British and American kids spend their lunch breaks playing a lot of the same schoolyard games: everything from hopscotch and Blind Man’s Buff to jump rope, better known as skipping in the U.K. But some playground pursuits never crossed the Atlantic. Here’s our guide to some uniquely British and American break-time games. Note that rules, of course, may vary.
What American kids play…
King of the Hill
America might be a republic, but its kids still love to pretend they’re tyrannical monarchs. One player, the “king,” stands on top of a hill or mound while everyone else tries to knock them off and become the new ruler. Tactics used to remove the current king depend on who’s playing. Pushing and shoving are generally considered fine; punching and kicking, not so much. Still, it can get violent so this game is commonly banned in American schoolyards.
The unimaginative name hides what sounds, at least to this Brit, like a lot of fun. A large square is chalked on the ground then divided into four smaller numbered boxes. A player stands in each square, and the game begins with the competitor in lowest numbered square hitting a ball with their hand toward another square. The player in that box must then hit the ball to another participant before it bounces twice. Should they miss the player’s square or fail to strike the ball before the second bounce, they must leave the court. The remaining competitors move up to the next highest square, and a new player joins the court in the lowest numbered square.
Duck Duck Goose
Only last week, I was forced to Google this game after I overheard some American moms debating whether their rambunctious pre-schoolers were old enough to play. Players sit on the floor facing each other in a circle. Whoever’s “it” walks around the outside of the ring, tapping players on the head and saying “duck” until finally selecting one player as “goose.” Anyone labeled “goose” has to jump up and chase the caller once around the outside of the circle. Whoever reaches the empty space and sits down first gets to join the circle. The player left standing is the new—or returning—caller.
Red Light/Green Light
There are similar British games, but this still counts as uniquely a uniquely American pastime. One child is the designated “stop light” and everyone else stands some distance away behind a starting line. The “stop light” begins with his back turned to the others, calling out “green light,” allowing the competitors to move forward. But when they shout “red light” and turn around—as they can anytime during the game—players need to freeze. Anyone still moving is out. The game ends either when either the “stop light” gets everyone out, or a player manages to reach the “stop light” It’s probably less confusing than it sounds.
Mama, May I?
I have to say, this one sounds… underwhelming and a bit like an initiation ceremony to a very boring cult. Also known as “Mother May I,” players stand roughly 20 feet from the chosen “Mama” or “mother,” who calls the shots. Mama can give a command like, “jump forward four times,” to a chosen competitor. If that player jumps without first saying, “Mama, may I?” they’re out. You carry on like this until a player reaches “Mama” and takes their place.
What British kids play…
What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?
All those folk tales about child-eating wolves likely inspired this game. A kid is chosen to be the wolf and stands with their back turned at one end of whatever space you have available. The other players’ job is to creep up on the wolf and ask repeatedly, you guessed it: “What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?” The wolf has creative license here and answers with random times. When wolfie estimates that the other kids are close by, he switches things up and shouts, “Dinner time!” Mr. Wolf turns around and tries to catch a kid. The captive then takes over as the wolf.
Perhaps the most notorious of all U.K. playground games, this one still makes the papers when something goes wrong and a child is seriously hurt. A couple of “bulldogs”—traditionally the meanest kids available—are selected while everyone else’s job is to try and run from one end of a field to the other without being caught by the dogs. If you’re captured (this is where things can get out of hand, because bulldogs are often required to force their detainee to the floor), you become a bulldog too. The winner is the last kid to avoid capture.
To the uninitiated, a “conker” is the slightly toxic, hard-shelled nut from the horse chestnut tree. Dedicated conker players will take the time to harden their weapons by soaking them overnight in vinegar, then drying them out for up to a year. Then, you make a hole in your conker and thread through a long piece of string, which you knot at one end. Next, you need to find someone to fight. Players take turns to try and smash the other person’s conker with their own. Whoever does this first wins, and their champion conker lives to bash another nut.
A leader is chosen and this child stands with their back to the other kids, who line up 20 feet away. The leader’s job is to shout out random letters. Anyone with that letter in her name gets to take one step forward—or more if the letter appears multiple times. The first person to reach the leader wins and it’s his turn to call out letters.
Oranges and Lemons
First off, all players need to know the nursery rhyme of the same name. It’s the one with a brutal ending about heads being cut off, which you need to sing it while you play. A couple of kids stand opposite each other and link hands to form an archway. One child is “oranges” while the other is “lemons,” but no one is told which player is which. Everyone else forms a line and marches under the archway singing. When the lyric about head chopping crops up, the players making the archway bring down their arms and imprison someone. The hostage then whispers either “oranges” or “lemons” to their captors, who quietly let them know which of them is what fruit without alerting the rest of the players. Next, the captured kid stand behind whoever they picked. Repeat until everyone has picked a side. The final showdown is a tug of war to decide the winning team.