This was a game I used to play when I was growing up. It required only a lightweight, good sized rubber ball, a wall, and solitude. You bounced the ball against the wall and caught it again, and each time you threw it, you recited something or performed some quick trick before catching it. The tricks got more involved as you played -- there were seven things to do -- and if you missed doing the trick or catching the ball, you started over. It was an easy game to play if you stood far from the wall, allowing yourself plenty of time to do the trick; the challenge was to stand close enough to the wall to make the ball come flying back to you at a good speed.
Everything rhymed. It went like this:
-- and then you repeated something like "se-BECK--ee--oh" and spun your hands around each other in the air in front of your chest --
"Touch my knee
"Touch my toe
"Touch the ground
"Under we go (you stood on one leg and threw the ball from under the other, bent knee)"
I'd love to know what I was saying with "seBECKeeoh," and who Mrs. S. was, and where the game originated. In the mid-twentieth century a scholarly English couple named Iona and Peter Opie made a career out of researching and chronicling traditional childhood games and pastimes. Look for their books The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, Children's Games in Street and Playground, and their first effort, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. I met them, so to speak, in two articles from the old hard back magazine Horizon (Winter 1971): Robert Cowley's "Their work is child's play" discussed the couple's research, and their own "Games (Young) People Play" analyzed the 250 individual children engaged in "some 75 pursuits" in Bruegel's painting Children's Games.
The Opies had interesting things to say about the modern child and his games. They had no patience, for one thing, with the idea that the Modern Child is swamped by electronic amusements and no longer runs and plays as children once did. (To be fair, the Opies lived and wrote before the real tidal wave of late-20th century electronic amusements washed over everybody -- or did they? What could have been a more fundamental intrusion into free time, for either adults or children, than the movies?) "It is an enormous myth that children are no longer aware of traditional amusements and are unable to entertain themselves when they are left to their own devices," they wrote in Horizon. The modern child's trouble, they believed, has come when adults muscle in on playtime, scheduling it, refereeing it, and confining it physically to asphalt playgrounds inside fences. Adult interest in certain games is precisely what atrophies them, the Opies suspected. As Cowley quoted them:
But many old favorites, such as King of the Castle, Sardines, and Leapfrog, are diminishing in popularity. "We feel it is no coincidence," the Opies write, "that the games whose decline is most pronounced are those which are best known to adults, and therefore most often promoted by them ..." Games live only as long as they have a reason to live and the Opies see nothing intrinsically sad in the gradual disappearance of any particular one. Old games die out so new ones can flourish in their place: we threaten games most when we try to preserve them.
King of the Castle was probably our own King of the Hill, which I hated -- it involved nothing more than one person pushing everyone else down. I liked Mother May I (so much more interesting than Simon Says), and of course I loved Bloody Murder, but that was so difficult to arrange. (It was basically just "It" at night.) By the time it got dark enough to really play that, people just seemed to wander home without telling anyone. Speaking of spoiled games, there's an idiotic game children play now called Slug Bug, in which the poor soul who is "It" has to close his eyes and attempt to find the other players by the sound of their footfall on the gravel or wood chips beneath a park's jungle gyms. The entire ritual is just an excuse to tease. Whenever It calls out "Slug bug," the person who has been fairly caught simply shouts "On," to claim he was actually safely on the jungle gym, and it doesn't take long before It is wandering around, eyes squeezed shut, the only one still playing while everybody else goes and has fun elsewhere. ("When children are cooped up in playgrounds, their games become more aggressive than when they play in open spaces.") Perhaps an adult invented this one -- I'm guessing a Child Development major. Then of course, there's Marco Polo, a swimming game still more ridiculous and dreary than Slug Bug. Everybody hops around in a swimming pool shouting "Marco" and "Polo" utterly at random. Nobody could have invented that, for the sake of pleasure, except some fool child.
And who was, or who invented, Mrs. S? I don't see any sixteenth century children bouncing a ball against a wall in Bruegel's painting. "Of course not," the Opies notice, too. "No bouncing of rubber balls." Of course -- no rubber.
And what of the Opies? Is their home in Liss, England, still extant, is it still the research engine/private museum it once was, does it still hold the largest collection of children's books in England? I've chosen not to look them up beyond the winter 1971 issue of Horizon; just for the moment I'd rather not find out what we tend to find out when we go digging on people -- that their work is now discredited or they were terrible parents. I'll take Peter Opie's advice to heart instead. "I've always felt," he says on page 15, "that if you really want to understand a thing, you have to own it. If you want to appreciate an eighteenth-century author, you should really read him in an eighteenth century edition and not a modern reprint ...."
All right. I own the '71 Horizon. And there, in an issue devoted to the problems of youth, Mr. and Mrs. Opie run and jump, and are the last word on fun and games.