2016-08-01 / Features

The State of Play

Pamela Monk and Lisa M. Rhue

People who grew up before cell phones and video games can fondly recall long stretches of unsupervised time outside playing games — completely and utterly unplugged.

This idyllic portrait conveniently suppresses unsupervised bullies and unalloyed boredom; certainly some of these memories can be chalked up to nostalgia. But it brings up the question: Are we protecting the children we love from the very things we tell them they are missing? In today’s world of hyper-vigilance, parents can be charged with negligence for allowing their children to walk to school unsupervised. So how do we get children offline and outside?

There are many remedies, and the simplest is also the most fun for everyone: If you want your children to play more, play with them. Teach them the games you knew and loved, and they will play them with their friends. Remember hopscotch, tag, jacks and paddleball? The young at heart from hometowns near and far shared their personal stories about street games.

Yesim Dogru’s face breaks into a smile when she reminisces about hanging out every day with neighborhood children in Edime, Turkey, during the 1970s.

“We could play outside more because the neighbors knew each other,” says Dogru, who lives with her husband, Mustafa, in Boalsburg. “It was the safest time I’ve lived.”

Her favorite games growing up were jacks (“bes tas” in Turkish) and hopscotch (“sek sek”).
“I played this game a lot,” remembers Dogru, her face alive with the energy of youth, adding that the game attracts a broader age range of children, which suited her as a child. Playing together face-to-face is much better for children, she says.

Children should be encouraged to turn off the video games, get off the couch and go outdoors, Dogru says, speaking with conviction about child rearing nowadays versus the 1970s.

Though high-tech games do mesmerize today’s youth, testing one’s skills and speed against other kids through games like Red Rover, Red Light-Green Light and Capture the Flag will never go out of style. Simon Bronner, a distinguished professor of American studies and folklore at Penn State Harrisburg, says children are still attracted to offline games and benefit greatly from taking a timeout from screen time.

“Social functions of traditional play hold appeal for youth and have ensured that children continue to rely on face-to-face interaction in addition to communicative networks of technology,” Bronner says.
That face-to-face interaction takes many forms. In addition to conventional street games, some said they built makeshift forts and took long hikes in nearby wooded areas on hot summer days.

“We’d spend days, weeks, years playing Little House on the Prairie and Island of the Blue Dolphin. Books were the source of much of our material for that, of course, but we expanded beyond the events of the books.”  —Elaine Meder Wilgus

“We spent a lot of time collecting wood scraps from various parents’ sheds and shops, then we would take that wood and build tree forts in the woods. We had one that had five levels, including the ground. We also made pretend ‘meals’ in the woods — like mud soups with various plants as the ‘vegetables.’ We didn’t worry about poison ivy or ticks,” says Gina Thompson, a social studies teacher at State High.

“We built toboggan runs on the walking paths in the winter. The woods had a perfect downhill walking path that was about 1 to 2 miles long. I pretty much grew up playing in the woods with my older brothers, their friends, and my friends.”

Child’s play has been affected by changing times — and that isn’t just due to technology, Bronner says.
“More and more, children spend time away from their parents, as the spread of two-income households and variable workdays has changed the patterns of child care prevalent in America,” says Bronner, adding that changes in play are influenced by emerging ideas born out of ingenuity and necessity.

“At the same time, growing institutions of day-care and after-school centers have fostered more cultural unity among children, a unity which has helped preserve old, and perpetuate new, folklore,” Bronner says.

So while children may be in a more structured setting than the park down the street, they’re still banded together by imagination.

For some, that folklore is built from all of the senses. “I remember the rhythmic sopranos of the jump rope chants, giggles, guffaws,” says Marian Dornell, a local artist. “The slap of bare or sneakered feet hitting the street, the sound of the rope slapping the street when we were doing ‘Hot Pepper,’ the muffled sound of the little red ball and the click of jacks bouncing off each other as they rolled to wherever they landed.”

“There were these rocks that you could climb on behind Radio Park Elementary School. Everyone would climb on the rocks, which were like islands in the grass, and one person had to try to tag them as they jumped and climbed from rock to rock.”     —Laura Waldhier

Dornell recalled playing tag outdoors at night while hearing the squeals of bats flying above.
Xiaolan Sun played jacks (“zhua shi zi”) with stones collected by the children in the village where she grew up.

“We searched for the most beautiful stones in black and white,” she says, adding that nature was her toy store.

