longer know how to play simple childhood games like hopscotch, capture the flag, four square, and jacks, and lack the confidence to teach and play them with their kids.

The report goes on to note that, while a whopping 93% of parents regularly played games like these as children, that figure has dropped 20% to 73% in children today.

I hear this time and again, on both sides of the Atlantic. Changing lifestyles have pushed kids indoors and into organized activities, to the extent that they don’t know how to entertain themselves in a backyard, park or unplugged living room. Often, their parents don’t particularly value play, have forgotten how to play, or are just too busy to join in.

Of course, there’s hope. In the U.K., Play England and Morrisons teamed up to create the Summer Pop-Up Play Program. In the U.S. and elsewhere, parents and youth leaders who yearn to play and teach traditional games are seeking out ways to return to them. If you count yourself in this group, here are a few games you might want to try.

Duck, Duck, Goose

By different names, children play this timeless game all around the world. South Asians know it as Kho Kho, Ghanaians as Antoakyire. German children play a version called Plumpssack, which involves dropping a handkerchief at one player’s spot.

Players sit in a circle, facing each other. Choose a player to be “it.” “It” walks around the outside of the circle, tapping each person on the head and saying, for each tap, “duck,” “duck,” “duck.” Finally, “it” taps a person on the head and says, “goose” and begins to run around the outside of the circle. The person who is tapped as a goose gets up and chases “it” around the circle. If the goose is able to tap “it” before he or she sits down in the goose’s spot, then that person is “it” again. If the goose does not tag “it,” then the goose becomes the new “it.”

Red Light, Green Light

Another game played around the world, Red Light, Green Light has many charming variations. In the Czech Republic, it’s called Cukr, káva, limonáda, čaj, rum, bum! (“Sugar, coffee, lemonade, tea, rum, boom!”)

One player is chosen to be the stoplight. That person turns  his or her back to the group, which forms a line approximately 30′-90′ away (depending on the ages of players). The stoplight calls out, “Green light!” and the players advance toward the player who is the stoplight as quickly as they can. When the stoplight wishes, he or she calls out, “Red light!” while turning around to see the runners. The runners must stop immediately. Any player caught moving after a call of “red light” has to go back to the starting line. “Green lights” and “red lights” are repeated until the first player reaches and tags the stoplight and is declared the winner. If all the players are out before they reach the stoplight, then the stoplight wins that round. The winner becomes the new stoplight.

Four Square

Not sure what to do with that four square court painted on your local or school playground? This classic game couldn’t be easier or more inclusive. If you don’t have a four square court, you can easily draw your own with chalk. You’ll need:

  1. Standard-size rubber playground ball
  2. Four square court, or chalk to draw one

If there isn’t a court, draw a large square, approximately 16’ x 16’. Divide that into four squares, each 8’ x 8’. Letter the squares clockwise, from A to D. The player in the A square begins by bouncing the ball once in his or her own square, then hitting it underhand so it bounces into the D square. The receiving player then hits the ball into another square, with play continuing until the ball bounces more than once or goes out of bounds. When that happens, the player who didn’t hit the ball in time, or hit it out of bounds, moves to the D square, and the other players move up in the alphabet. If there are more than four players, a waiting player in line replaces the one who would have moved into the D square, and that player goes to the back of the line. Play continues without anyone having to permanently leave the game.

Capture the Flag

Another game from many of our childhoods, capture the flag could be played anywhere, but it works best in an area with varied terrain, such as those with trees or other landforms.

Get two flags or bandannas and divide into two teams. Mark a line in the center of the play area. Each team’s territory, or base, is on either side of the line. Each team also picks a spot for its jail, usually far from the flag. Determine a time period (5–10 minutes) during which each team hides its flag in its own territory, usually in the part farthest from the opponent. Once the flags have been hidden, the teams meet in the middle.

Each player tries to enter the other team’s territory and find its flag. In addition, the player has to bring the flag back into his or her own team’s area without getting tagged by an opponent. Tagged players go to jail and sit out the game until tagged by a teammate, at which time they can rejoin the play by walking back into their own territory first. Players can be tagged only within the enemy’s base. If a player is tagged while transporting the flag, the flag is dropped at that spot. The game is won when an opposing flag is successfully captured and brought to the home base.

Adapted from Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, by Susan Sachs Lipman. The book contains these activities and many more.

Photo credit: Army Corps of Engineers

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