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A Short Unoffical Incomplete History of Children's Games

"It should be noted that children's games are not merely games. One should regard them as their most serious activities"

- Montaigne (1533-1592)


If any of you are like me, your availability and desire to perform at the occasional birthday party is pretty much non-existent during the summer months, as you focus instead on doing the 3-5 hour jobs (i.e. company picnics, block parties, grand openings, witch hunts…you get my meaning).  Company picnics are especially swell because of the opportunity to run games for both the children and the adults.  For at least a half hour, other than passing out materials, and perhaps a little demonstration and the “rooting people on” aspect of it all, the clown gets to relax and let everyone else work for a change.


Finding new and unique games is always a fun experience.  Taking already established games and altering them to fit either your current playing conditions (whether it be based on age group, number of players, availability of kerosene, etc), or altering them to fit your clown character is an altogether new challenge.  For example, when I perform as Buster, I love using highly un-sophisticated gaming equipment such as toilet paper and plungers.


When putting together your “Box O’ Games”, you need to make sure that you’re covered for all age groups, remembering that games designed for 5 year olds might not fly with the adults (although “Walk To Mommy or Daddy” can still be a scream if the participants are inebriated members from the accounting office upstairs).


Most games that you’ll end up playing (whether you lifted them from a book, or created them yourself) will be an adaptation of an already existing game.   If you dig even further, you’ll find that the inspiration from those games comes from an even earlier source.   Back in the old days (before running water and Diet Dr. Pepper), games had a clear and definite practical purpose:  they trained young people or kept older folks in shape.  Various games such as Tag and Hide-and-Seek paralleled the occupations of stalking wild animals and herding livestock.  Marbles exercised critical skills of judgment and dexterity needed for killing prey.  Relay races mimicked the crucial communication service performed by message runners.  Games such as Tug-Of-War, which evolved to imitate warfare, can be traced back to the Romans, and Musical Chairs can be traced back to the first Crusade.


Some games were meant to reenact or ritualize specific historical events.  London Bridge dates back to the eleventh century destruction of the major bridge in that city – along with the Brits who were standing on it, wondering what all the commotion down below was all about.  Perhaps the grimmest story of the origin of a game involves the game we now call Ring-Around-The Rosy.  The first line (originally “Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses") refers to the circular body rash that was an early symptom of the Plague of London, which killed more than 70,000 people between 1664 and 1665.  The healthy attempted to “discourage” the disease by carrying herbs (“A pocket full of posies”).  In the final stages of the disease, the victim would sneeze violently (“A tishoo! A-tishoo,” later changed to the ever charming “Ashes!, Ashes!”. )  Unfortunately, death followed quickly (“We all fall down”). Games have also served as spiritual rites (Tag), and to reinforce proper behavior (Simon Says).


From the beginning, there was no real distinction between children’s and adult’s games.  Games were to be shared by anyone who felt like participating.  After the Industrial Revolution, adults began to branch out, and create more sophisticated games and complex team sports that could be enjoyed not only by the participants, but by spectators as well.  Although the classic games persisted, they were by this time truly classified as “children’s games”.


By playing the old games and their variations with both children and adults in a picnic atmosphere, we as clowns get to remind adults that they too started out as children.  I have found that the adults who show the most resistance to play with the others are the ones who end up having the most fun.  It’s your job to make the adults feel that playing the clown’s games is definitely the “in” thing to do.  If you succeed, people tend to walk away with the attitude that the clown they got this year was “pretty cool”… and that’s good enough for me.