Schoolyard Games: The Definitive List
I know what you're saying. "Mason, a 'listicle'?? You're better than this.’ I’m aware that this isn’t my usual, but hear me out. I recently played some kickball which left me very sore but it was an absolute blast. I had not played since jr. high, and it got me thinking. As an adult, what would be the best schoolyard game from my childhood to play? So before you are my ultra scientific findings, as well as some honorable mentions. Remember to say young at heart, people. And for the love of everything holy, stretch before any of these games.
Honorable Mention: Wall Ball
I truly don’t know if this game exists outside of the Illinois town I moved to as a child, because everyone I’ve ever brought “Wall Ball” up to has either had a completely different version or just looked at me
like I was insane. They all missed out because I wake up every day wishing I could play it. All you need is a wall and a ball. Hey, we were eight years old, complexity was not a strength.
The rules of wall ball are simple. Two players stand on the playing surface as one player
bounces the ball (preferably a rubber kickball but anything with decent bounce works) off the ground first and then the wall in one throw. After the ball makes contact with the wall the second player has to catch the ball before it hits the ground. If they fail, they are eliminated from play. If the ball hits the crack between the ground and the wall on the throw, the thrower is out. If the ball goes out of bounds, the thrower is out, unless the catcher tries to catch the ball, which in that case they’re a moron and you’re spared. What 'out of bounds' consists of is up to the players but indoors, we followed the inbound lines of the basketball court from the side inbound line to the paint and capped it at half court.
Once someone is out, they must go the back of the line while a new challenger approaches. Depending on the total number of participants, whoever can defeat the entire crowd twice is the winner. This game is awesome and is absolutely the best schoolyard game in the world, but because I might be the only living human who remembers it, it only gets an honorable mention and 250 lovingly devoted words.
(Dis)Honorable Mention: Dodgeball
I’m not counting dodgeball for two reasons. The first is because the only way to play good dodgeball is indoors on a court, which kind of kills the whole 'schoolyard' thing. The second reason is that dodgeball can be easily corrupted into a form of torture almost unparalleled in childhood. You either loved dodgeball or is the reason you hated childhood. I got lucky, but a lot of kids didn’t.
I don’t think I ever actually made it through an entire game of tetherball. The iconic ball on a rope still sits in hundreds of schoolyards around America and no more than five have ever been used at the same time. I’ve spent more time wishing for the enslaved volleyball’s freedom than actually playing with the damn thing. This game can stay in the past with my
9: Hop Scotch
If you’re over the age of 6 you’ve probably mastered hopscotch. It is momentarily fun to play this game if you come across it on the sidewalk… until you realize your feet are too big to fit into the spaces. Plus, those big feet and long legs literally remove the hopping from this game. Walk Scotch is not nearly as fun.
8: Duck, Duck, Goose
This game was a blast as a young kid. You got to walk around and bop everyone on the head. It felt so rude, yet it was allowed! You thwack someone, yell "Goose!" and haul ass around the circle and into their spot. Once you got past the age of 10, the game became more lopsided for the “Gooser”. They were almost impossible to catch. As an adult, forget it. Now it takes me at least 5 minutes to get off the floor and by then even the smallest of children could have lapped me more than Ricky Bobby at Talladega.
7: Four Square
Four square is a seemingly boring game that can be made completely amazing by playing with creative people. Much like my beloved wallball, the rules are just confining enough to repress utter chaos but lax enough to reward players who can think on their feet. A player standing in one of four squares must hit the ball into one of the three remaining squares on the court without holding the ball or letting it bounce more than once in their square. On paper, it sounds like it has potential, but the game is just standing in a box bouncing a ball a couple of feet in the other direction. Not great for those ADHD kids after a few minutes.
