Reintroducing Traditional Childhood Games

The value of skinned knees and other life lessons


Published:

Photo courtesy of Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

There’s a shallow spot in the Eno River with a small rapid, a sandbar and a wide stretch of water that never gets over 3 feet deep. As the weather gets warmer, I often walk there with my dog and remember never-ending summer days I spent with my sons teaching them to swim, building dams in the rapids and racing stick boats through the channels of the rocks. Most of all, this will always be known as the place of the Monster House.

Across the river is an old cabin maintained by the North Carolina State Parks service. The doors and windows are gone, but it is otherwise well-maintained. A monster lives there. If you are touching the wall on the front porch you are safe — but if you venture into the house, or off the porch, the monster can catch you. If he catches you, you become the monster.

We played this simple game with tireless delight. To this day, just the mention of the Monster House brings smiles to our faces, and I occasionally take a picture of the house and send it to my boys, who now live far away. This, of course, is one variation of the traditional game of “tag” that fills many a childhood. All over the world children play the same games — slight variations to the rules, and maybe a different focal point — but otherwise identical.


Teaching Traditions

For the past 15 years I have had the pleasure of teaching workshops on traditional games to children and parents both here and in Asia. It seems strange somehow that games once passed from child to child for hundreds of years need to be taught. Yet, this is the case as TV, computers, smartphones and T-ball leagues have pushed these gems to the brink of extinction. Still, the games persist. “Peekaboo” will never perish. The phrase, “I’m going to catch you!” will always bring joy and laughter to a 3-year-old.

A few years ago I was in Shanghai when I noticed two 3-year-old children chasing each other around a field. They were laughing so hard they almost fell over, and when one did catch the other, they tumbled on top of each other like little puppies. A few months later I was in a park in upstate New York and saw the same thing: Three young girls chasing each other back and forth between two trees that served as bases. When I saw this, I wished I could still experience the uninhibited joy I saw in them.

Luckily, I still get to play these games with children, and I get to watch adults experience the joy of traditional games as I teach them. During these workshops, adults become like children again. I’ve seen Chinese military officers skipping around a circle holding hands and singing, “Go In and Out the Windows,” howling with laughter. I’ve watched “too cool” teens giggle with delight trying to figure out who is hiding the “Key to the Castle” in their hands. Kids who don’t think of themselves as athletic sprint away from a wolf, or spin and twist to avoid the dreaded sea serpent.


Metaphors of Life

These games resonate deeply in us and I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like a good game. But why? “It’s just a game,” we say to console a child who may have been on the losing end. But it wasn’t “just a game” for me when I was that age. It was life.

Maybe that’s why these games have always been played — they are pictures, metaphors of life in forms children can understand. Dogs play to learn how to be dogs; lions play to learn how to be lions. Maybe, just maybe, traditional games teach children the skills they need to become successful humans.

Having played these games for many years I can guarantee two things will eventually happen: injuries and arguments. Injuries teach us to be careful and aware of our surroundings. They teach us self-control. They teach us to be respectful of others. Injuries allow us to experience healing; to understand that what hurts now won’t hurt forever. Skinned elbows heal. So do broken hearts. Arguments teach us social skills, emotional control and conflict resolution. The arguments almost always concern agreed-upon rules, which someone is deemed to have violated. They are about not respecting boundaries, either of another player’s personal space or of the game.

Now, reflect on many of the issues we face today. We deal with people who are too easily offended or overreactive, who aren’t respectful of other people and social boundaries, and who are overwhelmed by small setbacks. We all will experience heartbreak and disappointment. Have we learned the process of healing and recovering? Have we endured the experiences in childhood that teach us to learn from our mistakes? These lessons, I believe, are the greatest gifts of these traditional games.


Connecting With Humanity

There is one more thing: connection. Every traditional game is about connection. That is what “tag” is — a connection. More than the joy of playing “Monster” with my sons, it created a deep bond we will share forever. What young children want and need most of all is connection with the people who love them. This is the foundation of who they are, and sets the base from which they will venture out into the world. That’s where my boys are now, and I am proud they are finding their way. I miss them dearly. We will rarely have time to play “Monster” anymore so I’m really glad I took the time to play it when they were small.

I remember, also, when they were young that the struggles of parenting seemed endless. There were times my wife and I were frazzled by the demands of guiding our sons through various challenges. I know now that it’s not endless. By age 14 or so they want to be with their friends. By 18 they are off to college — and then they are off into the world.

So play a game when you can. All it takes is a little space, a base, a few rules and some characters to make it exciting — wolves, foxes, pirates and, of course, monsters.


20 Traditional Games to Play With Kids

  1. Tag
  2. Freeze Tag
  3. Hide-and-Seek
  4. Capture the Flag
  5. Red Light, Green Light
  6. Mother May I?
  7. Simon Says
  8. Kick the Can
  9. Hopscotch
  10. Marco Polo
  11. Red Rover
  12. Blind Man’s Bluff
  13. Heads Up, Seven Up
  14. Musical Chairs
  15. Telephone
  16. Parachute
  17. Hand-Clap Games
  18. Double Dutch Jump Rope
  19. Jacks
  20. Marbles

Need help remembering the rules? Check out “30 Classic Outdoor Games for Kids.”

