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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Game playing: the stoop, the street and the schoolyard


(Photo: Museum of the City of New York, Berenice Abbot)

(Cross-posted from Black Kos )

I was thinking today about growing up in NY (with part of each summer in Philly) and had memories of games I learned to play sitting on the stoop, or out on the sidewalk(or in the street dodging traffic)in Brooklyn, realizing that many of us share those same urban memories, though some are probably culturally specific. Others are generational – not sure how many kids still play simple games that don’t have a game controllers attached these days, but I can hope.


I remember hopscotch, skelly (or skully) played with bottle caps filled with tar, jonny-on the pony, ring-a-leevio, jacks and jump-rope. I had roller-skates that you tightened with a key. No roller rinks for us; we had cracked sidewalks.

I remember graduating from simple rope jumping to double dutch which became an art form and now has become a national competition. There was a “black girl” style to it which required timing and rhythm, whether you were turning the ropes or jumpin’ in – sometimes with more than one of your girlfriends.

Double Dutch

In African American Oral Traditions in Louisiana Mona Lisa Saloy discusses, playing the dozens, and other verbal forms of expression which start with simple rhyming and hand-clapping.


Verbal artistry among African American children is equally expressive and creative, although the forms are different. Children’s lore in New Orleans Black neighborhoods bears a necessary developmental function. Sidewalk songs pass on attitudes and knowledge of self, imitations of adult life and values, and distinct criticisms of adult life and societal norms.

She illustrates with this sidewalk rhyme:

I like ice cream

I like cake

I like a colored boy

And he don’t fake

So step back white boy

You don’t shine

I’ll get another colored boy

to beat yo’ behind

Last night,

the night before

I met my boyfriend at the candy store

He bought me ice cream

He bought me cake

He sent me home with a stomach ache

Mommie, Mommie, I feel sick

Call the doctor, quick, quick, quick

Doctor, Doctor, before I die

Close my eyes one to five

I said a one, a two, a three, a four, a five

See that house

On top of that hill

That’s where me and my boyfriend live

Cookin’ that chicken and cookin’ that rice

Come on baby, let’s shoot some dice!

-Sunni Maria Fitch, age 6, with John Anthony Fitch, 4

New Orleans, 1987

I don’t remember anything quite that complex-what sticks in my head is “Miss Mary Mack


Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack

   All dressed in black, black, black

   With silver buttons, buttons, buttons

   All down her back, back, back.

   She asked her mother, mother, mother

   For fifty cents, cents, cents

   To see the elephant, elephant, elephant

   Jump over the fence, fence, fence.

   He jumped so high, high, high

   He reached the sky, sky, sky

   He never came down, down, down

   ‘Til the 4th of July, ly, ly!

which crossed cultural groups-though I thought it was a black thing when I was a kid.

A great book about this is:


The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop

The Games Black Girls Play illustrates how black musical styles are incorporated into the earliest games African American girls learn-how, in effect, these games contain the DNA of black music. Drawing on interviews, recordings of handclapping games and cheers, and her own observation and memories of gameplaying, Kyra D. Gaunt argues that black girls’ games are connected to long traditions of African and African American musicmaking, and that they teach vital musical and social lessons that are carried into adulthood. In this celebration of playground poetry and childhood choreography, she uncovers the surprisingly rich contributions of girls’ play to black popular culture.

But as I said – it crosses cultures.  Found an interesting subway video of hand-clap play

Some play was simply a matter of cooling off. Public swimming pools were rare, apartments not air-conditioned, so summer time was run under the pump time in many neighborhoods.


Equipment to play with was cheap.  A clothes line rope, a “spauldeen ball” or a simple set of jacks.



I still remember chanting “A my name is Alice and my boyfriends name is Al …I come from Alabama and I eat apples,”as I bounced the ball under my leg.

The boys used the spauldeen to play stickball (as a tom boy I played too).  You didn’t need fancy baseball equipment or a field. The street was where you played till it was too dark to see and your mom made you come inside.


The spauldeen was used in schoolyard handball. If you were really good you had a special old glove with the fingers cut off.  Rarely did boys play with girls.

Sometimes I’d hea
d uptown on the subway to East Harlem (El Barrio) and the games were pretty much the same, with the addition of dominoes. You could hear the clicking on the outside card tables in front of tenement buildings and shouts of “capicu!” could be heard up and down the block. Everyone played, from the youngest kids to community elders.

I didn’t realize dominoes were part of African American history till I saw this painting by Horace Pippen:


As soon as you could hold a deck of cards you learned to play those games too.  I started with tunk and spades but couldn’t wait to be old enough to play bid whist with my older cousins.  

I never met anyone white who played bid whist, unless they grew up in a black neighborhood.   By the time I was in college, whist playing was damn near a profession. I had classmates that flunked out of school cause they spent more time trying to “run a boston” than they did in their books.

Black artist Annie Lee documents bid whist in several of her pieces – notably

“6 no uptown”, meaning you were bidding no trumps with Ace king high…a very hard bid to make, and if you and your partner make it you have bragging rights for the night.


What games did you play growing up?


  1. I will always be a country kid at heart.

    I grew up in what at the time was the second largest city in Michigan. The population was around 200,000, but it never seemed like an urban setting.

    We played lots of sports – basketball, baseball, softball, hockey, football. Fishing, hunting, camping, and canoeing were big parts of my childhood. I was one of three brothers. The closest thing to jacks and rope jumping would be mumbletypeg. The family also played all sorts of board and card games as family activities. I learned  how to play euchre and double-pinochle when I was nine or ten. We also played gin rummy, spades, hearts, and cribbage. Always loved to play cribbage with my dad. We were still playing in the last year of his life.

