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10 NOVEMBER 1999
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children's play

The younger they are the harder they play

Keith Waterhouse

A wry look at the games that adults never see ...

According to Hoyle, most popular children's games simply do not exist. I suppose this is because their participants, being naturally indolent or illiterate or preferring to climb trees instead of attending committee meetings, have never bothered to write down the rules. It is also true, I believe, that children tend not to congregate in the upper rooms of village pubs, where traditionally the laws of cricket, Association Football, Rugby League, ice-hockey, poker and the remainder were drawn up on the backs of menus.

A pity, that, for how many games of conkers or hopscotch have been won by default through ignorance of the complex rules? How many children can recite the Declaration of Intent – a variation of the Hippocratic Oath – that was to have cleaned up the game of doctors and nurses? What boy is aware of the first law of marbles, which is that although every tournament shall be played for keeps, no tournament shall really be played for keeps always provided that the loser shall throw himself to the ground, drumming his heels and screaming, “'Tisn't fair!"

For want of a stub of pencil and half a page torn from an exercise book at the right moment, the rules of many children's games are lost in antiquity. This constitutional void has often led to unseemly behaviour on the field. A skipping marathon in London, for example, recently broke up in disorder because none of the contestants could agree as to the order of the condiments in the skipping rhyme “Salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper ..." An elimination standing-on-one-leg competition in Derbyshire was abandoned when one of the semi-finalists challenged the umpire's decision that holding onto the railings was not permitted. The Northern Long-distance Spitting League has been arguing for three generations as to whether the expectoration of liqorice juice shall constitute a foul.

These are happily isolated examples. It would be a sad day if children's games in general began to acquire the same ugly reputation as soccer or chess. In order to avoid the escalation of unpleasantness in what should be healthy, competitive sports, I have attempted to jot down a few notes on some of the children's games I remember best. Perhaps some minuscule Hoyle will continue the good work and produce the definitive treatise.

Not walking on the cracks of pavements
This is an essentially urban game, the object being to perambulate a measured stretch of sidewalk – usually to the nearest sweetshop and back – without stepping on the cracks. The origins of the sport are obscure but there is documentary evidence that it was played by Dr. Johnson, whose shambling gait was said to have been caused by over-meticulous play on a cobbled course. Rules.

  1. A crack in the pavement shall be interpreted as the gap between one paving stone and another. Faults in the pavement surface or the edges of drain covers are not cracks.

  2. All players to set off simultaneously.

  3. No bumping or pushing.

  4. It is permissible to negotiate the course on a scooter, but scooting over a crack will be declared a fault.

  5. Last one to the sweetshop is a big sweaty nit. A player shall be deemed to be dismissed when he or she steps on a crack. In the event of a player being so dismissed, the earth shall open up and swallow that player alive. The game shall continue until all but one of the players shall have been swallowed up alive.

Walking to the end of the lane with your eyes closed
This was originally a rural version of the game just described. It is said that many years ago a group of yokels were playing Not walking on the cracks in a certain village lane. One of them, more observant that the others, noticed that the country lane was not paved, hence that there were no cracks. To enliven what was necessarily a slow-moving match when played in pastoral surroundings, the yokels introduced a new rule: that all contestants must keep their eyes closed until they reach the end of the lane. Thus – in much the same was as Rugby evolved from Soccer when William Webb Ellis first handled the ball in 1823, an entirely new sport was born. In essence, the rules of Walking with your eyes closed remain the same as those for Walking on the cracks, with appropriate adjustments for the variation just described. The most important of these is that a player being dismissed from the game shall be carried off by a big furry monster and boiled in a pot, rather than being swallowed up alive as in the traditional version.

Counting up to a zillion
There are many variations of this exacting sport, ranging from the simple Counting up to a million to the more sophisticated and energetic Counting up to a million zillion trillion. Counting up to a zillion has perhaps the most devotees. Rules:

  1. Each player shall count in a high-pitched monotonous voice, beginning at zero (0) and not pausing for breath until he has reached the number of one zillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000).

  2. A player counting under his breath and then claiming to have reached twelve million shall be disqualified.

  3. Counting in fives, tens or hundreds shall be disallowed.

  4. The use of non-recognised or eccentric numbers such as fifty-twelve or eleveny-ten is not permitted.

A disadvantage of Counting up to a zillion is that like the Eton wall game it rarely ends with a definite result, the main reason being that it takes twelve years to complete a single innings.

Holding one's breath
This is often played on Counting up to a zillion pitches when the presence of parents or elder sisters may have created unfavourable conditions for any game that cannot be conducted in absolute silence. The object of the game is to see which of a number of players can hold his breath longer than the others. The rules may be subject to many and diverse local variations, but there is a standard Non-Breathing Code laying down the circumstances in which one contestant may examine another to see if his heart has stopped beating. The Code also discourages babes-in-arms from taking part in the game, even as amateurs.

Playing with something of the ritual of Japanese wrestling, this is a battle of wits between two players, requiring great verbal dexterity. The game commences with one of the players making a statement or postulation, e.g., “The moon is flat" or “My dad can beat your dad" or “if you swallow chewing-gum it winds round your heart and you die". The challenger must then reply with the response, which according to the rigid customs of the game shall be “It isn't", or “He can't" or “You don't", according to which may be most appropriate. The first player then counters with the assertion – “It is", “He can", “You do", etc. Immediately, the second player must produce the contradiction – “Isn't", “Can't", “Don't", etc. – else he shall have forfeited the game. Note that at this stage the abbreviation of the responses has been arrive at – “Isn't" instead of “It isn't", and so on. This style of play continues until one or other of the players shall introduce the variation.

There are as many variations as there are moves in chess, and it is necessary to learn them by heart before one can hope to become an accomplished player. A simple sequence of variations might be as follows:

"Is. “Isn't."
"Is." “Isn't, you rotten stinker." (First variation.)
"Rotten stinker yourself." (Second variation.)
"Don't you call me a rotten stinker." (Third variation.)
"Well you are one." (Fourth variation.)
"Aren't!" (Fifth variation.)
"Are!" (New sequence commences.)

The game continues through many such sequences and concludes with the assault, when one player shall have been led to the point of hitting the other one in the mouth.

Acknowledgements: Punch

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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