Street Games

The outdoor PLAY of girls and boys has exhibited remarkable persistence over time–and considerable similarity throughout the world. Evidence of games of tag, hide-and-seek, hopping, jumping, marbles, and the competitive throwing of balls, sticks, and other objects is found in the earliest historical records of virtually every culture. Whether these activities originated as amusements and recreation or were part of adult rituals that were imitated by children is uncertain. Origins, however, are less relevant to understanding the importance of children's outdoor play and street games than the cultural contexts in which the games are played. In most cultures, childhood is a time of life when girls and boys engage in games and play. Through these games, in addition to having fun and getting exercise, they learn leadership and cooperation, rules (and rule evasion), physical skills, and social roles.

Street play may be defined as any pleasurable activity engaged in by children outside their homes, schools, and supervised playgrounds. Street games are those kinds of play that have names and rules, persist over time, and are recorded by adults. Popular games in the United States include: red rover, jump rope, king of the mountain, kick the can, hide-and-seek, stickball, marbles, and hopscotch (there is regional variation in many names). Jacks, board games, cards, and similar games may be played outside as well as indoors.

History of Games

Pieter Brueghel's 1560 painting Children's Games is a record of Dutch children engaged in more than ninety activities, most of them in streets and courtyards. The painting has been the subject of extensive scholarship and debate about its meanings. Whatever allegorical interpretations may be made, it provides a useful baseline from which to measure the survival or loss of children's games over 400 years. Prominent in Brueghel's assemblage are jacks (knucklebones), DOLLS, dollhouses, popguns, blindman's buff, leapfrog, marbles, various kinds of tag, ball, and pretend games, fighting, and fire-making–in short, games remarkably similar to those played today throughout the world.

For example, the knucklebones used in a game by two young women in the painting are clearly tali, or ankle bones, probably of sheep. These bones have four distinct sides and in Mongolia, for example, they are labeled "goat," "sheep," "camel," and "horse." In some games the ancient Greeks named only two sides, "dog" and "Venus." The bones can be used to play various games that have obvious kinship with both dice and marbles. They may be thrown on the ground with points assigned to each side of the talus; they may be flicked with a finger to strike and capture another bone; or they may be tossed in the air and caught on the back of the hand–a variation of this game using small stones was known as jackstones or fivestones in the United States. The manufacture in the nineteenth century of six-pointed metal jacks and small rubber balls allowed the game to evolve into its present form.

William Wells Newell, in his book Games and Songs of American Children, published in 1883, described almost 200 kinds of children's play as observed or remembered by Newell and his friends. Like Brueghel's painting, Newell's work provides another baseline from which to measure persistence and change in children's play. Newell lists half-a-dozen variations of jackstones played by boys and girls in New England, including otadama or Japanese jacks. This game was played with seven little bags of rice and involved complex patterns of arrangement, throwing, and catching, similar to games played with bones, stones, and pieces of iron.

In parts of the United States, jackstones was also known as dibs, linking it with slang terms for money and claims on property. In NEW ZEALAND, as in Mongolia, children hunted for the remains of dead sheep, removed the anklebones, cleaned them, dyed them, carried them in specially made bags, and traded them. Before the arrival of Europeans and their livestock, Maori children played their version of jacks with stones. A few years after Newell's book, Stewart Culin, a curator who worked for the Smithsonian Institution and later the Brooklyn Museum, described how bison anklebones were used by Papago Indians in yet another variation of jacks. Folklorists in late-twentieth-century New York City found children in Chinatown playing jacks with buttons.

Jacks is presented in both memoirs and ethnographies as a game of hand-eye coordination and friendly competition–unlike marbles, which often involves playing "for keeps." Marble games are also of great antiquity. Made of clay, bone, fruit pits, shells, stone, glass, metal, or other material, games with these small round objects usually consist in "shooting" one marble into another by flicking it with a thumb or finger, with the intent of capturing the other marble. A variation involves shooting a marble from hole to hole to win all the marbles in the final hole. Marbles are also valued according to their material, style, and personal tastes of their owner. The distinction between playing for "keepsies" as opposed to "funsies," marks marbles, also called taws, as a gambling game. Played outdoors on uneven ground, marbles adds an element of luck to a game of skill. Historical sources suggest that marbles were played for reasons beyond amusement, acquisitiveness, or greed. A slave in Louisiana exploited his skill to accumulate marbles that he then used to pay a white boy to teach him to read. Culin notes that the Philippine game of pungitan, which involves shooting a shell at another shell in a ring, was played for money, food, and cigarettes.

