Growing up, I spent many evenings roaming the neighborhood with a motley pack of kids, racing through the damp grass and muggy, late-summer air, inhaling mosquitoes and gnats. After dinner, we were turned loose onto the sprawling suburban yards to play among ourselves, unchaperoned and unencumbered.
Night games, as we called them, began with a round of Statue Maker or Freeze Tag. Later, as the sky grew dark, our favorite was Ghost in the Graveyard.
"One o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock," we'd shout from somebody's front porch as the appointed ghost ran to hide. When we reached "midnight," we'd chant in unison, "Starlight, moonlight, I hope to see a ghost tonight," and fan out to look for the hider. We'd creep around corners and past shadowy bushes, senses heightened with anticipation … until — "Boo!" — the ghost jumped out to surprise us.
Then we'd shriek and race back to the safety of the porch before the ghost tagged us. With our hearts still racing, we'd catch our breath in heaving gasps. And then we'd start counting again …
Throughout Minnesota and around the country, these carefree games — from Red Light, Green Light to Kick the Can — are still a staple of backyards, schoolyards, playgrounds and camps. Unlike organized sports, they're more spontaneous than scheduled. Unlike electronic games, they require little or no equipment.
But summer games are more than mere child's play: They're an important tool for developing kids' physical, cognitive and social skills. And they can forge a magic camaraderie among kids of all ages and abilities.
They endure, in part, because they're passed from child to child, despite the decline of unstructured, unsupervised play; the long hours kids spend being schlepped between athletic practices, games, clinics and tournaments; and the addictiveness of digital devices.
Brandon Barker, a lecturer at the University of Indiana who studies children's folklore, said informal children's games have been around forever, citing centuries-old poems and paintings that depict kids engaging in the same types of play they enjoy today.
Many activities forming the basis of games — such as hiding and revealing, or chasing and evading — are found across time and cultures.
"A lot of the games that kids play stay the same because they are passed down, but also a lot stay the same because certain playful activities are just emergent, and it's likely that kids will just stumble onto them," he said.
"Once we become adults, we don't think about these games very frequently," Barker added. "But the recall is almost immediate."
Vivid memories of playing Capture the Flag as a kid inspired Minneapolis musician Al Church to write a song called "Night Games" last year.
Church, 35, considers himself a member of "the generation before cellphones" and said the nostalgic song was meant to evoke the sense of community created by kids who banded together to create their own fun. The players' attitude was: "We're all together, we're all bored out of our minds, and we can't afford a Sega Genesis," he joked.
Fans have told Church that they, too, played games with the neighborhood kids and could relate to the emotions the song conjured: the freedom, the element of surprise, just the right amount of danger.
"Night Games" comments on how an increasing sense of fear — the feeling that "It's not safe to go outside the windows of your home," as the chorus puts it — has curbed kids' independence. "I wanted to write a song that talked about what it means if kids are protected all the time and always have access to their parents," Church said.
In 2012, the Journal of American Folklore published a paper that looked at how American children's game preferences have changed over more than 100 years. Comparing four studies revealed that organized sports and electronic games showed the greatest increase in popularity.
The first survey, from 1898, features many evocatively named, now-obscure games such as Open the Gates as High as the Sky, Chick a My Granny Crow, and William My Tremble Toe.
The most recent survey, from 1998, found computer games and video games ranked #1 and #3, respectively, for boys, and #2 and #18 for girls.
But that survey also confirmed that old-fashioned active games — from Hide and Seek to Monkey in the Middle — remain ubiquitous.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's Rec Plus program, which provides all-day child care for kids of elementary-school age, is one place where those games thrive.
Kasey Collver, who oversees the program's Armatage Park location, said that variations on Tag and Dodgeball are always popular with the kids. Beetle Tag, for example, is a riff on the classic, where kids who are tagged by the "It" player roll onto their backs, like overturned bugs, until a free player tags them back into play.
Collver also said the kids are gaga about the new game Gaga Ball, a cousin of Dodgeball that's typically played in a hexagonal penlike enclosure known as a pit. (Some parks have permanent pits — otherwise, kids improvise their own structures.)
And Dodgeball is still actively played. But now kids peg each other with polyurethane-coated foam "gator balls" that don't sting like the old red rubber ones used to.
Risks and rewards
Any activity involving physical contact has its hazards. And plenty of the old games — such as the hilltop shoving match, King of the Mountain — seem to welcome injury.
Libby Tucker, a professor at New York's Binghamton University with a doctorate in Folklore Studies, admitted that her favorite childhood game, Red Rover, got kind of rough when kids charged at the line of hand-holding opponents and tried to break through.
"In the context of today, that game seems maybe a little bit risky, as kids can get sore arms or fall down or get bruised," she said. "But we just loved it."
While computer and video games may be physically safer by comparison, they have other perils.
Tucker noted that many researchers speculate that the increasing social alienation among young people is linked to being isolated by their digital devices.
And even though traditional games can be passed down in structured settings, supervised by camp counselors and teachers, kids then miss the chance to develop some of the complex social skills inherent in child-led free play, such as negotiating plans, coming to a consensus, and creating new challenges for themselves.
Barker and Tucker said they believe the tradition of game-playing isn't going anywhere, even as it continues to evolve. Both attributed this to a foundational insight of children's folklore studies: that kids are simultaneously radically conservative and radically inventive.
"They love to pass on things that they've learned from other kids, but are also very creative about introducing variations," Tucker said.