Traditional outdoor games: why do they matter?

3 children playing hopscotchA survey out today points to a decline in traditional outdoor games like hopscotch, marbles and conkers. You may have heard me talking about the findings on Radio 5 live this morning (from 53’30” in), supporting the call for a ‘rough and tumble play’ campaign. Mourning the loss of such games makes a nice summer season story. But does it really matter? Isn’t the attempt to revive interest in these games just shallow nostalgia? Is it even adults’ business to get involved? After all, these games have traditionally been passed down through the generations by children themselves, with little or no adult input.

I think there is something important about these traditional games that cannot simply be dismissed as rose-tinted, sepia-toned nostalgia. And I think the time is right to revisit these games and breathe new life into them.

There is something wonderfully pared down and self-reliant about many traditional games. They rarely need equipment. Many can be played almost anywhere, and can cope with a wide range of ages, abilities and numbers of players (I once saw two siblings play hide-and-seek for about fifteen minutes in a five-metres-by-five leisure centre reception area.) And the rules can be endlessly adapted – just as long as a sense of fair play is respected.

Outdoor games also provide children with valuable rehearsals for everyday life. Think about all the tasks that are involved in a game of tag, for instance. Players have to decide who is ‘it’. They have to agree safe spots, and how ‘time out’ works. And they have to sort out disputes about whether or not someone was tagged. The physicality of tag, and indeed many traditional games, demands accurate risk management. When chasing or catching, players have to try to make sure they don’t hurt each other too much, and it’s not a great idea to collide with any non-participants who happen to stray into the area. That is a pretty impressive list of physical, interpersonal and social skills.

Some of the most popular traditional games cut across gender and cultural divides. I have seen the very same gestures being used to signify ‘time out’ in my daughter’s highly multicultural primary school in East London, and in a largely Maori school in Auckland, New Zealand.

Last but not least, many of these games are simply great fun. At their best, they create the opportunity for physically immersive, open-ended, ever-evolving narratives of a kind that is simply not possible when sat (or even stood) in front of a screen. And let’s not forget: given the choice, children today would rather be playing outside than anything else.

In my view, forecasts of the death of traditional games are somewhat premature. They are more resilient than we adults sometimes think they are – though I do fear that they are at long-term risk, simply because children are denied the space, time and opportunity to play and share them. Hence the most important job for adults is to create the space and time that is needed. Children themselves will do the rest, perhaps with some invitations and cues.

There are some encouraging signs. As I have noted before, interest is growing in reclaiming residential streets for play. Moreover, playworkers and others working in schools and childcare settings are also exploring how to make break times more playful.

Playground games may not be as popular as they were in the days when Peter and Iona Opie – the pre-eminent scholars of children’s play culture – were in their pomp. But with growing interest in the topic – witness this recent research and cataloguing project hosted by the British Library – their future could be brighter than we think.

Peter and Iona Opie skipping with children

What are your views: do children play traditional games in your setting or neighbourhood? If not, why not – and do you think kids are missing out as a result? Do you think parents and teachers should be reviving these games? Or do you agree with the Opies, who provocatively declared in their classic book Children’s Games in Street and Playground “nothing extinguishes children’s self-organised play more effectively than those who aim to promote it”?

42 responses to “Traditional outdoor games: why do they matter?

  1. thanks for the post. I feel quite privileged – children where I work skip, play tag (bulldog, blocky 1-2-3) make dams, play hide and seek, build dens in the summer. We help them, intervene, show them how to jump rope (well others might!), patch them up if needed, allow them to negotiate, arrange a set of rules given the space we have. Does it help? Probably it does. They are active, they play with a range of friends of different ages (cheating slightly here) as it’s a tiny school. The children often stay on at the end of the day to play – it’s in a very sparsely populated area, some of the children living miles from their neighbours. The games are child led, passed on from one group to the next, mutate, change, allow younger ones to be brought in, and accommodated. Before we get too rosy tinted, sometimes children fall out and get upset. This is quickly resolved, on the whole, by other children, keen to see the play and game continue. Football does not dominate! I’d love to delve in deeper to what children think, do they value playtimes, why…but time is always against it

  2. Absolutely Tim,

    You have to create the conditions for the activity to begin again. I spend most of my time working with exactly this. Children are raised on a diet of virtual action and the culture of ‘white lines’ and referees to adjudicate the flow of their play. They have had the natural creativity that engenders game-play hijacked.
    Shopping appears higher on their list of ‘want-to-dos’ than play, certainly if you don’t conside fiddling with your thumbs is quite the same thing!