An English professor and visiting scholar, Sun, who lives in X’ian in China, says she came from humble beginnings. She played daily with children in the neighborhood who had a strong sense of loyalty and camaraderie toward one another. An elderly neighbor kept an eye on them as they played hopscotch (“tiao ge xi”) in the street.

Across cultures and across time, the simple pleasures of a childhood spent in play — outside, unplugged, unfettered by the trappings of the modern era — persist in our world today.


Matthew Wilson, a captain with the State College Borough Police Department, recommends identifying safe environments and maintaining adult supervision for children playing outdoors.

As a parent and a member of the law enforcement community, Wilson said he also recommends these tips for parents who want to strike a healthy balance between counterproductive hyper-vigilance and irresponsible neglect.

  • Know your neighborhood. Meet the other parents, and know the children who live in the area.
  • Keep an eye on younger children.
  • For older ones, know where they will be, how long and with whom.
  • Children should play in groups.

“Teach your children some basic safety rules. Be sure they understand they can trust their gut instinct,” Wilson says. “If something doesn’t feel right, it’s OK to act on that feeling.”  

With those lessons, children can take a little more responsibility for themselves and begin to explore the world as individuals.


If you have forgotten the rules for some of your favorite street games, here’s a refresher course.

JACKS: Each player must pick up a certain number of jacks per throw of the ball. “Onesies” means that the player throws the ball in the air and picks up one jack, then grabs the ball after it bounces once. The next round is “Twos,” then “Threes,” etc.

TAG and IT: The rules of basic tag are simple enough. One person is “it” and tries to touch someone else to make them “it” in turn. The variations are limited only by imagination of the players.
One variation says the first person to call out “MAN!” would be the one to perform the counting out rhyme that would determine who would be IT. Man would then count out using a rhyme of their choosing.

“My mother and your mother were hanging out the clothes. My mother punched your mother in the nose. What color blood came out? TURQUOISE. T-U-R-Q-U-O-I-S-E spells Turquoise, and out goes Y-O-U.”
Other favorites included Mickey Mouse Built a House, Engine Engine Number Nine, and I (the falling out of whose cork caused you to stink for some unfathomable reason).

Of course, IT can simply be called by the fastest, the oldest or the biggest who then gets to either be it or designate a surrogate.

The occasional vehicle would be noted with the cry “Car Car C-A-R, Get out of the street wherever you are!” (Alternatively, you could “jump in a jelly jar.”) Most disputes were decided by the oldest, the biggest or the loudest. Court of appeals: I’m telling!

HOPSCOTCH: Players take turns hopping into and over squares marked on the ground to retrieve a marker thrown into one of the squares.


Believe it or not, children’s street games influence software design, says Richard Zhao, a gaming software design expert and lecturer in computer science and software engineering at Penn State Behrend.
“The principles of game design are equivalent across conventional non-digital games and digital games,” Zhao says. “In fact, digital games grew out of simulating conventional games.”

According to Zhao, the earliest digital games were digital simulations of physical sports games such as the Atari game Pong, a digital simulation of table tennis.

“Creating the appropriate challenge for players is one of the most essential aspects of game design,” Zhao says. “Both jacks and paddleball create challenges using the mechanism of real-world physics, such as gravity. Digital games such as Angry Birds that use simulated physics to create challenges have certainly made their marks in modern gaming.”

In all games, players basically just want to be challenged, he says.

“Increasing the challenge level as players get better is also essential in maintaining player engagement,” Zhao says. “In jacks, players have to pick up more and more jacks per round as the game progresses. Most modern digital games have adopted an increasing scale of difficulty in their gameplay.”

Today’s video game designs are a tech-savvy version of street games with an indisputable flair and cinematic attraction older children and teens — not  to mention some adults — enjoy.

In Pennsylvania, video game design companies are among the most successful in the nation, employing more than 2,100 people as of 2012. The industry raked in $16.5 billion nationally in 2015, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

The growing number of new video game designs is staggering. “There are too many games. Really, too many,” says Heather Cole, a lecturer in digital arts at Penn State Behrend.

“Conventional, traditional games, in general, have a big role to play in electronic games today. The ease in which you can mix and match their mechanics to make new mechanics is a part of the reason why the game market is consistently able to make something new,” she says. “This doesn’t just apply to conventional, technology-free games, but extends beyond to conventional modes of storytelling and art.”
And while many of today’s video games derive from children’s games, an increasing number of children would rather play inside than go outdoors. Unless, of course, they are encouraged to play outside.

“Kick them out,” says Dogru jokingly. “It’s much better and healthier for them.” •SCM

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