I went to many birthday parties when I was a child. They were all held in the birthday child’s home, and they all followed the same format. The party started out with games, followed by the birthday girl(I only went to girls’ parties) opening her presents, followed by ice cream and cake. The cake always had the number of candles to represent the birthday and was brought lit to the table for the girl to make a wish and blow out the candles. No one hired clowns or magicians. No one had her party at another location such as a pizza parlor(there weren’t any) or an arcade(there weren’t any). Parties were, therefore, pretty affordable and noncompetitive.
Every party had a variety of pin the tail on the donkey, sometimes nose on the clown, sometimes bow on the hair. Each child was blindfolded, turned around three times, handed a tail(or a nose or a bow) and directed to stick in on the donkey(or clown or hair.) The child who taped it closest to its appropriate place won a small prize. Much merriment surrounded the dizzy child failing to even attach the tail anywhere near the target. Usually there were two other games of the mother’s choosing. Each game had one prize, so three children left the party with a prize.
Contemporary children’s birthday parties are big business. Our local grocery store features a free booklet with party locations, party entertainment and party food. Each child is supposed to leave the party with a “goody bag,” ensuring, I guess, that no child feels slighted. On the other hand, no child gets to win one of three prizes, something I always tried to do.
Fortunately, my daughter has held old fashioned birthday parties in the back yard with games such as running around and blowing bubbles. At one birthday party ten various aged kids spent their time digging a giant hole and leaping over and into it. Once again, it proves that kids make their own entertainment when given the chance. They still devour cake and ice cream! Some things never change.
A pizza restaurant near us hands each child a menu illustrated with several games and a small pack of crayons when we are seated. While the menus vary over time, “tic tac toe” always appears. It’s a simple game of each player alternating placing an x or an o in one of the nine open squares. The first player to get three in a row wins. One thing I have never done is preplan any strategy. This makes me an easy mark for my grandchildren who have figured out who needs to go first and what mark to make to win nearly every time. Their glee delights me.
Another favorite pencil game, “Hangman” is still just as enjoyable as it was years ago when I played it on rainy days at school. The first player thinks of a word and draws an appropriate number of blank spaces to accommodate it. The other player guesses which letters appear in the word. If she is right, the space is filled in(see above for letters “a” and “n.”) If wrong, a piece of the hanging man is added to the noose. Ideally the word is guessed before the complete “hanged man” dangles from the rope. Clearly the more minimal the man, the fewer turns are available before losing out to the rope. When I played my granddaughter at a younger age, I had a very elaborate stick figure with eyes, ears and toes to allow her enough chances to win. Now we stick to just head, arms and legs.
I am always glad for the restaurants which give us some fun things to do while waiting for our food. These word hunts, mazes and tic tac toe games make the arrival of the meals almost secondary. And no one is likely to look at her phone.
My late sister Patsy was born, two weeks late, on January 26, 1953. I was five, so I was very entranced by her arrival into our family. She was the most cheerful of the four of us, born smiling and smiling broadly as death approached. I can hear her laughter sometimes in my mind when I think of her.
Grief is a strange companion. I cruise along for a while and then get hit with it. This time it showed up when I was wondering what to get her for her birthday. After Christmas, I always started putting together an array of big and little presents to send her. I was stopped in my tracks by the reality that I didn’t need to be on the lookout for the tender faith based things she treasured.
When my granddaughter was four, she turned to me in a matter of fact way and said “You are going to leave here first because you got here first.” I always thought of my sister that way too. She was going to outlive me because I had a five year head start on her. It seemed reasonable that we would enjoy the same length of life. As anyone who has lost a younger family member knows, it doesn’t work that way.
Happy Birthday Kid.
In June 1963, my mother drove the four of us, now 16, 13, 10 and 8 across the United States from Portland to Buffalo, New York. She was the only one old enough to drive(I didn’t get my license for two more years) and did all the driving herself. We drove in a Ford station wagon with a luggage rack on the top. The car had a bench front seat, a bench middle seat and a flat “way-back” covered with pillows and sleeping bags. Each seat had its advantages and disadvantages. It won’t surprise any of my readers to know that we almost always wanted to be in the part of the car that we weren’t currently in.
The picture above was taken from the “way back” of the car when we were driving through Yellowstone National Park. My mother tried to hit interesting spots on the way, though her idea of interesting and ours rarely coincided. We did all enjoy Yellowstone, however. “Craters of the Moon,” a must stop for her was tolerated only if she agreed to stop at the endlessly advertised Wall Drug Store.