    Craig Taylor

  3. …always one typo – ‘consideR!’

  4. Indeed, doesn’t happen by happy accident. Shopping, thumbs, screens and lines….love the C21st malaise for children in this context reduced to 5 words. However, they are part of life, here we are online discussing it, and we need to find ways to balance, prioritize, and ensure children value all aspects of their lives, not just those marketed most effectively. Without appearing prissy, old fashioned, or luddite!

  5. Craig and Mark, thanks for your comments. Mark – I’m reminded of another quote from the Opies – in fact, a response from children to their adult interest: “but we’re only *playing* – it’s not meant to be *serious*” (or something like that). Craig – yes to balance. Screens are in danger of being the focus of the next piece of scaremongering, and that won’t help children any more than all the other moral panics about childhood.

  6. Hi Tim, I enjoy reading your blog. I’m blogging along similar lines but with a focus on the inherent creativity of childhood. Much of all this we write about starts with providing kids with the free time to play, to get bored enough to shift into their own creative modes of play. I enjoy observing some of the simple games my kids play when left to their own devices. I believe the decline of these kinds of traditional games occur when, not only is there a loss of free time in over scheduled lives, but they are provided with too many prescriptive toys and tech and loose the balance of childhood play.

    • Thanks Monika – I agree that too many toys – especially overly prescriptive ones – is a problem. It’s not unlike the effect of computer games: they close down possibilities for exploration, creativity and imagination.

      • Hi Tim, Not only toys but many playgrounds are extremely limiting too. Kid’s are bombarded with ready-made solutions for play. Yes, it’s a tough one, since technology and computers are their future too, I’ve made sure my kids start with a computer as an open ended creative tool – some games have fabulous creative opportunities, such as the game minecraft, and this builds on his interest in construction. He loves the fact he can build inside or outside! My six year old has also learnt the basics of programming (without realising it) in a game where he gets to be the creator. There are the opportunities for computers to provide creative learning and exploration, though it’s about being very selective and again keeping balance with all things play. They still prefer the adventures and interactive play with siblings and friends long before the computer.

  7. I have a 9yr old and a 4 yr old.
    I put a large emphasis on outdoor play and traditional games.

    I think the key is that these spaces (for free range children to play in) need to be created! and imagination needs to be used to create them. I live in smaller duplex style housing on the gold coast (where you just visited) and on a main road. So, thus far playing in an outdoor environment has been confined to the small yard we have (due to age and safety reasons inherent with living on a 4 lane street).

    However imagination has been used when using designing the outdoor space to allow traditional, outdoor and rough and tumble games. So we have a mango tree and we keep I trimmed however sufficient branches to climb, so all kids who come to my house, get to climb it. It’s my 9 yr olds fav spot. It has rope and wooden (free hanging) ladders hanging from it and a tyre swing. (all made by my partner and I).
    Under the mango tree the grass does not grow (not enough light etc) so we thought long and hard about how to solve the problem. In the end we decided it does not need solving, while it looks ugly and I can pave it. It’s an excellent place for kids to get dirty and play with dirt. They have a ‘dig dig’ and dig the dirt up, make race tracks, make little town and dig holes and make pools and dams for the people.

    We have some paving down the side and back of the house, but one thing I insisisted was larger concrete pavers to be used in a section so it can be used as an invitation to play hop scotch. So the big concrete pavers are set out in a line of a pattern of 1,1,1,2,3,2,1,1,1 so it’s still functional as a path but the kids can use it as hop scotch, with chalk so they can write the numbers on it. I’ve even used it to help the kids count by 2’s 3’s etc and modify a hop scotch game and use all the 13 tiles to do this.

