Outdoor Play and Games: Individual Games

Figure 1.--These German boys in 1927 have just had their legs tied to gether so they can participate in a three-legged race, probably at a picnic. All of the boys were wearing sailor suits. Click on the imasge to see two more boys waiting to have their legs tied. Image courtesy of the MD collecion.

We have begun to collect information on specific games and activities that were popular with children. Some like badmiton were a social gam played primarily by adults. Many other games were mostly for children. There are a huge number of games and activities to consider. W have just begun to scrtch the surface in our assessment. Photographs from the 19th century are limited, because of the limited capabilities of photography--especially film speeds. Also many photographers probably did not consider children's games all that importnt. Here we have an organizational problem in that many games can be played both indoors and outdoors. As a result we have begun to archive all games here, including ones that can be played both indoors and outdoors. Games such as hide and go seek ar probably best known for play outdoors, but could be played indoors as well. The popular indoor games were known as parlor games, because they could be played in the best room of the house--the parlor. Of course many mothers would not permit boisterous games in the parlor.


This French game became popular in Britain and America in the 19th century and was a genteel activity for both boys and girls.

Bubble Blowing

hildren blew bubbles noth inside and outside, but normally mother liked them to do it outdoors so as not to male a mess. Bubble stuff has no technical name... at least, not one that is widely known. It is only known as 'bubble stuff'. It consists of a small bottle of soapy liquid and a wire or plastic 'wand'. The ring on the end of the wand is dipped into the bottle of liquid, and a film stretches across it when it is withdrawn. When you blow gently, bubbles are formed and rise into the air. You can also wave the wand in the air, and if you have the right touch, bubbles will cascade from it. Modern improvements have led to all kinds of new wands of various shapes and sizes... but the bubbles still come out round. Bubble stuff is a wondrous thing that will delight all, from the smallest baby to the eldest lady. If you blow too many bubbles you will get dizzy... and be careful not to get any in your eyes. We have noted several images of boys blowing bubbles. The nost famous is the Pears soap image by Millais. There is also a marvelous outdoor image by Allingham. We have noted another indoor image by an unidentified artist.


There are many different types of cards. Regular playing cards in the 19th century wre not considered suittable for children. That does not mean, hoswever that children did not play with cards. There were special cards for children. Boys in America during the 1950s collected baseball cards. There were also football cards, but we all wanted the baseball cards. We would trade them and flip them playing keepesies. You would shoot them at a wall. The one that fell clost to the wall kept all the omes tossed. A packet of baseball cards cost all of 5 cents and came with added bonus of bubble-gum. Baseball cards are now quite valuable. They are still collected, but kids now adays don't ger gum. The laest generation has taken a liking to Pokemon cards.

Circle/Ring Games

We notice children playing a variety of different circle or ring games. These games date back to the medieval era and were probably played earlier. They were normally played outdoors, but might be played indoors on special occassions or with younger children. Circle games are played while standing or sometimes sitting in a circle. These games do not need a lot of preparation or much in the way of materials. As a resukt any group of children anywhere can play them And they are useful for teachers, camp directors, and any adult working with groups of children. They mostly appeal to girls because the goal is to have fun rather han compte. There are many differet circle games with a range of different tweeks. Most consist of passing some object to another player. Others include a process of elimination, especially circle tag games.The games acm be played by both small and larger gtoups. Some can be played with only four children, but most require at least six or so children. Perhaps the most fanous is "ring around the rosy". Can't say I have ever played it. Perhaps our readers will know more. A good example is an Americam group play the game in the parlor during Christ,as at the turn-of-the-20th-century. We do not know much about them at this time. A good example is the children playing a ring game at a North Dakota school in 1913. We are not sure what the game was. It looks like a game I do rember playing in which one child is "it" and chases another child inside and outside the circle. I forgt the name now.

Figure 2.--Croquet was a French game which in the 19th century became popular in England and America. Here a French boy still wearing long hair plays croquet in a white sailor suit with blommer-like above the knee knickers, a popular French style at the turn of the century. Two of the children are the son and daughter of French author Emile Zola. Other pictures show the boy wearing the same white suit with long black stockings.


T his lawn game was another French game that became popular in Britain and America. Croquet was a French game in the French court. I am not sure when it way forst played in farnce, but we know ity was being played in the 18th century. By the 19th century it had become popular in England and America. Thus a game that had begun as a diversion of the the aristocratic French court and evolved into a popular game in middle-class American suburbs. We note an unidentified German family with a small child-size croquet set, we believe in the 1890s.

Hoop and Stick

Perhaps the most democratic of all outdoor toys was the hoop and stick as the hoops were so readilly available. Hoops were metal rings used in the construcyion of barrel. As a resuly it was popular throughout the 19th century. Hoops actually varied widely as did barrels. Some boys used small hoops. Other boys preferred muxhg larer ones. Some might be lmost as large as the boy. Boys rolling hoops were a coomon cite in city parks, although some may have prohibited such boisterous behavior. Hoops could also be rolled in city streets if a suitable park was not located nerarby. Available images of children playing with hoops provide some interesting information about boys' fashions at various times.

