Reintroducing Traditional Childhood Games
The value of skinned knees and other life lessons
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.
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
- Freeze Tag
- Capture the Flag
- Red Light, Green Light
- Mother May I?
- Simon Says
- Kick the Can
- Marco Polo
- Red Rover
- Blind Man’s Bluff
- Heads Up, Seven Up
- Musical Chairs
- Hand-Clap Games
- Double Dutch Jump Rope
Need help remembering the rules? Check out “30 Classic Outdoor Games for Kids.”
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.