Volume IV, No. 4, Summer 1977
Story and drawings by Gala Morrow
Photography by Doug Sharp
In the Ozarks the expression "easy as child's play" is often used when referring to a simple job or everyday task. But "child's play" sometimes requires more genius and ability than even a difficult chore. People tend to think of games as only being fun and amusing because they are played by children. However these pastimes deserve much more recognition. Checkers, marbles and mumblety peg develop the child's ability to think as well as his physical dexterity. Outdoor games such as baseball, tag and jump rope coordinate muscular activity to help the children grow strong and healthy. They learn to work together as teams and cooperate with others. Yet considering all the assets of games, children seldom realize they are learning. They understand only the fun and competitiveness involved. If shinney, dominoes and hopscotch weren't enjoyable, children wouldn't play them. If winning wasn't important in blackman and baseball, there wouldn't be a child interested in them. So even with the advantages, the unknowing children play the games simply for the fun of it.
Most games played two or three generations ago were played with homemade equipment or whatever could be found. The checkers that children played with might have been buttons and the board was often homemade. Sometimes they cut up old calendars and used the numbers to play cards with. Children could even make their own ball if they had none. A small rubber ball or a ball of string could be used to start making the larger ball. The child or his mother would sew a piece of cloth around it, then begin wrapping it with twine or yarn. Stitching through the twine in places, they would continue wrapping until the ball was the desired size. To finish the ball a cloth covering was sewn tightly to the twine, making sure it wasn't heavier on one side. The covering was usually old demin from overalls. The ball was then ready for the game. Making the equipment that was needed became an important part of the activity.
Sixty to seventy years ago, children usually came from large families of between eight and ten members. The times were rare when a child was left to himself, but even then there were simple amusements for him. Playing with everyday items such as a hammer and nail or spool toys provided enjoyment. Children would hammer large nails into the ground or between loose boards of the floor and pull them out again. It was an artless game but could involve a child for hours.
When the weather was bad or children had to remain at home, they often played card games. Old Maid, Flinch and Authors became rainy day favorites. Farm children were usually kept busy with chores and there were still jobs that had to be done in the evenings. To make their tasks more pleasant, they developed games while hulling peas, husking corn and breaking beans. Races and guessing games made the work seem to get done faster.
Neighbors when coming to visit always brought their children. Then they could play outdoor games requiring a large group. They often played a game called Blackman. The bases were two fixed lines ten to fifteen steps apart. The two teams would consist of ten or twelve players, boys and girls, with each team behind a base. A neutral player would signal the start for the play to begin. The object of the game was to see how many team members could cross the indicated area and get to the other base without being caught. While running, the players would try to catch as many opponents as possible. To catch a runner from the opposite team the player had to pat him on the back three times. If a player was tagged out, he sat on the sidelines while the game continued. When players reached the opposite base, they Were safe, but once in the playing area, they were available to be tagged or to catch someone of the other team. Players continued running back and forth between bases until all the members on one team were caught. The team with players still on the field won.
Drop the handkerchief was a game that any number of boys and girls could play. It required only a handkerchief and fast runners. The players would join hands tO form a circle facing the center, while a child that was "it" walked around the outside of the circle. "It" would walk around the players until he decided which one he would drop the handkerchief behind. Then he would quickly drop it and start running around the circle. The player picked up the handkerchief and, running the same direction, tried to catch "it" before he completed the circle to take the vacant place of the player. If "it" was caught, he must remain "it", but if he reached the other player's position without being caught, that player became "it."
To make the game more exciting one player would be put "in jail"--made to stand inside the circle. The purpose of the child "in jail" was to grab the handkerchief from behind the player before he realized it was there. If the jailed player was successful in grabbing the handkerchief, he chased "it" around the circle. If he failed to catch him, he became the new "it" and the player that missed the handkerchief would go to jail.
Ring around the rosie was a favorite among the smaller children. A group of youngsters would form a circle while holding hands. As the circle began to turn, they would sing,
Ring around the rosie,
A pocket full of posie.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
(A variation on the last line was, "Last one down is a rotten egg.")
On the word "down" they would all drop into a sitting position. The last child to fall would have to stand in the center while the others circled and sang again. The last one down the second time would replace the child in the center. Sometimes it was played as an elimination game--the last one to fall each time would drop out. The game would continue until only the winner was left.
