On a Saturday evening, you might find Jennifer Cooper, of Baltimore, Md., in her backyard playing tag with her two children, Ellie, 8, and Jonah, 5.
“I like it because it gets me up and off the chair,” says Cooper, 34. “We play flashlight tag, which was one of my favorite childhood games.”
Cooper calls old-fashioned games such as Tag, Mother May I? and Kick the Can “real play.”
“Too many of the toys or games introduced today don’t encourage growth or development,” she says. “They’re junk food play. I like play that encourages imagination, creativity, problem solving and physical activity such as running and jumping.”
The following classic backyard games do all that and more. Each requires at least three players, and the more the merrier.
Ghost in the Graveyard
The “ghost” hides while the remaining players stay at a selected location (called base) such as a tree or a porch slowly chanting, “one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock,” etc., until they reach “midnight!” when it’s time to search for the ghost. The first player to spot the ghost yells, “Ghost in the graveyard!” and all of the players must run back to base before being tagged by the ghost. The tagged player becomes the next ghost.
Identify boundaries and choose someone to be “it.” The designated person attempts to tag one of the other players by touching them. When another player is tagged, he or she becomes “it.” Players also can designate a “base,” or safe zone, where they cannot be tagged.
Tag has several variations, including:
Flashlight Tag. This game is played at night. The person who is “it” has a flashlight. The other players hide. To tag someone, the person who is “it” must shine the light on the player and call their name. The tagged player becomes “it” and wields the flashlight.
Freeze Tag. In this variation, the player must freeze in the position they were in when tagged. The person who is “it” must tag all of the players. Players who are running free may unfreeze players by tagging them. The game continues until everyone is frozen.
Mother May I?
The player chosen to be “mother” faces away from the remaining players, who form a line several feet away. Mother chooses a player and calls out a command, such as, “You may take five baby steps forward.” The player must ask, “Mother may I?” before moving or he must go back to the starting line. Mother can say yes or no. The first player to touch mother wins.
Kick the Can
An empty tin can is the base. The person who is “it” covers her eyes and counts to 100 while the remaining players hide. The person who is “it” searches for the others and when someone is found, the two players race back to see who can kick the can first. The last person back to the can becomes “it.”
Players divide into two even teams and form parallel lines. The first team holds hands and chants, “Red rover, red rover, send [name a player] right over!" The person named has to run toward the other team and try to break through their linked hands. If he breaks the chain, he picks a player from the line to join his team. If he doesn’t, he joins the other team. The game is played until one team is remaining.
Duck, Duck, Goose
Players sit in a circle while the “fox” walks around the outside of the group, tapping heads and saying “Duck, duck, duck . . . ” until she names a “goose.” The goose has to chase the fox and tag her before the fox can run around the circle and sit in the spot vacated by the goose. If the goose tags the fox, the fox tries again. If the fox makes it back to the empty spot before being tagged, the goose becomes the fox.
Red Light, Green Light
One player is the “stoplight,” and the remaining players form a line several feet away. The stoplight turns his back to the remaining players and says “green light,” which allows the other players to run toward the stoplight. The stoplight then announces “red light!” and turns around. Anyone caught moving after “red light” is called is out. The game continues until the first player touches the stoplight. The winner gets to be the stoplight.