The Games I Played Growing Up
My middle grade book, The Castle Park Kids, is about kids on summer vacation and the adventures that they get into during their first summer of independence. When I was a kid, the neighborhood kids would meet up each day, usually at my house or at the playground, and play games. Some were traditional games and sports, and some were games that we made up. A few years ago, one of my friends in that group asked me why I didn't write a book based on those summers that we spent together. I accepted that assignment and got to work creating a fictional version of my childhood play.
The main character in my story is a nine-year-old girl named Jamie. Jamie and her family have just moved into a new house, which is located in what she describes as a horseshoe-shaped road. In the center of the horseshoe is a playground which resembles a castle.
Here, Jamie and her brother and sister meet the neighborhood kids who live on their new street. Jamie is afraid to introduce herself to these kids at first. So, she and her brother and sister do what they do best…play. In starting up a game, the other, bolder kids ask to join in, and it immediately breaks the ice. Before they know it, there are tons of kids playing together each day, making up new games, playing old ones over and over again, and finally seeing what it is like to make the most of their summer.
Below are some of the games featured in my book and how they are played.
The game that introduces the new kids to the neighborhood is a game called, “tomato”. This game requires a standard sliding board. Luckily, The Castle Park has such a slide. In this game, players take turns sliding down the slide. However, once they reach the bottom, they do not get up. Instead, the other players slide down into them. The goal is to try to stay on the slide as more and more kids slide down. It is most effective when the slide is extra slippery and there are many players. It can get a little violent and even painful, but it’s actually really fun when it works. After a few games of tomato, Jamie and her siblings have made instant friends with the others.
The kids on Castle Park Road know a few games of their own. One made up game that they love to play is zoo. This is a game that our gang made up when we were kids. We loved role-playing, make believe games, especially games about animals. We were very officious in organizing our games. All of the players would line up, and someone, usually me, agreed to be the zookeeper. The zookeeper called on each player to announce which animal they were going to be, their name, and what they look like.
Once they had this information, the zookeeper would lead this player over to a “cage” that the zookeeper would design out of a real area with imaginary bars. They would show each animal the border of their cage and instruct them not to step past this area. Then, they would use nearby leaves, sticks, and dirt to feed them. In the case of carnivores, they would throw imaginary slabs of meat into the cage. Many best friends chose to be the same animal so that they could share a cage.
Once everyone was secured in their area, the zookeeper would get to work, feeding, petting, and guarding the animals through the cage bars. Inevitably, a rambunctious player would decide to free themselves and eventually free all of the other animals in their cages. The zookeeper would have to chase after these animals and send them back to their cages without getting eaten by the more dangerous animals. This would go on until the zookeeper, again usually me, had had enough, and the game would break up, as it does several times in the book.
This game was a good way to show the personalities of the characters based on what animal they chose and which ones decided to pair up. The boys were usually the culprits of the jail breaks, just as our boys were in real life. It was like playing release, only with more imagination.
Despite all of the things to do in the summer, it can be difficult to decide on a game to play, especially when there are many people playing. The kids run into this problem early in the book. Luckily, Mr. Race, Jamie’s friendly new next door neighbor, comes to their rescue. Upon their introduction, Mr. Race suggests they play a game called “Indian Baseball”. There are many versions of this game, but the version in the book is the version that I played growing up.
It requires a bat (preferably metal) and a ball (preferably a tennis ball if the players don't have baseball mitts, but any kind will work). It’s best to play on a hard surface rather than grass. In the book, the kids play on the basketball court. The person up at bat throws the ball into the air and hits it. The rest of the players run for the ball. Once someone grabs hold of it, they stand in the place where they caught it. The batter sets the bat on the ground, and the fielder rolls the ball to the bat. If they hit the bat, they are next to bat; if they don’t, the same person bats again. If the fielder catches a fly ball, they are automatically up at bat.
There is no real winner of this game. The prize is getting to bat. This was a good game to play when we had competitive people in the group. With no real winner, nobody could get upset if they lost. We often pitched to the younger kids so that they didn’t take forever to hit the ball, and we played until everyone got a chance to bat or we just got tired of playing and wanted to move on to something else.
In my book, this game sets up the bullies of the story, two older boys who like to ruin the games for everyone. Jamie, like me, is all about order and control at that age, and their antics frustrate her numerous times throughout the book. She is able to keep her cool in this instance, but it starts a long-running feud between her and these two boys.
Red Light, Green Light
Another game that many may recognize that is played in the book is a game called, “Red Light, Green Light.” It is another physical game that doesn’t require a lot of running but rather the ability to sneak up on people. One person is the “traffic light.” They stand with their back to the other players. Everyone else lines up a good distance away from the traffic light. When the traffic light shouts, “Green light!” everyone starts to slowly but swiftly make their way to the traffic light. When they hear everyone coming, the traffic light calls out “Yellow light!” and when they think they're really close, they yell, “Stop!” Upon this command, the other players all freeze. The traffic light turns around, and if they catch anyone moving, the runner is sent back to the starting line.
Play resumes until someone is able to tag the traffic light before they call "red light!" Then, the game restarts, and the winner becomes the new traffic light. This is a game for all ages, but as you’ll see in the book, competition has its consequences, and a harmless game gets a little out of hand.
This game is similar to "Red Light, Green Light". It features a wolf and some eggs. The wolf stands with their back to the eggs while they all stand at a distance. Each chooses and names a color. Once everyone is ready, the wolf and eggs recite their lines:
Wolf: Knock Knock
Eggs: Who’s there?
