All About … Active Games


It may be difficult for today’s children to believe, but there was a time, not so very long ago, when there were no video games (nor consoles to play them on!), no iPads, no computers — really, no electronics to speak of in the home at all — and children played inside only when they were forced to by bad weather or illness. (This period is generally referred to by parents and older people as “the Good Old Days.”)  Most days of the year, children were outside with their friends, playing variants of games that had been played by their parents, their grandparents, and even their great-grandparents in their turn.

Here are a few active games that were commonly played in Canadian schoolyards from the 1930s to the 1970s. Let’s hope that a few survive to this day!


This appears to be a descendant of the game known in late nineteenth-century New England as “Call-Ball.”  This game was mentioned in Games and Songs of American Children (1883) as having derived from a game played in Austria earlier in the nineteenth century. 

This version of the game — sort of dodgeball meets handball — was played in Montreal in the 1930s.   A group of children stands beside a brick wall; one bounces a small ball off the wall and calls out the name of one of the other children, who must then run and retrieve the ball. The rest of the children scatter and run about until the catcher calls “Stanza,” whereupon they must freeze in place. The catcher then tries to throw the ball and hit one of the other children.  If he is successful in hitting another player, then that player becomes the catcher.

British Bulldog

Players stand at one end of the play area with one or more “bulldogs” in the centre. Players try to run from one end of the area to the other without being tagged by the bulldogs. Any players tagged remain as additional bulldogs. The last remaining runner wins the game.

Red Rover

Players divide into two lines, which stand facing one another some ten metres apart. Each team links hands (or elbows), thus forming a chain. One team “calls out” a player — let’s call him Jimmy — on the opposing side:

“Red Rover, Red Rover,

We call Jimmy over!”

The player called out must try to run through the opposing team’s chain. If he is successful, he may choose one of the “broken links” to come back and form part of his team. If not, (i.e. if the chain does not break) the runner must form part of that chain.

When one team is reduced to one player, he must try to break through the chain. If he does, he may choose another link and increase his team. If not, the game ends.

Kick the Can

Kick the Can

Kick the Can

I always imagined that “Kick the Can” just entailed a bunch of kids kicking an empty tin can down a dusty country road, but it is, in fact, an organized game with specific rules.

The game is one of the kinds sometimes known as “wide games”, and is a mixture of tag and capture-the-flag; an empty can (probably chosen for its acoustic qualities) is placed in the centre of the play area.  One player is chosen to be “it”, and the rest scatter and hide while “it” counts to some predetermined number, whereupon he tries to find and tag the other players. Any player tagged must “go to jail,” in a spot close to the can. Any player who is not in jail and who can get to the can and kick it may release one player from jail — and each trip back to the empty can and subsequent kick releases another player.

If “it” tags all the players then the game is over, and a new player becomes “it” for the next round.

Some, if not all, of these games have been banned from school playgrounds due to fears of injury to children during rough play. Not all the fears are overblown; in 2013, an eight-year-old British girl died from injuries sustained in a London school playground after being accidentally pushed to the ground by a boy playing British Bulldog.

Despite this tragic accident, however, I can’t help feeling that banning high-energy games from schools has been a factor in producing a generation of overweight, fidgety, and unfit kids — and that we might do well to bring them back, under adequate supervision and with appropriate safeguards. What do you think?


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