The drive covered over 2600 miles and took us six days to cross the country. To say that we were bored and often cranky is putting a kind face on things. But we did end up playing several car games as we went. One favorite was the license plate hunt. Each of us tried to be the first to spot a license plate from another state. Wall Drug Store parking lot actually was a gold mine of various plates. With the exception of Hawaii and Alaska, by the time our trip was over, we had seen plates from every state, keeping track on a piece of paper.
The other game was the Alphabet Hunt. Here we each looked for the letters of the alphabet in order from a to z. Each of us kept our own tally and could not count a letter found by a sibling. Billboards were abundant in those days, but it still took many hours to find the complete set. It was frustrating to spot a “q” when I was only up to “e” in the search. But we actually kept to our rules and out of trouble for a while.
My mother played her own game. She would announce a mileage on the odometer and state that no one was to speak until that mileage was reached. Never have numbers turned over more slowly than those times. I am sure she wondered countless times why we hadn’t just gone by train as in previous visits East!
In late summer when everything we could think of to do we had done, my brother and I were always up for an invented game, Counting Cars. Our house lay below a main road and a fence marked the division between our driveway entrance and the highway. Here my brother and I would plunk ourselves down and begin our game. First we each chose a color of car and then we proceeded to count the number of cars of that color that went by. We were often torn between picking a color we liked(blue in my case) or a color that was more typical(green in most years.) Sometimes we went with the one we liked even as we suspected we might lose. Sometimes we argued over whether a car was our chosen color or not. (Anyone who grew up with siblings knows that a lot of time is taken up squabbling over such trivia!) Eventually we would tire of the game and hope dinner was ready.
I taught this game to my grandchildren one hot summer evening. Although the road in front of our house has enough cars to count, they come by less often than on my childhood highway. My grandson immediately came up with a variant on my rules. Since we live near a corner, he decided we needed to guess what color of car would round the corner. He usually chose black, and he was usually right. We ended up laughing and literally rolling around on the front lawn together.
Who says kids died of boredom? We never did, since we were always ready to invent yet another way to pass the time. It certainly beat letting our mother–always ready with a needed household chore-know we were at loose ends!
As I aged, I have noticed a decline in my ability to balance. Apparently this is a natural occurrence leading to many falls in older people. So working to improve my balance requires effort. Lately I have incorporated a tip I learned from the New York Times 30 Day Wellness Challenge which has been running this month. It suggests standing on one foot for half of the time while brushing my teeth, then standing on the other foot for the other half. I use an electric toothbrush which beeps in 30 second intervals, so it is easy to measure my time on each foot. The thing beeps four times, allowing me one full minute of balancing on each foot. In a short time my balance has markedly improved. But partly it is because I remembered a tip I learned as a kid.
A train track belonging to a spur line of the railroad ran below our property. Because the train ran only twice a day, the tracks were empty most of the time. My brother and I spent time trying to see who could stay balanced walking on the rails the longest. Our distances improved after our father came along and taught us his method. “Never look at your feet. Always look at a point down the track and trust that your feet will move along the rail.” As I brush my teeth, I look across into the next room and balance for a longer time than if I look down.
But although the tip applied to balancing on the rail, it seems a good thing to remember in lots of situations. I think it would be helpful advice for cellphone users who are always bumping into me while they are looking down!
The old line goes “sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Of course that isn’t true, but is useful as a playground response to bullying. But the sticks and stones in this post are the common variety found on the ground by kids everywhere. These basis of these two comes naturally, I think, since I have never known a child to pass by a stick or stone without wanting to do something with it.
The first is named “Pooh Sticks,” after an activity in the “Winnie the Pooh” books. It requires a bridge, two or more kids, and a stick each. At the word go, each person drops her stick in the stream and runs to the other side of the bridge.(Clearly this should be played on footbridges, not ones with traffic!) The first stick to emerge is the winner. We played this endlessly for reasons I cannot now fathom.
The other game was skipping stones. I think that I was better at this when I was much shorter and closer to the water. In essence, you find a fairly flat, fairly round stone, throw it low to the ground and hope it skips across the water. The picture shows an excellent example of a successful stone being skipped. The winner is the kid with the most skips. I sometimes can still get one skip. But when I was a child I would fill my pockets with perfect stones and try and try to get a series of skips. Kids learn the idea very quickly, and my grandson tries his skill any time we are near water.