    The kids do have some modern ‘toys’ like a trampoline and swing set, but they also will grab the long ladder and hang it in between the fence and swing set and use it as monkey bars.
    I might add, I do not believe in pads or nets on the trampoline, as any kids new I believe in talking about safety and how to use it properly. In the 9 yrs I have never had a kid fall out if the tree or off the trampoline. No broken bones, just minor scrapes…

    They use the trampoline as a cubby house, put sheets around it and make triangle cubby houses by leaning wood against the fence and putting sheets and blankets on it.

    They play tiggy all the time, the mango tree is ‘BAR’, also murder in the dark. We make basketball hoops made out of metal coat hangers and make lines for handball out of the skipping ropes. Make car tracks and jumps out of scrap wood….

    It is messy, and it is very noisy, but if you allow the kids the tools, even a small area like we have and don’t mind noise it can be achieved very easily.

    I think with cluster living, there is a big expectation of kids being quiet, so it becomes easier to allow TV to be a baby sitter to keep the kids quiet after te parents have had a long day at work etc…

    There is many kids who come to my house who get paranoid about the dirt and when my kids say ‘let’s climb the tree’ they are mortified…. Since they don’t play these outdoor games I find they need more help to solve minor squabbles as they lack te problem solving skills that outdoor games promote…

    Just today I had to take 3 kids out to the footpath out the front (yes next to that busy road) as they had tied a small kick board to a skate board and wanted to pull each other up and down the footpath with a rope they had attached… They expermented, found the rope would not hold their contraption together they got a scraped knee and sore toe, but once I showed them a way to tie it together safely, which they eventually modified as they expermented and learned on the spot- they got it going and had the best fun! Since it is a busy road I was out there for the 2 hours with them, however I only intervened and said something once, after I let them have multiple goes to try and figure it out themselves….

    I feel all settings should promote it, home school, daycare etc – but if kids have not been introduced to such games as handball and skipping then they also need to be taught the skils and it promoted. I have hundreds of hours playing handball, skipping and tiggy under my belt. The age gap between my kids meant that I was my daughters first friend. I introduced and taught her these things, before she started day care at age 4. (now she does most of the teaching with her 4 yr old brother) But those skills they learnt allowed all 3 older children today to build their contraption and pull each other along the footpath. Without my emphasis on outdoor play and as I call it … My children are ‘free range’ not ‘battery hen’ children (also known as cotton wool children) they would not be able to do it as these elements wouldn’t have been put into the design of the outdoor play area…

    • Hi Andrea – thanks for such a full and fascinating response. I agree that space is crucial, as of course is time. But the right adult attitude is also essential. I talk of ‘benign neglect’ and I hope you can see what that means: learning how to gradually untie the apron strings and give children the degree of freedom and responsibility that they are ready for.

  8. PIece on BBC Radio Cumbria now about this, if only texts and tweets of playground games of listeners 1330 – 1400.

    • Thanks for the tip-off Mark. By the way, I have now added a link to my BBC Radio 5 live interview to the post.

      • Actually better than just reader’s tweets / texts, they had an actor or celebrity I’d not heard of talking about his attitude to play with regard to his own children, and effectively benign neglect / ignoring. It’s a good local radio piece.
        http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/p00wsjrn

        • Thanks Mark. They devoted a lot of airtime to the topic throughout the programme, and no mistake! The celebrity is Ben Shephard, who presents on Sky amongst other things. He and I shared a radio studio for some interviews this morning. He was very engaging, and as you say, was strongly supportive of the idea of free play. (For others: the interview starts around 1hr 37 min in.)

  9. On Sunday I was on West Wittering beach in Sussex – it was uplifting and heartwarming to see the whole beach covered in children and adults playing…anything and everything, damming, sandempires, cricket, rounders, hide and seek etc etc etc…. and today at the V and A in the square in the centre of the building the pond there had lots of children playing what looked like made up games in and out of the water. Water seems to bring out the playful in us…..

    • Hi Rachel and thanks for the observations. Good to hear the V & A’s management were relaxed today about children playing in the courtyard water feature. I have heard that the supervisory staff there can be a little inconsistent, and at times overly strict. Clearly there are judgements to be made – after all, it is not a municipal paddling pool. But having seen the space, my sense is that it is not unreasonable to permit a little water play. As you say, it is hard to resist!

  10. Reblogged this on Love Outdoor Play and commented:
    Traditional Outdoor Games – are they still played? how have they evolved?
    Great blog from Tim Gill.