Hide and seek has changed little over the years, and children still enjoy it today. Finding a friend in their hide away or chasing them back to base remain the most exciting events of the game.
It was played with any number of children, one of whom was "it." "It" would stand on base (which was usually a tree) and hide his eyes while he counted to one hundred. The other players quickly hid in the area. After counting, "it" would try to find the hidden players and tag them. If a player ran back to the base before "it" could tag him, he was home free.
Smaller children played the game an easier way in which "it" only had to see the hidden player. "It" would say to that player, "Seek my base,'' and the player would have to go to the base. The game ended when "it" successfully found the last child. Players could sneak "home" without being seen and become free, so "it" usually stayed within sight of the base. When "it" failed to find a well-hidden player or the game had to be ended, he would yell, "Ally, ally, out's in free." The children came to the base and were home free. The first player found became the new "it" when the game started over.
Jump rope is another game which has changed little, though sometimes years ago children had to use a grape vine when they had no rope. The vines were flexible and grew to lengths of ten to fifteen feet and usually served as well as a rope.
Children still sing rhymes while jumping rope. The jingles may have changed some, but they are just as much fun as the former ones. The following songs are a mixture of current rhymes and those remembered from long ago.
Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, touch the ground. (jumper touches ground with hand)
Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, turn around. (turns a complete circle)
Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, read the news. (raises hands as if reading a paper)
Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, shine your shoes (jumps with one knee brought up and a hand on the foot)
Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, go upstairs. (double jumps as if climbing stairs)
Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, say your prayers. (folds hands in prayer)
Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear turn off the light. (reaches up to turn off a light)
Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear now good night, song. (says good night and runs out)
Polly ate a pickle
Polly ate a pie.
Polly ate some ice cream
And thought she would die.
Oops came the pickle.
Oops came the pie.
Oops came the ice cream.
Polly didn't die.
I Like Coffee
I like coffee, I like tea,
I like (friend's name) to jump with me. (the friend runs in and jumps with the child)
I hate coffee, I hate tea,
I hate (friend's name) to jump with me. (both children run out)
This is a rhyme that was sung many years ago.
Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,
Doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief.
Tinker, tailor, cowboy, sailor.
The song was sung over and over until the jumper missed. The one she missed on would be the occupation of the man she would marry.
Many songs would have a rhyme at the beginning, and then the children would count until the jumper missed. The number that was missed on was significant to the song.
All Last Night
All last night and the night before,
A lemon and a pickle came a-knocking at my door.
I went down to let them in,
This is what they said to me,
"Lady, Lady turn around, (jumper obeys the instructions while jumping)
Lady, Lady touch the ground
Lady, Lady, show your shoe,
Lady, Lady, how old are you?"
(the rope is turned faster and the player jumps until she misses. That number is her age)
This is a variation of the above rhyme.
Not last night but the night before,
Twenty-four soldiers came knocking at my door,
I went downstairs to let them in,
One hit me on the head with a rolling pin.
I went upstairs to get my gun,
Had them soldiers on the run.
One, two, three... (the number of soldiers)
Johnny Jumped the Ocean
Johnny jumped the ocean,
Johnny jumped the sea.
Johnny broke a pop bottle
Blamed it on me.
I told Ma, Ma told Pa.
Johnny got a spanking,
So, Ha, Ha, Ha!
How many spankings did he get?
One, two, three... (the number of spankings he got)
Cinderella dressed in yellow,
Went upstairs to kiss her fellow.
Made a mistake and kissed a snake,
How many doctors did it take?
One, two, three...
Down in the Valley
Down in the valley where the green grass grows,
Sat little (girl jumper's name) as sweet as a rose.
Along came (boyfriend's name) and kissed her on the cheek.
How many kisses did she get that week?
One, two, three...
Blue bells, cockel shells
Evy Ivy, over.
(During the first part of the song the rope is swung back and forth, not in complete circles, but "cradles" or "rocking chair" turns. Then on the word "over" they begin to turn complete circles. Sometimes at this point children turned the rope extra fast (hot peppers or skinning).