Source: wired.com


Whitney MacDonald lives in Hillsborough with his wife, Amy, and works nationally and internationally as an educational consultant. He runs workshops on topics ranging from traditional games to parenting, rites of passage for teens and conflict resolution. Learn more at creatingmen.com.

 

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June 2018

Run Club meets every Sunday at 8 a.m. in Midtown Raleigh or Wake Forest. Stroller friendly; children invited. 

Cost: $10/run or $100/annual pass

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Optimist Park Community Center/Greenways
5900 Whittier Drive
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Dads play free mini golf with each paying player at regular price.

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Adventure Landing
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Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

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Erwin Road
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5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
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Take Dad to enjoy food trucks, live music and more at Durham Central Park's food truck rodeo. All ages.

Cost: Free. Food available for purchase.

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Durham Central Park
501 Foster St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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It`s 1863 at Yates Mill, and the yard is alive with activity! Step back in time with our 19th-century costumed interpreters and watch the millstones at work grinding corn into meal.  Tour fee:...

Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), Age 6 & under free

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Barnes & Noble
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Cost: $1.00 per person

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Cost: $20 per session

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Art Therapy Institute of NC
200 N Greensboro St. Suite D-6 (2nd Floor Carr Mill Mall)
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Cost: Free

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8710 Six Forks Road
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Compass Center for Women and Families
210 Henderson Street
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Cost: Free

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Barnes & Noble
760 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
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Cost: $2/person

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Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson St.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-2760
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood
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5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
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Cost: Free

Where:
Raleigh National Cemetery
501 Rock Quarry Rd.
Raleigh, NC
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Telephone: 1-530-515-3825

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Cost: Free

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Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Parkway
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
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Cost: $10

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3803B Computer Drive, Suite 106B
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4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Cost: Free

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Chatham Marketplace
480 Hillsboro St.
Pittsboro, NC  27312
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Telephone: 919-542-2643
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Cost: Free

Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson St.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-2760
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood
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Cost: Free

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1201 Agriculture St.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Cost: Free

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Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
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Cost: Free

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Cost: Free

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Marbles Kids Museum
201 E. Hargett St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Cost: $5/person. Free for ages 2 and younger

Where:
The Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Cost: $10/resident, $13/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Pump It Up Raleigh
10700 World Trade Blvd, #112
Raleigh, NC  27617
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Telephone: 919-828-3344
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5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
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Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
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Cost: Free

Where:
Open Table United Methodist Church
824 N. Bloodworth Street
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Open Table UMC
Telephone: 919-561-2637
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Cost: $15/person

Where:
The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main Street
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Sponsor: The ArtsCenter
Telephone: 191-992-92787
Contact Name: Patrick Phelps-Mckeown
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Cost: See website for fees

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Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
2116-D New Bern Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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The summer heat is back, and so are the insects! Join us in the Finley Center exhibit hall to do some fun insect-themed crafts. We will make butterflies, dragonflies, ladybugs, and other insect...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Get the real scoop on turtles, how they “earn a living," and hear a story. Ages 5 and older. Register online.

Cost: $1/person

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Telephone: 919-870-4330
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Cost: $45/family for City of Raleigh residents; $60 for non-residents

Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson St.
Raleigh, NC  27610
View map »


Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-2761
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood
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Go nutty for nature as children satisfy some of their curiosity about the world around them and parents share in the joy of discovery. Ages 3-5 with parent. Register online.

Cost: $10/resident, $13/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
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After a shaded walk out to the creek entrance, take nets into the water to see some of these creek critters up close. Discuss some of the reasons it’s so important to keep these aquatic...

Cost: Free

Where:
Johnston Mill Nature Preserve
6001 Turkey Farm Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: Triangle Land Conservancy
Telephone: 191-990-80054
Contact Name: Molly Richard
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Enjoy Little Golden Books' "Jurassic Park." This action-packed and age-appropriate title is great for dinosaur lovers, both new and old. Activities to follow. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
760 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
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Read stories together and enjoy an arts and crafts activity based on the books.

Cost: $5

Where:
Read With Me
111 E. Hargett St., #110
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Cost: Free

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Dorothea Dix Park
2105 Umstead Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), Age 6 & under free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Cost: $17.25

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Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian Drive
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: American Dance Festival
Telephone: 919-684-6402
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Cost: $17.25/person

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian Dr.
Durham, NC  27701
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Cost: $15/person. Free for ages 12 and younger

Where:
Vollmer Farm
677 NC Hwy 98 East
Bunn, NC  27508
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Telephone: 919-496-3076
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Cost: Adults (18+) $10; Youth (7-17) $4; Children (6 & under) Free.

Where:
City of Raleigh Museum
220 Fayetteville St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Cost: $10.00 per boat

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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