    I didn’t play bid whist as a youngster. I learned how to play bid whist and tonk while working for GM. Both games are short and can be played during the lunch break. I had no idea that bid whist was mainly played by African-Americans. I thought it was simply a variation of whist that came to the colonies from England. Learn something new every day.

  2. Kysen

    Three musings from Dee in one day!

    I remember the rhymes…can still do Miss Lucy near the whole way through (I’ve always had an ear for rhymes and lyrics…if words are put to a beat, I can remember ’em). I may be a white boy, but, I can STILL jump in on double-dutch and skip till the kids laugh so hard they fail w/ the ropes.

    Growing up on the island…all us kids played together…boys and girls. Some of the girls were as tough (or tougher!) than the boys. Just ’bout the only thing I can remember the girls NOT playing was a very unfortunately named game of tackle.

    Skip ropes, clap games, multiple types of tag (freeze, tv, elbow, rocket, etc), hide-n-seek, hopscotch, foursquare, basket/base/stick/kick ball, capture the flag, Marco Polo, Sharks and Minnows, chicken fightin’, and an untold list of ‘make believe’ games (war, cowboys and indians, star wars, swamp fox, etc). Games played on streets, in the woods, on the beaches, and in the water. We were allowed to roam free until dark, and even later in the summers.

    I believe that kids miss out these days. They miss out on the socialization…on the life skills learned by interacting outside the purveyance of adult eyes. Where you have to learn to negotiate, and compromise, and defend yourself (and others). Where you learn to work as a team out of necessity, not because mom and dad signed you up and you wear the same color jersey. Where, yes, you get in fights…or learn the art of flight (and learn to tell when each is called for). You learn self-reliance…AND you learn that there truly is strength in numbers.

    Where you learn to take risks…to climb that tree, jump that creek, swing from that rope, scramble up that rock face…without your mom saying “don’t do that, you might hurt yourself!”.

    Kids these days spend far too much time indoors…far too much time in front of computers/tv/video games (don’t get me wrong, there is room for them too, in moderation). Nearly all ‘playtime’ is planned and organized and with adult supervision. I think that it weakens the self-reliance that is so important to build in childhood. Too many kids grow up in virtual bubbles. Kept ‘safe’. But, imo, it weakens them in a manner that can stretch well into adulthood. I find it quite sad.

    Just my 6 cents worth.

    Sorry for yet another ramble.


  3. You know something that I don’t miss from childhood is smog.  LA is light years better than when I was growing up and for the longest there they didn’t even make the kids stay indoors like a bit later when it was bad.  We used to call it getting smog in your throat and it felt like anything over 3/4 of a breath caused a butcher knife to cleave you right down the sternum.

    I think we So Cal kids were more spread out too, kind of hard to get up a game with anything more than 5 kids and I didn’t have that many in my neighborhood.  

    Our parents would still turn us out to play and call us back when the street lights came on, I’m wondering if we aren’t the last generations to do that kind of thing.  I don’t know if I’d of ever left my room if I’d of had internet access.

  4. born and raised in a city, a rarity these days in mine.

    as a side note, i recall as a young child in the 80’s visiting in israel of all places and learning double dutch. who would have thought that a game invented in inner cities of america would make its way across the world.

  5. HappyinVT

    And marbles.  She could shoot the crap out of some marbles; made me cry a time or two because, despite being nine years older, I got no consideration.

    I never could jump rope ~ too damned uncoordinated.  Loved hopscotch, though.  And dodgeball ~ man, I’d forgotten about dodgeball.  Ahhh, the good ol’ days where the worst thing I had to worry about was being in the house before the street light came on.

  6. Rashaverak

    played Skelly with bottle caps, and played stickball with a spauldeen.  Also played chestnuts… using a chestnut tied to a string.  The goal was to crack the other player’s chestnut by flinging your chestnut against it, without cracking your chestnut.

    We also used spauldeens to play Chinese (a form of handball played on the sidewalk, against the brick or concrete wall of a building).

  7. Actbriniel

    When our city cousins would come out every Friday night we would go out and play Red Rover or Red Light Green Light in the dark (after watching Gilligan’s Island of course).

    Othertimes we would mostly go exploring in the woods and build forts.  We didn’t have many other kids around to play with during the summers.  During the school year there wasn’t much time for play.

  8. DaNang65

    I will finally concede that Brooklyn kids were tougher than we were if you tell me the girls played “Johnny-Ride-A-Pony” in Brooklyn.

    The way we played in the Bronx, usually with a mailbox or a street lamp post for the anchor, it was a pretty rough game. Not much less contact than playing tackle football with no equipment.

    We always saved the heaviest guy for last, the back breaker.

    Spauldeens!Over the years I’ve found it was a dead giveaway to an NYC childhood whenever I’ve heard anybody call it a “spauldeen”. Counting sewers for how many bases a hit was worth.

    Or “Single, Double, Triple”, the spauldeen bounced first against the ground, then a wall. If the other team caught it on the fly you were out. If it bounced once “Single!”, twice “Double” and so forth.

    Or simple two person stickball, a pitcher and a batter, the strike zone a box with an X through it painted on the schoolhouse wall. Cleanly fielded grounders were outs. The number of fences hit over on the fly how many bases a hit counted for.

    Almost makes me want to go back. Almost.


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