Wolf: The Wolf
Eggs: What do you want?
Wolf: An Egg
Eggs: What color?
The wolf then begins to name colors. Once they hit on a color that one of the eggs has chosen, the egg has to run toward the wolf and try to get past them without getting caught. If they are tagged, they are eaten and become the new wolf. If the wolf misses, the egg gets to rejoin the other eggs, and new colors are chosen.
I used to play this game on the playground at recess. There were typically about 30 kids playing so it became difficult to choose colors. We really had to search our memories through the colors that we remembered from our 96 pack of Crayola crayons. It was quite a process to choose a wolf, often taking several rounds of “one potato, two potato” to eliminate the players down to one. The Castle Park Kids have a more efficient process for choosing a wolf. After Jamie’s little sister, Becky, is injured during "Red Light, Green Light," Michelle, the oldest player, decides that she should get to be the wolf in the new game.
I rarely ever played the traditional game of tag. There often had to be a twist to it, such as freeze tag, release, and a game called “Batman” which we played in gym class where the taggers wore yellow, Batman cape-style jerseys as they chased the others around the gymnasium.
I have my characters play another variation of tag called, "TV Tag". In regular tag, there is sometimes a “base” where players can run to and tag in order to be safe from the tagger. In TV tag, base is reached by squatting down and naming a TV show. You need to be armed with several TV shows, as you’re not allowed to name the same show twice to be safe. I tend to draw a blank under pressure and was never very good at this game (unless we were allowed to name movies too). In my book, this is a game that everyone can agree to, and they have fun playing it.
The Laughing Game
When you’re tired of running, but you still want to play outside with your friends, you often come up with sit down games that you can play in a group. In my story, a little girl named Kayla, makes up “The Laughing Game”.
This was a made up neighborhood game that we often played on the wall in my yard. Here, one person is “up,” and their job is to stand in front of the “audience” and make everyone laugh. It’s not as easy as it sounds. A lot of jokes and funny gestures fall flat if you don’t commit, and you really have to get into it. They keep trying funny antics until somebody laughs. It has to be a genuine laugh, and the comedian has to be able to decipher a real laugh from a fake one. Once somebody does genuinely laugh, they get to be up next. If multiple people laugh, the one who laughs the loudest wins.
I tried to give the characters as many funny things to do as possible in my book. It was a very difficult scene to write as I was never very good at this game. My sense of humor is very calm and dry, and I’m not comfortable making a fool of myself in a slapstick way. However, I threw those reservations out the window and let the kids get silly, and even a little edgy.
When we all wanted to be wild animals and not live in cages or have a zookeeper, we played another make believe game called “Big Cats”. In this game, we were humans who each possessed a magic necklace. Each necklace was a different color, but they all did the same thing. When we rubbed jewel on the necklace, we could transform ourselves into any kind of big cat that we wanted: lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, etc. We often morphed from one kind of cat to another throughout the game. We ran from hunters, hunted in packs, and created stampedes which often caused one of us to put ourselves in harm’s way of being trampled (much like that famous scene in The Lion King).
In The Castle Park Kids, I mention how the girls play this game at the park while the boys are off playing their own games. Boys often ruin the make believe games that girls make up so the boys in our group often weren’t invited to play this game unless we had created a story line based on our being hunted, which required villains. Then, the boys could join in.
As the book progresses, Jamie grows more independent and begins to venture outside the confines of the playground. At one point in the story, they discover the fun of playing in some nearby woods. Here, they decide to become woodland creatures. The older girls pretend to be deer while the young girls are rabbits. The deer and rabbits are friends, and the rabbits often ride on the backs of the deer (hanging onto their shoulders, rather than really traveling piggyback).
The surroundings of the players often inspire the games that they play, and the same held true for my play group. The summer that we began to play in the woods, we made up games that were best played around the trees and creek that ran through the center of the woods. Unfortunately, this can result in a wicked case of poison ivy, as the characters in my book soon find out.
Summer and swimming go hand in hand. At one point in the book, Jamie is given permission to fill up their plastic pool as long as she is careful to watch her brother and sister and dump out the water afterward. This provides the perfect backdrop for a game of Sea World. Jamie plays the animal trainer. Her siblings, Luke and Becky, play the sea animals. They jump through imaginary hoops, slide down their built-in sliding board, and put on shows for an imaginary audience.
In our games, I was often the animal trainer or a killer whale. We really had to use our imaginations to turn a four inch pool of water into a 20 foot deep swimming tank. Using our knowledge of the real Sea World, we were able to pull off this illusion to give ourselves something to do on a hot day besides spray each other with squirt guns.
We weren’t always animals when we played our make believe games. Many of the games we played were based on old TV shows that we used to watch, or we would act out scenes from movies. However, one playground where we hung out had a steering wheel attached to the wall. Here, we would use this as the wheel of a ship.
In the book, Jamie and her brother and sister turn the castle into their ship to play “pirates.” They look for buried treasure, sail through storms, and rescue each other from falling overboard. It is an action-packed, exhilarating game which is suddenly stopped by a real life catastrophe that brings the Castle Park Kids together after a bad fight.
Some Local Playgrounds That Inspired My Book Cover
The games listed above are just a few that I played growing up. I have a million memories stored with hundreds of ordinary summer days that we made extraordinary, and I tried to capture this in my new novel. I hope that anyone reading this can unearth ordinary memories from their past to inspire a novel, short story, poem, or memoir. A person doesn’t have to live an exceptional life to have great stories. They just have to make them great within the pages of their story.
What were your favorite games growing up? Share them in the comments below!