Games of tag have been analyzed for what they suggest about power relationships. Folklorists and psychologists see elements of personal power in the "it" role in chase, tag, and capture games such as Black Tom (also known as black man, wall-to-wall, and pom pom pull away). This power confers prestige and self-esteem on the child who is "it," even if he or she is not the fastest runner or most skilled player. This is because the "it" person exercises control over the other players by positioning himself or herself before calling out the words that require the others to run between bases. Conversely, low power "it" roles in dodge the skunk (like Black Tom, but without the call to start the game) and pickle-inthe-middle (a version of keepaway), in which the chosen player cannot control the movement of the other players, convey little prestige and often result in a sense of failure leading to arguments, fights, and abandonment of the game.

Variation in Games

Examples of children's games with worldwide occurrence can be extended indefinitely. As important as the similarities may be, the subtle variations brought about by different cultural styles and social conditions are also meaningful. In the singing game Sally Waters, African-American children in St. Louis added lyrics that changed the rhythm and gestures of the game from "Turn to the east/Turn to the west/Turn to the one that you love best," to "Put your hand on you hip/Let your backbone slip/Shake it to the east/O baby/Shake it to the west/Shake it to the one you love the best." In one version of the traditional southern game chickamy, chickamy, craney crow (also known as fox and chickens), in which a hawk or a witch tries to pull a player from a line of "chickens" behind a "mother," an overseer was substituted for the witch. By substituting a dreaded historical figure for a witch, the children preserved the memory of slavery, and in a slight way transformed the meaning of the game. IONA AND PETEROPIE cite versions of this game throughout Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean. A Mexican version, A que te robo un alma, has a devil stealing a soul, then punishing the soul by putting it to work at some disagreeable task. In another example of name change that illustrates children's humor, boys in the state of Jalisco play a version of Johnny-on-the-pony called chinche lagua (bed bug), in which boys climb on the back of a boy braced against a wall until the pile of boys collapses.

These are a few of the dozens of street and outdoor games played by American children from the seventeenth century to the present. The increasing density and congestion of cities in the twentieth century has changed the nature of street play. Stewart Culin was one of the first to notice distinctly urban forms of traditional games. Some were minor variations of old chase-and-capture games. Relievo, a "prisoner's base" type of game common in Scotland, Wales, and Northern England, became, in Brooklyn, ring relievo (or ringoleavio), a rough and tumble game in which the prisons for captured players were marked in chalk on the sidewalk and pursuit went around a city block instead of across open fields. An observer in 1902 reported that city boys had substituted chalk marks on walls for the colored paper used by the hares in the chase game of hare and hounds. Architectural features of cities were incorporated into games. Walls and the steps leading up to the doors of apartment houses became courts for handball and stoopball. Manhole covers and fire hydrants were used as bases in stickball. Pictures was a gambling game in which boys tossed or flipped picture cards from cigarette packs toward a wall about twelve feet away. The boy whose card landed nearest the wall won all the other cards that had fallen picture side up.

Games in U.S. Cities

Reformers and advocates of supervised playgrounds were dismayed by what they saw on the streets of America's major cities in the early twentieth century. In New York City, one observer found the ten most popular games from October through May of 1904 were: playing with fire, craps, marbles, hopscotch, leapfrog, jump rope, BASEBALL, cat (hitting and catching a stick), picture-card flipping, and tops. A survey in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 23, 1913, concluded that almost half the children were "doing nothing," which consisted of breaking windows, destroying property, setting fires, chalking suggestive words on buildings, standing around, fighting, gambling, and stealing. Those who were "playing" in streets, alleys, yards, vacant lots, and playgrounds were engaged in baseball, kite flying, digging in sand piles, or playing tag and jackstones.

Cleveland, which had an active playground association that provided SANDBOXES, swings, and other apparatus, had a higher percentage of children "playing" than many cities. In the early 1930s, Richmond, Virginia, reported that 65 percent of the city's children spent their time "idling." Ipswich, Massachusetts, and Eveleth, Minnesota, had even higher percentages of children bereft of play. Other surveys suggest that the reformers may have defined play and games too narrowly, perhaps or missed some activities.