Hop Scotch

Hopscotch is a very popular sidewalk and playground game. It appears to have had ancint origins. The same or a similar game was widely played in Europe, Americ, amd Latin merica. We suspect it is also played in Asia as well. as well. It was perfect for urban sidewalks where there was little room or play. Players throw a small object into a pattern of rectangles chalked out on the sidewal or playground surface. There are different versions of the Hop Scotch court, but they do not vary much. The players then hop around the spaces on one foot to retrieve the object. I remember in America when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s that it was very popular with the girls, but the boys never played. You got teased if you played with the girls. We note Japanese boys playing hop-scotch or a similar game in the late-19th or early-20th century. We are not sure why the boys were not interetee, perhaps because it wa s mostly girls playing it.

Figure 3.--This 1832 drawing in front of the Montreal fortifications show children playing with minature horse harnesses.

Horse and Harness

Until the turn of the 20th century, horses were important in the lives of children and adults. Just as modern boys dream of driving cars, boys used to dream of driving and riding horses. It is natural that this desire was reflected in their play. Thus we note numerous images of children playing with what look like minature horse and reigns. We do not know hat the game was called.They show surprising similarity to leading strings or child saftey harnesses. The context of these images with children involved on both ends, suggest that they are toys. We do not yet have, however, any actual contemporary written sources describing this type of play. We have noted thm depicted in the Sears catalog.

Jump Rope

We know little about the history of jump rope or skipping rope. We note images from about 1890 of children skipping rope, perhaps in Italy, in an unknown painting. We do not know when rope skipping first began. It is today seen as primarily a girls' activity in America. We do not know if this has always been the case or if the convention varied from country to country.


Egg and Spoon Races

An egg and sppon race is a perenial favorite at picnics, birthday parties, and other events. They are common in America and many European countries. They cam bre run both indoors and outdoors. Of course indoors hard boiled eggs are recommended. Often raw eggs are used outdoors. A starting line and finishline have to be drawn. The event can be staged as a stright race, or a relay race with teams. An egg is pklaced in each contestant's spoon who then must to the finish line without dropping it. The first participant to cross the finish line without droppijg the egg wins. For relay races you need at least two teams. Half start at the starting line, but then the egg is transferred at the finishline which now serves as a relay line, and the team member waiting there must proceed to the starting line. his is repeating depending on the number of participants on each team. During the race, if the egg or ball is dropped then the participant is either out of the game or has to pick up the egg and start over again.

Three Leged Races

Three leged races were popular events at picnics and other festives events and parties. They envolved pairs of contestants in which their right and left legs were tied together. This required the contestants to coordinate their run in the race. We know these three-leged races were popular in America and Britain, but they also were popular in many countries on the continent such as Germany.

Rhyming Games

London Bridge

Tinker, Taylor

A ryming game popular with children was "Tinker, Taylor". Actually "Tinker, Taylor" was only one of many rymes that the children used. We have some details on the rules used. We believe the game, with many variations, ws played throughout Europe, although at this tome we only have specific inormation on England and Germany. The game is very old. One confirmned report indicate that it was being played in 1695, but almost certainly has even older origins.

Role Playing Games

Cowboys and Indians

Nothing is more American than cowboys and Indians. I am not sure, however, just when this game began. It had to be the late 19th century as cowboys did not acome into their own in America until after the Civil War (1861-65). Of course children could have play frontiersmen and Indiands, but I have never heard of that. Not only did the cowboys and calvary appear after the Civil War, but so did American family life. The industrial revolution had after the Civil War caused a huge economic expansion creating a significantly expanded middle class. These children did not have to work like the earlier generation of children. They spent more time in school and had more time to play. And one of their favorite games becme cowboys and Indians. Here imaginations were fuled by the dime novels of Ned Butline and others.


My favorite game as a boy growing up in America during the 1940s and early 50s was "War". I do no remember a lot of formal rules, bur I do recall my favorite possessions, besides my teddy, was a World War II helmet and realistic looking 45 pistol. The enemy was usually those nasty old Germans. I'm not sure who the favorite enemy was when German kids played War. A British reader recalls from the 1950s playing D-Day. "When you were 'shot' you stayed on the ground until all your side had been 'killed.' We had a rule that another of your team could come and touch you when you had been 'shot dead' and restore you to life. " I have a feeling that War is not as popular with kids as it once was, but I am not sure about this. Some parents now do not like to buy toy guns for their boys. Of course, there are plenty of war or other violent video games which may have affect the popularity of outdoors War games. They have clearly not disappeared. A reader in Tajikistan in 2003 describes a group of kids armed with plastic guns running about the neighbourhood playing 'Counter Strike.'


A popular play spot for younger children was the sandbox. Children are often pictured in sailor suits and rompers playing there. One European fashion designer even came up with a special suit for playing in a sandbox.


Rollar skates were popular toys at the turn of the century and that popularity continued through the mid-20th century. Our link here is broken, but we are searing for the lost page. I'm not sure when rollar skates were invented. American children in New York can be seen rollar skating about 1907--Phillis and Harold. By the 1950s, however, they had become more of a girl's activity. The development of the new in-line skates rekindled the interest of boys. However the younger children who used to skate can not quite master the skills needed for in-line skating.