6: Red Light, Green Light
Red Light, Green Light, or as I knew it back in the day, REDLIGHTGREENLIGHTYELLIGHTBOOOOM pits one player against the many. Whoever is directing the game stands with their back to the crowd and recites the words “Red Light, Green Light Yellow Light Boom” or, more accurately, they scream that jumbled up mess I quoted up above. As this is being shouted, the rest of the players start to sprint towards the person. These players must freeze before the person finishes the sentence and turns around. If caught moving, they are eliminated. The winner is the first person to get close enough to tag the speaker in mid-sentence. This game was a blast at age 8 and I can confirm that it was still a blast at age 28.
5: Kick Ball
You might think kickball should be closer to the top of this list and you’d be wrong. Yes, there are pluses to this more accessible version of baseball. I’d argue it’s too accessible. Anyone with one decent leg and a blood alcohol level below 1.8 (open bar at my recent tournament) can get on base. And god forbid you’re actually playing with an actual athlete on the field. You’ll need to find a new ball while they round the bases 18 times. Enjoy your 2-inning game with a final score of 78-77.
4: Red Rover
We like to look at childhood through rose-colored glasses, but in reality, childhood is a ruthless, never-ending contest where only those willing to spill the blood of their peers walk away unscathed. The aptly named Red Rover speaks to the true nature of childhood in the best possible way. If you’ve never played, two lines of people line up across from each other like some Battle Royale version of a Civil War battlefield. Each line of people holds hands. Then one line calls out a person on the other team’s line, literally daring them to break their own ranks. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send *Insert Name* over!” If they manage to break the line, they take two prisoners back to their team. If they are thwarted, they must join the other line themselves. There is no real allegiance in this game, each player is merely a mercenary trying to stay on the winning side. Perfect for the modern adult.
500 is football for people who’d prefer their brains to stay a solid mass. In 500 one person throws a football into a crowd of others. That person arbitrarily assigns points per throw. The thrower can vary the ways the other players can retrieve the points, via catch or last person to return the ball. The first person to the titular number wins. Their reward is becoming the thrower. I feel like that dry explanation doesn’t do the game justice. 500 is pure chaos for the crowd trying to catch the ball, as they essentially get to roleplay going up for a Hail Mary on every single throw. It is probably more fun for the person throwing who gets to toy with the rest of the players. They can call any number they want including calling a “mystery box” which allows them to reveal the points only after someone catches the ball. You can completely screw people over and they can’t do anything about it… until they are in your shoes. I love a game that teaches morally grey life lessons.
Much like with 500, knockout distills the best non-dunk parts of basketball and lets average Joe's go crazy. To play, players line up behind the free throw line of a hoop. The first two players hold basketballs which they shoot in consecutive order. If the second shooter makes a basket before the first, the first shooter is eliminated. As soon as you make your shot, you pass the ball to the next person in line so they can eliminate the person in front of them. Apart from the built-in pressure and drama of the format, but the game forces its players to become heels of varying degrees. Even though every player is on an island, they often work together to eliminate the competition. My favorite knockout move is the power rebound, where you knock another player’s ball as far away as possible while faking your own shot. This should honestly be a part of the NBA All-Star Weekend. I’d watch it on loop.
1: Capture the Flag
Yes, you read this correctly. Capture the flag is the best schoolyard game on earth. Here are the rules I played by as a child. The game consists of two teams, equally manned. They each hold equal-sized territory which is divided by a line down the middle, like in dodgeball. Each team has a flag in their zone as well as a “prison”. The goal, as you might have guessed, is to capture the flag. In order to do so, you must enter the other team’s territory and retrieve the flag without being tagged. If you are tagged behind enemy lines, you are sent to their ‘prison’ (I’m just realizing how dark this game was). The only way to get out of prison is for someone else on your team to make it untagged into the prison boundary. Then they can escort you back to your territory without risk of being tagged.
What makes this game so awesome is just how fluid it is from minute to minute. Teams are constantly ebbing and flowing, sending in single players, waves of players, false runs at the flag to free prisoners and vice versa, or trying to bait the other team into sending their own for an ambush. It can take an hour to win or 45 seconds. It can be played at a breakneck pace or a chess-like crawl. I adored this game in my youth. So, if anyone wants to get together and play, drop me a line. Then after we finish… I can teach you wallball!