  11. After reading everyone’s comments I thought I’d quickly list as many of the various games and activities I used to play at school, at home and every other place I could remember.
    What a task! It has made me realise just what a opportunity for innovation/creativity play really can be.
    I’ve listed all the usual summer and winter ball games everyone plays and many of those traditional games already mentioned like British Bulldog, chase, hide and seek, May I? etc, but there are also loads of games I must’ve invented either at home (balloon volleyball in the hallway, the spaceship we built under the dining table and the ping pong we played on top of it (using squares of hardboard for paddles and the `net’) or at school.

    Now I look back it’s no wonder I had little energy left for school lessons – I and my closest mates must’ve spent every breaktime we got throwing a tennis ball against the big, wide 4 storey end wall of the school block (recently demolished) in our modified version of Squash. I’ve listed another six school-specific physical and tactical games we invented just for us, too.

    I’ve counted all the early space invaders, ping type games I played in the 70s as one play item.

    Add the absorbing and more formal indoor stuff we did during the winter like wargaming, subbuteo, Top Trumps (brand new at that time), chess and battleships when it was too wet or cold to go outside and the simple stuff like running and cycle races (what would now be called BMX) and it is a huge list.
    I’ve briefly stopped at 50 different games, to type this comment.

    So the question must be – if all of the online/handheld games of today were regarded as just one play activity, how many other separate regularly played games could today’s typical 12 year old child list?

    And if you do get a fair few on your list, how many of those were specific to the one site (i.e. were invented by you and your friends because they could only be played at the school, home or park because they required a specific physical environment)?

    Have fun making your own list!

    • Great list Neil. Did you used to go to Aylesbury Grammar School? If so, I know the very wall you are talking about (and spent many an hour honing my tennis-ball throwing skills playing spot against it). That would be some coincidence (though I know you are a Bucks resident, so perhaps not quite so much).

      • Sorry Tim, not a Bucks schoolboy, I’m afraid. I’ve seen the Aylesbury GS wall and it’s a bit smaller than the one we played against at Weymouth Grammar School.

        The end wall of the WGS building was of a pebbledash effect divided into four equal slabs in a square like a checkerboard, maybe 5m x 5m each? The upper two scored higher than the lower two. It was surrounded by grass that stretched out across an area that had at least eight football pitches and plenty of slack space shared by two large (secondary) schools. So no matter how hard the rebound, we couldn’t go out of bounds (the trick was to achieve such a tight angle with your throw and rebound that the next person to throw couldn’t hit the wall from side on and so far away).

        Perhaps also of interest to readers considering the current debate about loss of playing fields is that the school lands are all gone now, lost to housing.
        And to make matters even worse;
        I used to live about a mile away from school (and another half mile to the nearest beach) and I’ve spoken before about how the back of our typically large council house garden opened onto an old abandoned WW2 airfield hillside of unmaintained grasslands. At one end of the wilderness was the remains of the airbase oval access road (naturally this became our bike racing track) and the old HQ building foundations (the dens), which was where we played day after day, year after year in our own little world too far from adults to be influenced by them at all.
        As you may have guessed, that’s gone too, under an industrial estate and more houses, so in all maybe 30 hectares of wonderful grasslands have been lost to development over the last two decades. There’s nothing left now for today’s children in that part of town to play on, not even a token set of swings to apologise for all the tarmac and buildings.

        The locals are now locked in a desperate fight to save the final remaining large green hillside area of fields in the heart of the town. Sadly, I think eventually they’ll lose. And then there will be nowhere for half the town’s children to run around in, play, smell the summer grass and count clouds. Multiply that by all the towns in Britain and make Joni Mitchell a saint for her Big Yellow Taxi vision that came true.