The first child jumps normally and spells "help" until she misses. Then the next jumper has to jump the type of turn that the letter missed on indicates.
H - High waters (rope is turned higher than normal, about mid-calf to the jumper)
E - Eyes closed (jumps with eyes closed)
L - Leaps (jumping then touch the ground with the hand)
Low waters (rope is turned in smaller circles and jumpers must bend over)
Little people (squatting while jumping).
(L often had different meanings)
P - Peppers (rope is turned very fast)
The children form a line and each takes turn jumping. The first time each runs through without being hit by the rope. The second turn each jumps once, the third turn twice, etc. If a jumper misses before finishing the required number, she repeats that turn the next time around. The more skilled jumpers would count it a miss if they missed a single revolution of the rope.
Build the Castle
The players line up and jump over the rope. Instead of turning the rope, they raise it slightly higher each time until only one player can jump over. That child is the winner.
Jump rope was basically an easy game, but could become complicated in some games by "running in." Smaller children usually stood in the middle of the rope before it started turning and began jumping from a standing position. "Running in" while the rope was turning required the more skilled jumpers. In jumping "front doors" the jumper "ran in" while the rope turned counter clockwise and for "back doors" it was turned clockwise requiring even more skill. The children were often hit by the rope when learning to "run in" and it didn't take long to discover the right way.
Another game that only the best jumpers played was Double Dutches. Even the rope turners had to be skilled because there were two ropes turned at the same time. One rope was turned clockwise while the other was turned counter clockwise so when one rope was on the ground, the other was directly overhead. This required players to jump twice as fast. "Running in" was a special skill and was accomplished only after much practice. It was an exciting game and learning to play was sometimes the most fun.
Hopscotch is still a favorite among the girls, but boys also play. It is a game that requires balance and agility. The playing area is drawn with a stick in soft dirt or with chalk on the sidewalk. Squares are drawn as shown in diagram 1. The rounded area at the end of some patterns is called "pie." In some variations the first player to reach "pie" wins.
Each player has a flat rock, wood chip or other small, heavy object to throw into a square. Standing behind the first line, each player in turn tosses her marker into the desired square. Usually players start with square one and progress UP the squares to the end. (Sometimes the game continues and they come back through the pattern to the first square to win.) To begin the play the child must successfully throw the marker into the first square without touching any lines. Then she begins hopping on one foot only where there was one square and two feet where there were two squares side by side. She does not hop into the square where the marker is, but hops over it. Hopping to the end of the pattern, she then turns around and hops back. On the return, instead of hopping over her marker, she picks it up without putting the other foot or her hand on the ground. If she picks up the marker, she may hop in that square and continue to the end. Next she throws the marker into the second square and so on. The player continues until she misses the next numbered square or looses her balance in hopping. The marker is left in the square she missed on. If she misses in throwing the marker, she puts the marker in the square she was aiming for and the next child takes her turn.
An additional difficulty in the game is that players may not step or hop into squares where other players' markers are. This sometimes necessitates some long jumps. For that reason it is better to limit the number playing to three or four. In the variations that use a "pie," the player must put both feet down and rest there before returning.
Another game was played years ago by rolling hoops. Children rolled the metal ring from a large wooden barrel along the ground pushing it with a barrel slat with a small crosspiece nailed at the end. Children used hoops of all kinds, some small and others larger with all kinds of guiding devices including the bare hand. The object of the game was to see how far and how fast they could roll the hoop before it fell over. If the child was careful to avoid rocks, cracks in the sidewalk and holes, he might keep the ring rolling several minutes. A child could play by himself or with any number of playmates.
Games could become dangerous sometimes, causing children to get hurt. One of these was shinny a game similar to hockey. The equipment was an old tin can and long sticks for each player. The playing area was about seventy-five feet long with a goal across both ends. It was usually marked off by lines drawn with a stick. Two teams were chosen and each would defend a goal. To start the game, a player from each team stood in the middle and at a signaled start, tried to hit the can toward the opposite goal. The object was to make goals by hitting the can past the opponent's goal line. The can was returned to the center after each goal. The team scoring the most goals was the winner. Children were often hit by misdirected sticks or the hard hit tin can. Girls played with the boys and usually emerged from the game with more bruises than when they entered.
