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LATEST ARTICLE_______________________________________

The Origins of Childrens' Games
by Bob Brooke

 

Most kids’ games have no exact traceable origin. Children seem to come up with familiar ways to play no matter what time or place they live in. But even though it’s hard to pinpoint precisely where these games originated, there’s some incredible history behind your childhood favorites.



Children have played games for as long as their have been children. At first, the games were simple tag games and pitching and throwing games, and of course races. But as time went on, they became more complex and often influenced by the events occurring at the time.

Human history and games are inextricably intertwined. There’s evidence throughout history that games weren’t frivolous pursuits but came naturally to humans as essential parts of being alive.

Going Back to Ancient Times
Dice are probably among the oldest known gaming tools known to man. During an excavation in Southeastern Iran, archeologists discovered a 3,000-year-old set of dice. Historians don’t know exactly what games those early Persians would have played with them, but the popularity of dice has endured throughout millennia.

There are references to tile games in China that are over 2,900 years old. Dominoes emerged 1,000 years later during the Song Dynasty. However, Western dominoes probably only began in the 18th century, and Mahjong, the most popular tile game in the world and also of Chinese origin), didn’t appear until the 19th century.

Hoop rolling is a children’s game that has past into history. It consisted of two kids —each with a single hoop and a stick—racing each other from one point to another, although the game can also be played solo. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the hoop and stick were made of wood, but in ancient Rome, the trochus, or hoop, and the clavis, or stick, were made of metal. Roman soldiers would train on these devices, trying to see how many times they could stick a spear through the hoop while keeping it rolling. They viewed it as a manly game.

In the past, adults enjoyed many of the same games children play today. Take Red Rover, for instance, in which two teams of people stand in a row with their hands linked. Players take turns running at the opposing line, attempting to break through. It was a popular adult game in Victorian times, probably because it could be used to get around proper social norms and dating customs that involved not touching anyone of the opposite sex. Some historians believe that Red Rover, with its distinctive chant, was named after an 1828 steamboat that took passengers back and forth across the Hatchie River. Another suggests it was a taunt early English children directed at Viking invaders.

Blind man's bluff, especially popular in Tudor England, even among adults, was even said to be a favorite in the court of Henry VIII. It’s a game that consists of a blindfolded person who is "it" and other players who either stand around or move at will until they are tagged. If the person who's "it" correctly identifies someone they've tagged, that person is the next to be blindfolded.

Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board is a kids game that requires one child to pretend to be deceased while the others lift him or her up off of the ground with their fingertips. Some people compare it to the faked seances of the Victorian Era, only for children.

Despite the rise in women's independence during the early 20th century, there were still social norms in place, particularly in reference to courting or dating. It was easy to get a bunch of men and women in one parlor and use the game to get around this, as "copping a feel" was more easily excused when it was done in under the guise of fun.

Playground Games
There are many other childrens’ games that have been passed down through the centuries. And some border on the bizarre.

The game of Jacks dates back to ancient Greece, except at that time the jacks and ball were tiny sheep bones or rocks. Children still played it essentially the same way, tossing and catching the jacks in a prescribed fashion. For most history, children called it “Knucklebones.”

Just about everyone has played Hopscotch during their childhood. Some historians believe that it began in Roman-ruled England. The original courses extended for 100 feet. Roman soldiers used them to build agility while wearing full armor. The “scotch” in hopscotch attached itself later. It’s an English variation of “scratch,” in that players hopped over scratches made on the ground.

Marbles have been found in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs and in Aztec ruins. There is no one way to play them. The classic version originated in the early part of the 20th century, when mass-production made it possible for children to buy whole bags of beautiful glass marbles for pennies.

Historians generally disagree on the origin of the game Mumblypeg. It originated in 17th-century England or 19th-century America. Mark Twain mentioned it as one of Tom Sawyer’s favorite activities, and the image of young boys tossing pocketknives at their feet and then removing them from the dirt with their teeth, making them “mumbly,” feels very like Twain.

The London Bridge has existed in one form or another since the Roman occupation of Britain—and it has fallen down many times. Some believe the game of London Bridge is Falling Down that accompanies the rhyme grew from a widespread tradition of bridge dances popular in the Middle Ages. Some historians also believe that the rhyme, itself, refers to a superstitious practice of killing and burying a child at the bridge site to keep it from collapsing.

Though no one has traced the precise beginning of Capture the Flag, it’s most likely a child’s re-creation of a battlefield on which the battle is not won until a player is in possession of the opponent’s flag.



Historians believe that the game of Double Dutch, where children jump ropes whirled opposite to each other, evolved from the way ancient rope makers made their ropes. Workers would tie the ropes to their waists and a large wheel, wrapping strands as they walked backwards. Supply runners would have to jump these ropes when slack to make their deliveries.

The game of Foursquare also has ancient origins, but the version children play today became popular after the 1940s. It was originally called “boxball” because of the quadrants used and was especially popular in cities where there wasn’t enough room to play other traditional ball games.

Tetherball is either an offshoot of the romantic “Maypole,” or it evolved from a game played by the Tartars in the 9th century that was a lot like tetherball but used pieces of vanquished enemies as the ball.



Finally, there’s the schoolyard and sidewalk game of Red Light/Green Light. In this game, one child plays the "stop light" and the rest try to touch him or her. At the start, all the children form a line about 15 feet away from the stop light. The stop light faces away from the line of kids and says "green light." When those in linen hear that, they can move forward. At any point, the stop light may say "red light!" and turn around. If any of the kids are caught moving after this has occurred, they’re out. Play resumes when the stop light turns back around and says "green light." The stop light wins if all the kids are out before anyone is able to touch him or her. Otherwise, the first player to touch the stop light wins the game and earns the right to be "stop light" for the next game.

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