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Bonkers About Conkers:   Playground  Games

Today’s children probably own more toys and games than those from any preceding generation, but I can’t help thinking that they are missing out on good old fashioned fun and games. In the age before children owned mobile phones, I-pads and games consoles children used their imaginations and made their own fun.  There was a time when a piece of chalk or even a sharp stone that would leave a mark on the ground could keep a group of young children happy for hours.

Sadly the days of families settling down to listen to Children’s Hour on the wireless or playing records on the gramophone, are long gone and long forgotten are many of the popular playground games that I loved from my childhood. Whilst I still see hopscotch marked out in many school yards I can’t help but wonder if they actually still play this wonderful game.

For me best time of the school day was playtime. On sunny days groups of girls would use the wall for handstands with our dresses tucked into our knickers, we spent much of our time upside down or else practising cartwheels on the grass whilst dodging stray footballs kicked by boys.  After a string of tears and injuries sustained from being hit by balls kicked by over enthusiastic players, footballs would be banned from the playground for a time and in amongst the groans from football crazed little boys, games involving soft balls including catch and piggy in the middle would see a fleeting return, before marble mania gripped the whole playground.  Playing marbles always brought out competitiveness and concentration. For the boys it was always about the winning, but many of the girls were more interested in the patterns, colours and the sizes of the marbles.  Cat’s Eyes, the clear marbles with different-coloured blades inside were the commonest and for me the most prized ones were the clear iridescent ones known as ‘bare ladies’.  I can still recall the feel of a pocket full of smooth but noisy glass marbles as they clanked together and the pride of looking over a good collection of marbles that contained lucky strikers and successful acquisitions.

Funnily enough although we have been rolling through history no one really knows the true origins of marbles.  They’ve been found in the ashes of Pompeii and in the tombs of ancient Egyptians, and they were played with by Native American tribes, with the earliest examples being simply stones that had been polished smooth.  Although we cannot be sure of where marbles originate from they definitely belong to good childhoods.

Other popular pastimes were playing tig, kiss-catch, farmers in his den, ring-a-ring o’ roses and ‘what time is it Mr. Wolf? And the favourite game amongst girls was skipping.  We would skip alone, or in threes with two turning and one skipping, or in a large group chanting, , ‘Jelly on a plate’, ‘Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around’, ‘all in together girls’, ’‘oranges and lemons’ and ‘Jack be nimble, jack be quick’. To this day many of those songs still resonate strongly in my nostalgic mind.

With our individual skipping ropes we would have races along the playground and I remember that there was often more running than skipping involved in these races. We would also see who could skip the most skips with two feet together, or one foot after the other. Skipping backwards, skipping forwards, crossing arms and then if you were really good with two ropes at the same time.  No wonder we were all so robust these skipping activities certainly kept us fit and agile.

Simplicity was at the root of many of these old playground games, a length of string or a discarded length of wool would provide hours of fun as you tried your hand at cat’s cradle, it took some practice to master, but it was always good fun and still catches attentions these days.

Autumn was always conker season and I used to scour under every Chestnut tree I came across in the hope of finding a ‘winning’ conker. There were no worries about health and safety concerns back then and children happily whacked their opponent’s conker with all the force they could muster.  There were lots of little tricks used to strengthen conkers in the quest to become the playground champion.  I used to boil mine in vinegar and one year I got in trouble for using my mum’s Atrixo hand cream to coat my conkers after hearing a whisper in the playground that this helped to make conkers knock resistant.  One year some family friends, Jean and Barry Chackett gave me some huge conkers that they had brought back from their holiday in France, to this day I am eternally grateful for those two conkers they gave me, because they were no ordinary conkers, not only were they twice the size of all the British conkers in the playground, but they annihilated everyone else’s conkers and I basked in the glory of my title of conker champion for the season

I still can’t adjust to the idea that many schools have now outlawed conkers in case children are hit in the face by a rogue horse chestnut. It further saddens me to learn that leap frog and the much loved game of British bulldog – where children try to stop other pupils running across the playground –has also fallen victim of health safety rules and has disappeared from many of our playgrounds. Whilst some schools have banned marbles, tag and even skipping I can’t help thinking that today’s children are missing out. One thing is for certain if given the opportunity and shown the rules many of the old playground games still prove popular with children today.



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