  12. Cathy Hope, 5 Allawah Avenue, Frankston, Victoria, Australia 3199

    Hello Tim,
    Three weeks ago I was at St Michael’s Grammar Melbourne, Australia where I helped encourage and engage children in string games, hopscotch, marbles, jacks, skipping, clapping games and elastics. In a few weeks I’ll be doing the same at Scotch College here in Melbourne.
    You had a cuppa along with my daughter Narelle Debenham (Natured Kids) at my beachside home in Frankston, when you visited Australia last year.
    I’ve been involved with children and their games over a 40 year period here in Australia. I was Education Officer at Melbourne’s Childrens Museum when there was an exhibition about childrens games called “You’re It!”
    I lived and taught in Changsha, China during 2000. Everywhere I went in China boys and girls were playing hopscotch, elastics, string games and jacks, much to my joy.
    Please have a read of my article “Global games….Make a Difference” pages 3 -8 Play and Folklore Sept 2004 issue 45 Museum of Victoria (on the web)
    My published books include:
    “Themes From The Playground ” Thomas Nelson Australia 1984
    7 Books for children Hopscotch, String Games, Marbles, Skipping, Clapping Games ,Jacks and Elastics published by Pearson Education 2003 -2004
    “Yo-yos” Nelson Thomson Learning 2001

    We, as well as children, are custodians of our childhood games that meant so much to us. In all cultures there is a responsibility to encourage these games that have been part of play culture for thousands of years.

    You are an inspiration Tim. Thanks for all you are doing for the children of our world.
    Cathy Hope.

    • Thanks for this Cathy. I have fond memories of when Narelle took me to your house to meet you. You have such an impressive body of work! I relly appreciate your generous comments on my work. The paper of yours that you mentioned has lots of insights into traditional games.
      Anyone interested in looking at Cathy’s paper should use this link [pdf].

  13. “nothing extinguishes children’s self-organised play more effectively than those who aim to promote it”?…. I would argue that trying to understand it through “research” from anything other than a immersive self referential angle is the most likely way to fail to understand it’s true value. English literature studies destroying your love of fiction anyone? But in this case the sense of imaginative and “free narratives” that Tim describes are even more important and integral to what play is.

    Ask yourself, when did you, as an adult, last go out and play, with or without children. When did you last negiotiate the rules, run so fast you can’t, or balance along a kerb edge until you nearly fell over.

    My husband age 33 is both an avid computer gamer and also an avid live action roleplayer- a physical outdoor game, based originally on dungeons and dragons. We love this game- the chance to run around in the fresh air, balance and hide in a holly bush from our “enemies”, physical contact fighting with specially made safe weapons, negiotiating rules of whether “you’re dead” and hours spent creating beautiful and imaginative costumes.
    In my work time, I’m an outdoor educator and forest school leader.

    I can’t get through the day without play, especially the made up on the spot kind where nobody judges me. I wouldn’t expect a child to. The value of play, traditional or impulsive, with or without rules, is infinitely more valuable to ME, than it is than when someone tries to measure the value of it.

    Helen Robinson,
    Forest School Leader and trainee teacher
    Hampshire

    • Lovely sentiments Helen – thanks for leaving them. I sometimes feel I need to make a little more time in my life for pure play, I suspect like others who are reading this (or perhaps not?) Have you read the work of Pat Kane, who writes a lot on ‘adult play’? As I once said to Pat, I do think it’s different for children – though that’s a conversation for another time.

  14. Mine do a bit but not as much as I did. They have always loved hide and seek and dress ups though. I have a fond memory of my daughter’s 12th birthday which was her first at high school. It was supposed to be a pool party but ended up being rained out so we had it indoors at home instead. Somehow the girls (all 12 and 13) got into the dress-ups and my clothes and ended up having a whale of a time doing fashion parades in outlandish outfits. It was quite heartening to see.

  15. Any comments about the perception of when children are old enough to go out and play on their own?
    I remember going out to play in and around where I lived from 4 years old. I remember playing cowboys and indians, armies at war and lots of other exciting games. Sometimes there were accidents but they didnt stop play.
    Is it ok for 5 year olds to play outside their homes with other children? Would you (or people you know) think it was ‘neglect’ that a child under, say, 10 years old was outside playing a lot?

  16. An interesting point Jackie.
    If anyone is looking for an idea for their university research project how about trying to see if there’s any way of predicting roughly when children are going to be released from home, to play freely around their neighbourhood? Can someone come up with a formula for the housing environments of the western world that accounts for factors such as access to green or at least traffic free space in rural and urban locations, proximity to passing traffic, child age, parental risk aversion, safe routes, Play Quality of the space, etc?