Weather conditions and changing seasons often determine the choice of games. Newell and others noted that marbles was a game of late winter and early spring, as were kites and tops. In Georgia the season for popguns was when the chinaberries ripened on the trees. In 1898 an observer in Chicago noted that the first appearance of marbles, jacks, and jump rope was on March 6, when the weather turned mild, as well as their virtual disappearance by the end of April, when they were replaced by ball games in the day and chase and tag in the evening. Some activities, of course, are almost completely dependent on weather, such as swimming in the summer and sledding and snowball fighting in the winter.

The Twentieth Century

In the 1950s, Brian Sutton-Smith and B. G. Rosenberg collected information on almost 200 games played by 2,689 children between the ages of nine and fifteen in northwestern Ohio and compared them to collections from the 1890s, 1920s, and 1940s. Ball games, tag, marbles, bicycle riding, and make-believe games such as cops and robbers were among the favorites of boys for over 60 years. Jump rope, tag, hopscotch, and dolls continued to rank high among girls, but by the 1950s girls showed an increasing preference for traditional boys' activities such as swimming, marbles, and kite flying. More highly organized games with inflexible rules, such as BASKETBALL and football, rose in popularity among boys as a result of the expansion of physical education programs. Although many changes in game preferences may be attributed to the differences in methods and places of the surveys, Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg concluded that there had been a significant shift away from singing and dialogue games, such as Sally Waters and chickamy, and some shift away from traditional chase-and-capture games that involved choosing leaders and establishing group relations. Instead, games of individual skill became more prominent. The range of play for boys was narrowing and the games of both sexes involved smaller numbers of players.

The impact of school recreation programs, suburbanization, TELEVISION, and electronic games have further altered children's play since the mid-twentieth century. Although the memoirs of men and women who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s still contain references to regional styles of informal ball games, tag, jump rope, hopscotch, and dolls, there are increasing references to the influence of electronic media and commercial amusements. From the Davy Crockett fad of the 1950s to television shows and movies marketing specific TOYS, children's play has increasingly become a target for the manufacturers and retailers of clothing, electronic games, sports apparatus, and other paraphernalia.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that children do not passively accept the blandishments of adult culture. A 1992 study of almost 1,000 children, mostly three to seven years old, in twenty-two schools and day-care centers in the Philadelphia area, provides a fascinating glimpse of the impact, or lack thereof, of television and electronic games. Although Nintendo topped the list of favorite games and toys, Monopoly and hide-and-seek were close behind, while BARBIE dolls and baseball outranked generic video games. Watching TV and playing video games dominated indoor activities, although drawing and reading made the top ten, while for outside activities biking, swimming, baseball, soccer, and playing in playgrounds and yards topped the list. Responding to questions about what they liked best about where they lived, children listed friends, house, yard, park, bike, playmates, and their rooms–and while these rooms may contain video games, this seems to indicate that from a child's perspective it is the opportunity to play, not any particular activity, that is the prerequisite for perpetuation of children's games.

Even more remarkable was the number of different activities named by the children in the survey. Over 500 distinct activities, most named only once, were recorded, from "fixing things" to "playing spooky in the dark," to "playing with bugs." Many traditional tag, chase, and jumping games were mentioned, but the evidence suggests somewhat more solitary play for contemporary children than that experienced by earlier generations.

Paradoxically, children have lost some of their autonomy. This is the conclusion of a study of three generations of children who grew up in a neighborhood on the northern tip of Manhattan. From 1910 to 1980, the age at which children were first allowed to go out of their yards alone rose from five-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half. Moreover, the number of places children recall visiting away from home declined for both young children and teenagers. Most dramatic was the increase in the number of professionally supervised activities for children. For those growing up in the 1920s and 1930s the only supervised play was a summer sports program in a schoolyard. By the 1950s, however, Little League, Boy and Girl Scouts, the Police Athletic League, youth centers, and public libraries were offering a wide variety of organized recreation.

Street games have become a topic of nostalgia, with newspapers and the media regularly reporting on the survival of stickball, handball, and double-dutch jump rope in organized leagues and competitions. Picture books and websites on street play appeal to adults who have happy memories of childhood. Currently, streets are being reclaimed for play by boys and girls on roller blades and skateboards, and efforts to ban these activities recall earlier contests over control of play spaces. Street play is, in the final analysis, a public performance by children of games and rituals that both mock and confirm the larger social order.

See also: Boyhood; Girlhood; Indoor Games; Playground Movement; Theories of Play.


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Streetplay. 2002. Available from