Skill Games


Virtually every British schoolboy once participated in this annual Fall ritual, conker fights with his mates. This was strictly an activity for the boys. Few girls participated. I'm not sure just when thi tradition began. Many traditions have built up about how to prepare and harden your conker. There were many different systems. Some boys baked their conker in the oven. Others soaked it in vinegar. Some boys kept their system secret. Dad may have helped a bit here. A hole is drilled in it and a string attached. Then the conker fights can begin. Boys kept score on how many strikes their conker survived. With the modern popularity of computer games, however, conker appears to have declined in popularity, but they have not disappeared.


Jacks were primarily a game for girls, at least by the 1940s when I ws a child. I'm not sure when jacks first appeared or if they were mostly for girls from the beginning. Interestingly the girls seemed to like playing for fun, unlikes the boys who shoot marrbles for "keepsies".


Boys have played marbles since ancient times, well before the invention of modern glass marbles. They were particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. We have noted that the game appears to have been popular throughout Europe and America as well as European colonies overseas. The marbles were made in a wide range of colors and types, both clear and opaque. Boys wee fascinated by the dofferent types and liked collecting them. Unlike jacks, marbels were primarily played by boys, most of whom played "keepsies". "Shooting" marbles after school was a popular activity. As marbles were relatively inexpensive it is something that most boys could do regardless of their background. It seems a passtime infact persued by boys that were not from privlidged families.


This game with pocket knives was very popular in America through the 1940s. It began to decline after World war II when suburban mothers were less willing to allow boys to play with knives. As far as w know it was an American game. There must have been knive games in Europe as well as knives were common items fo boys in Germany, Norway, and other countries.

Tag Games

Blindman's Bluff

One very popular game was "Blindman's bluff". The game was very simple. One player was blindfolded spun around a number of times, often three times. The blindfolded player tries to tag one of the other players, who are allowed to crouch low or sneak up behind the "blindman" and yell "Boo"! Others stand still and try keep as quiet as possible. Eventually one of the other players gets careless and is tagged. Than that player is blindfolded for the next game. We are not sure whem the game was first played. It became seen as a children's game and was very popular for children's parties in the 19th century and early 20th century. The origins, however, appear to ahve been much earlier, certainly the 18th century if not earlier. And it was not at first played by children. The game can be played both indoors and outdoors, but is well suited for indoor play. The confines of a room give the "blindman" a better chance than more open outdoor locations. We know that the game was played in many different locations, including America, England France, Germany and other countries.



The top was invented in ancient times, but was still one of the most popular toys of the 19th century and their popularity continued into the 20th century. The child's toy top has evolved into a wide variety of styles with only one common thread, they fascinated children, especially for some reason the boys. Available images of children playing with tops provide some interesting information about boys' fashions. Girls also enjoyed tops, but for some reason they were more popular with boys as with most mechanical toys. Tops were very popular in the 19th century. We see them in many period portraits. They continued to be popular in the early-20th century, but seem to have declined after World War II. We are not entirely sure why, but suspect that many more toys appeared which provided children more interesting options.


Boys are especially associated with a variety of weapons. Boys in rural areas of America often have rilfles and are involved with hunting. We notice many 19th century portraits that show boys with rifles, although portraits with pistols were much less common. When I was a boy in the 1940s and 50s boys wanted B-B guns, but many mothers objected. Sling shots were also popular. A reader tells us about sling shots in Tajikistan. Another reader tells us about his experiences in America with a slingshot.


Boys from the very dawn of humanity have wrestled with each other. We know that because we se amimal youngsters including the great apes, engged in wrestling and other rough play. For that matter in animals that re born in litters, the fetal animals compete with each other for improved blood supply. Thus it is not surprising that children compete. and wrestling and other rough play is one way this occurs. Now we do not see girls wrestling to any extent for both genetic and cultural reasons. For boys it is a different matter. Wrestling and rough play is an activity that occurs naturally. Now this hs changed over time. Not the tendency for the boys to wrestle, but the willingness for parents to allow it. Children are now more closely supervised than ever before in history. I can recall as a boy in the 1940s-50s tht during the summer, that I and my brither would have breakfast cand then disappear until lunch and then disappear gain until dinnertime. I don't recall mom asking where we were going, at least not very commonly. Today commonly mom or teachers step in to prevent rough play, bit before say the 1970s, children were much more likely to play on their own upsupervised, especially school age boys. Of course by secondary age, boys can participate in wrestling as aport.


The yo-yo was invented in ancient times, but was not a popular child's toy until the 1950s when a man named Duncan brought it to America from the Philippines. still one of the most popular toys of the 19th century and their popularity continued into the 20th century.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main outdoor play page]
[Return to the Main games page]
[About Us]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Girls] [Theatricals] [Topics]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Sailor suits] [Sailor hats] [Buster Brown suits]
[Eton suits] [Rompers] [Tunics] [Smocks] [Pinafores]

Created: March 3, 2003
Last updated: 10:12 AM 6/25/2019