    I’ve just been picking my parents memories to establish what age I was when they first let me out to play without any restrictions. It seems that because we lived (1963-68) in a dreadful post war pre-fab along a major road, I was pretty much confined to the back garden until we moved in 1968 to our brand new large council house that didn’t have a rear garden fence to restrict my movements, which I spoke about in yesterday’s comments….
    I’ve always felt that `Benevolent neglect’ is exactly the right term to describe my childhood.
    Once I had tasted true freedom, I was hardly ever seen by my parents except at mealtimes. A practice I maintain (with them) to this day:-)

  17. Interesting stuff from you Tim (as ever) and from your contributors. I wonder whether adult involvement in “street games” actually signals their demise, or is a sign of their revival? I’m thinking (slightly off track here) of other folkloric activities such as may dancing, which by and large wouldn’t happen if schools didn’t drag out their maypoles, and yet cats’ cradles and clapping games seem to me to survive. Do you have any thoughts as to why some things live and others wither?

  18. It’s amazing the way new life is being breathed into outdoor games. Badminton is still a blast but now there’s speedminton. You can play cornhole with light up boards. The equipment is better and the fun is classic. It’s still the best way to bring people together ==more important than ever in this techno age. Really enjoy your writing –we’re on the same page! Thank you!

  19. Empress Nasigoreng, Jackie, Neil, Nick, Bellacim – belated thanks for these comments (I’m just back from holiday, and catching up).
    Jackie – my short answer to parents who ask questions like yours is “you know your child best, so you decide.” I say more in this blog post. As I say in the post, I think there are far too many so-called ‘experts’ telling parents how to do their job, and I do not intend to join that group.
    Nick – good question, and I don’t know the answer. I am heartened by what appears to be a worldwide growth in interest in street play (which I commented on in this post. I am tempted to say that the way that some ‘memes’ (be they from folklore, play culture, digital culture or whatever) thrive while others wither away is one of the mysteries of human behaviour, and that it would be a sad day if this were ever fully explained.

  20. Pingback: Why Hopscotch Matters « The Sensory Spectrum

  21. Wonderful post and well said! I grew up in the streets of NY and Lebanon playing Man Hunt, Tag, red light, green light, and hopscotch. Sadly, where I live You don’t see many children outside playing at all. Actually you don’t see any. But I make it a point to keep my kids outdoors as much as possible and even have my 4 year old in a Waldorf school to ensure that she is in touch with nature at school and at home. When I was young, all the children from the block were out in the street playing from dusk till dawn, it’s easy to play a game of tag and hopscotch when you have 20 other children to choose from. Unfortunately now, parents are scared to let there kids play in the street, therefore how can these kinds of games be formed. Hopefully we can bring back the traditional with a little faith on the parents part.

  22. Thanks for the comment and feedback Christina. I’d just add that I don’t think it’s right to put all the blame on parents, as I argue in this blog post. On a lighter note – perhaps you could take up Lenore “free range kids” Skenazy’s suggestion and get together with other parents to organise a local ‘take your kids to the park and leave them there day’?

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  25. Traditional games are much better than the modern games. I think every parent should engage their kids in traditional games.

  26. Pingback: Is technology killing children’s play culture, or breathing new life into it? | Rethinking Childhood

  27. Traditional Outdoor Games – are they still played? how have they evolved?
    Great blog from Tim Gill.Traditional games are much better than the modern games.

  28. Wonderful post .. Sir I need your help .. I select this topic for my Thesis that kids are not play in ground they are always play video games and mobile games .. In today’s life how can we encourage them to play these traditional games ? please give me some suggestion ..

    • Hi Sania and apologies for the slow reply. I do not know where you are based, but you may find that there are people, organisations and resources that promote traditional and outdoor games. Here in the UK, playworkers have a role in facilitating play. This online playwork bookshop has some books that may be of interest: http://www.playbooks.org.uk/. One approach is called ‘loose parts play’ where children are given scrap materials to play freely with. Google can help you find out more about playwork and loose parts play.

  29. Traditional games are simple and fun too, but as the time pass modern games like Bubble Football, last man/woman standing, sumo, rolling races are also new attraction to people, especially weekend on summer light

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