A year ago, when shelves dedicated to toilet paper and baking yeast yawned empty and respirator masks and hand sanitizer were sold out seemingly everywhere, shoppers in England encountered another shortage: croquet sets.
But supplies have rebounded, and as leisure seekers everywhere should recognize, croquet and related lawn games — played outdoors and at a convenient distance — are reasonably safe alternatives to team sports or going to the gym.
So this spring, with many adults still awaiting second vaccine doses and children still unvaccinated, why not pick up a mallet (or a racquet, a horseshoe, a bocce ball) for some intergenerational fun?
Beci Carver, a lecturer at the University of Exeter, described playing a lawn game as "a socially distanced intimate encounter, which is kind of a lovely thing, really."
Lawn games do have rules, but not too many, and they don't demand a great amount of skill.
"They aren't athletic endeavors," said Brooks Butler Hays, author of "Balls on the Lawn: Games to Live By." "The stakes are low enough that even if people aren't into the competition, they can still have fun."
A noncontact leisure activity, lawn games don't require much effort, either, and you can wear whatever you like.
"Most of these games were promoted as you wouldn't get sweaty while doing it; you could look quite nice," said Kasia Boddy, a lecturer at Cambridge University.
People have played some version of a lawn game for thousands of years, with equipment as varied as cow intestines, pig bladders, sharp sticks and loose stones. There are exciting regional variations like Sweden's Kubb, Germany's hammerschlagen and Italy's ruzzola, a game played with a wheel of aged pecorino.
But the games suggested here are less esoteric (no cheese wheels required), and none require a dedicated court — just a reasonably flat stretch of grass or dirt or gravel. Whether you flout open-container laws while you play is strictly up to you.
The origins of croquet are disputed. Some historians trace it back to a French game called paille maille, while others trace it to an Irish game played with broomstick mallets called crookey. Croquet, as we now know it, surged throughout Britain in the 1860s and was soon exported to its various colonies.
Some of its popularity is owed to its status as the rare sport that men and women could play together, which made it a favored avenue for flirtation. (Some clerics denounced it as immoral, a good indication that it was probably a lot of fun.)
"Women would be wearing special croquet dresses that were slightly shorter than normal dresses, so they would glimpse ankles and so on," Boddy said.
Jane Austen knew how to have a good time — quilting, gardening, whist — and in 1808 she wrote to her sister that she and her nephew had taken up a lawn game, shuttlecock, a precursor of badminton.
Shuttlecock games go back thousands of years. Badminton, the modern iteration, is typically played by either two or four players, who bat a shuttlecock or birdie, usually made of plastic, across a net. (The nets are lightweight and can be assembled most anywhere.)
Plenty of sets are available for under $50, and you can even pick up glow-in-the-dark shuttlecocks for nighttime play.
Bocce, pétanque, lawn bowling
Depending on how loosely you define these games, in which larger balls are tossed toward a smaller one, the concept emerged perhaps 7,000 years ago. In medieval England, bocce was briefly condemned by church and state, as it distracted the working classes from both. (Nobles were addicted, too. Legend has it that Sir Francis Drake delayed defeating the Spanish Armada so that he could finish a round.)
Dutch colonists brought the games to America in the early 17th century. Many city parks include bocce courts and bowling greens, though you can manufacture your own on any reasonably flat rectangle of ground.
Wooden, metal and resin sets can be had for under $40, with light-up sets available, too.
Horseshoes, quoits, ring toss
These dexterity games can trace their lineage to recreation for idling Roman soldiers or even further back to Greek discus events. In the 14th century, quoits, a game in which a metal disc is aimed at a wooden peg, was considered so diverting that King Richard II banned the public from playing it.
Exported to America, both horseshoes and quoits flourished in the colonial era, though horseshoes eventually became more popular (so much so that the 19th-century Duke of Wellington credited "pitchers of horse hardware" with winning the Revolutionary War).
Wooden and rope ringtoss sets — the successors to quoits — are widely available, as are metal and plastic horseshoe sets.