Both activities are free outdoor fun. I think each has definitely stood the test of time. And throwing rocks and sticks into water is definitely more parent approved than the other uses my siblings and I found for them!(The phrase “someone is going to get their eye poked out” comes immediately to mind.)
I confess that my fine motor skills left much to be desired. I never perfected penmanship, for instance, and continually received “needs improvement” on my report cards in that category. Three of the games we liked to play indoors, pictured above, were jacks, pick up sticks and tiddlywinks. I have written a little about the first two a while back, but include them again remembering the challenges they presented to my lack of manual dexterity.
Jacks seemed simple enough. We made a circle on the hardwood floor with a piece of string marking the boundary for the game. Then taking turns, we bounced the ball and took in sequence one jack, then two jacks, and so forth until we could scoop up all the jacks on one bounce. Simple, right? Well there were four of us siblings and we never missed an opportunity for mayhem. The ball would bounce into someone. That someone would start yelling or worse still crying. Jacks would go flying. One or more of us would stomp off, ending the game. I never completed a game of jacks at home, only with a friend at school.
Pick up sticks was also simple to play in theory. Players could remove sticks without any of the others moving. Their turn ended when a stick moved while moving the target stick. What could go wrong? Well, our father was an attorney, so we were well schooled in argument. Needless to say no one could agree whether a stick had moved or not. The player insisted she had removed a stick without a problem. Some other kid would insist “I saw that one move!!!” Also the sticks had pointed ends, supposedly to allow intricate maneuvers. Unfortunately, the sticks had pointed ends. Enough said.
Tiddlywinks required the player to use one large plastic disc to snap little ones into a cup. While some versions of this game had a box with various scores on it, we played with just the cup. If we had owned the fancier version, it must have been destroyed early on. All four of us were hopeless at this game. Our success matched that of rigged carnival games. Discs flew willy-nilly around the room. We dissolved in gales of laughter. Even today, saying the word “tiddlywinks,” I smile thinking of those rainy afternoons indoors.
I grew up in a “privileged” neighborhood which forbid both stores and sidewalks. I guess they were considered déclassé at the time. I was enchanted with the possibilities of sidewalks when I visited my grandparents in Buffalo, New York. I could go down one to the main street and buy penny candy at a store. I could roller skate. But, best of all, I could take a stick of chalk, draw a hopscotch pattern and play with other kids using just a rock and the sidewalk.
I determined at age eleven that when I was grown I would either live completely in the country surrounded by animals or I would live somewhere with sidewalks. Since I was thirty, I have always lived in houses with sidewalks. I think the real estate broker thought I was a little odd when I insisted at only looking at such houses. She had other priorities, but we wanted walk-ability above all else.
I am amused to see that in the neighboring “privileged” town they are methodically building sidewalks where none existed. Apparently they have begun to value a safer place to walk than on the side of the road. Interestingly, they built bike lanes before they thought of pedestrian traffic. Because they are being developed in a patchwork way, they really don’t function very well yet. But perhaps some time in the future some kid will take a piece of chalk outside, draw a hopscotch pattern, toss a rock, and start hopping. I certainly hope so.
We spent much time on the northern Oregon coast, and one constant there was the wind. Clearly wind exists to amuse kids, and we took full advantage of it. We flew paper kites, such as the one on the left. We assembled and flew balsa gliders such as the one on the right. Each was inexpensive. I remember that the planes cost 10 cents. The kites were not much more money. Fortunately they were not a great expense because neither one lasted very long. The kites ripped or the wooden support struts snapped. The balsa fared little better, as bits of the wings and tail broke off after a couple of flights.
In kite shops today these inexpensive paper kites have been replaced by spendy nylon ones, each trying to outshine the next. Some even require two lines to keep them soaring and dipping. I never had very elaborate acrobatics with my paper kites. Mainly they went way up and then crashed to the ground, hence the rips and snaps. But the joy of running full speed against the wind and then watching the kite take off continually thrilled me.
In the park near us, in the neighboring wealthy town, children fly remote controlled planes. Clearly they cost most than 10 cents! They don’t require any running, nor do they need a strong thrust to have them take flight. They also make an annoying humming noise. I suppose our little balsa gliders would seem BORING. But we loved them, and often used our weekly allowance to replace the one broken the week before.
As I continue to write about childhood games, I am struck by how much physical activity we got every day. We didn’t need Fitbits or pedometers to encourage us. We were expected to regularly “burn off our energy.” And we did.