The girls usually played the same games along with the boys, but there were times when they appreciated being left alone with less active play. On those occasions the little girls would amuse themselves in a playhouse, which was rarely an actual house. The rooms were usually marked off by rocks or stick borders on the ground. The walls of the house were only one part of the child's great imagination, as were the furnishings and sometimes even the members of the play family. Boys weren't excluded from these little castles of the mind, the girls often needed them as daddys or brothers for the times when family members were not imaginary. Mud was the staple ingredient of foods made in the kitchen and rocks were the luxurious chairs in the living room. Even though these playhouses were mostly imaginary, they provided hours of enjoyment for a little girl.
A game popular among the older boys was mumblety peg. It was played by flipping an open pocket knife into the ground, and therefore it wasn't recommended for younger children. Since most boys carried these small, useful knives there were plenty available when they decided to play this game.
The smallest blade of the knife was completely open and the largest was opened half way. Each boy in turn would hold the knife in his palm and then quickly jerk his hand and flip the knife to make it stick in the ground. He scored points by the way the knife landed. The number was determined by how straight the knife stood. No points were awarded if it fell. Regardless of the number of points scored, the game was won when the player flipped the knife so that the small blade stuck straight into the ground. (diagram 2)
Boys also gathered together to test their aim with a game of marbles. The marbles weren't always glass, as sometimes boys used ball bearings especially as shooters--the marble the player would use to shoot the other marbles with. Most boys were very particular about their shooters and often kept the same one for great lengths of time. If during the game a player's shooter stayed inside the playing area and the player wanted it back, he could substitute another marble for his shooter.
There were several ways the game was played. One variation used a square and five marbles. The square was drawn in the dirt. One marble was placed in each corner of the square and one in the center. The size of the playing area determined the difficulty of the game, the larger the square, the harder the game. Most boys would put their shooting hand directly on the line so they would have a better chance to win. Sometimes the players would even use their feet to shoot with. Putting the marble at the edge of their heel or under the toe of their Shoe, they would press down thus forcing the marble to shoot from under their foot. This method produced more power and speed than hand shooting. It took much practice to master this skill, but when using it, the player usually got better scores.
Taking careful aim, each player in turn would shoot usually for the high scoring center marble that gave him five points. Each of the corner marbles was worth one point. Any marble that a player shot at had to roll completely out of the square. The player with the most points would be the winner.
Another variation was to simply scatter any number of marbles inside a circle. Players again used one marble as a shooter and tried to knock as many others from the circle as possible. A line was usually drawn for players to shoot from, or they could sometimes shoot from any location on the edge of the circle. The boy who could knock the largest number of marbles from the circle was the winner.
The boys often played for "keeps"--the player would keep the marbles that he won. At the beginning of the game each player placed the same amount of marbles in the center of the circle. Then the marbles that each boy got during the game were his to keep.
Almost any occasion called for a party. Teenagers and young adults usually were the guests along with a few older adults. Singing, dancing and some games were the main activities of the affair. This was also a good opportunity to meet a girlfriend or boyfriend and if the party included a candy breaking, the chance of becoming acquainted was even better. Different kinds or colors of stick candy were broken in smaller pieces. The broken candy was put into a pan and covered with a cloth so no one could see the kind of candy they were getting. A boy would choose a girl to draw candy with him. They reached in together and, if they both chose the same kind, he got to kiss her. In another variation, sometimes called a candy biting, the boy would choose his partner as before except only he would draw out a stick of candy. Then they each put one end of the stick in their mouths and tried to bite the piece in half. The boy usually picked the shortest piece he could find and sometimes the girl would almost get her lips bit.
A work activity turned into play was corn husking. Friends and neighbors often gathered together at parties to help one another with their work. They held races with the fastest husker getting a prize. But the most fun of a husking was to find a red ear of corn or one with a red cob. If a boy found that ear he was to choose a girl and they had to kiss in front of the others. If a girl found the red cob, the first boy that saw her was to kiss her.
Most of these games had many variations and sometimes the rules changed even while the game was being played. Some of these amusements that were played two or more generations ago are still being played by youngsters today. The people with whom we talked usually agreed that the games have changed little over the years. Children still play them for fun and competitiveness. And it's all "easy as child's play."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.