Come Out and Play

Ringaleveo 1,2,3…1,2,3…1,2,3!  This was a war cry that could be heard almost every day of the week when we had no school- teams of kids from the age of 6 to 11 roving the dense streets of Queens on the prowl.  This game was the predecessor to Manhunt, involving capturing and hauling competitors who were hiding on garage roofs or in basement window wells to “jail.”  In the 70’s, we were on the streets every minute that we were not in school.  While eating our sugar-sweetened cereals early in the morning, we listened for the first calls to “come out and play”, and off we went.  Most days we would be gone until we got hungry; then a quick grilled cheese sandwich and back out until dinner.  We roamed for blocks collecting as many as three dozen kids and then, game on.

Another favorite of ours was Stoop Ball.  It was only much later that I realized most kids did not grow up with stoops and therefore had no idea about this one.  One kid would chuck the spaldeen or pinky ball at the stoop while the rest of the group had to try and catch it as it bounced back over their heads.  We would spend hours perfecting the hits off the stoop; sometimes there were just two of us, sometimes half a dozen.  Often younger siblings were coerced into playing fielder as the older one practiced. I am pleased to see that the kids at the school where I teach play this at recess- it really takes me back.

Spud was another game we played a lot.  Every player had a number.  “It” threw the large playground ball up in the air as high as she or he could, and yelled someone’s number.  That kid had to run in and catch the ball and yell “stop.”  Everyone froze, and the new “it” had to throw the ball from where she or he caught it, and try to hit another player.  We played this one for hours.

“Red rover, red rover, send Maureen over,” invited one kid from the opposite team to try to run and break through the hand- chain of the team. If I broke through, I went back to my team and it was our turn. If I couldn’t, then I had to join their team and call the next kid.  It made you feel like such a traitor.

Stickball, handball, dodgeball, cops-n-robbers, hopscotch…we played them all day and into the night.   We made up games like Freeze Tag and TV Tag when we got bored.  But we always came back to our favorites in the end.  Those games, played with no adult supervision or intervention, taught us survival skills, social skills and physical skills; problem-solving, planning, strategies and how to deal with losing and winning.   Injuries were ignored or wrapped up in dirty t-shirts until the hurt one finally went home to mecurochrome or iodine and a bandaid; injured feelings were often dealt with in the same way.  The games were tough teachers, and the players learned how to deal.  Teasing and bullying were part and parcel of the life of a city kid (as I have said- not proud of that but can’t change the facts), and we clawed our way up the social ladder during every game.   It made us all a bit lean and mean, taught us that adversity was just part of life; and probably helped me develop my “work hard, play hard” mantra.

Looking back, I can’t believe we survived our games, physically or emotionally.  It could often be brutal and bruising.  We were mostly first generation American kids, coming from a variety of cultures who shared one set of values: life isn’t fair, the strong survive, whining gets you nowhere.   It seems cold and cruel now, but that was just the way it was…

There is a video series that highlights the street games from New York City in the 70’s.  I highly recommend it for more information:  http://www.newyorkstreetgames.com/home.html

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