running around games

Chasing games

Steve Roud explores the enduring popularity of chasing games.

It is impossible to verify, but it’s a pretty safe bet that children the world over have always chased each other for fun, and that in most societies they have turned this into the simplest of all chasing games which we call – depending where you come from – 'tig', 'tag', 'tick', 'it', 'he', or 'touch'. One child chases the others trying to touch them; whoever s/he touches becomes, temporarily, ‘it’ and is now the chaser until s/he touches another. The game, and the name 'Tick', go back at least to the early seventeenth century, when they first enter the written record in Britain.

The simple game relies on what is one of the most useful inventions of childhood, fundamental to a huge number of children’s games, the ‘it role’ – the person doing the chasing, who is possessed of temporary powers – who also has many names, including ‘the itter’.

'Tig' has shown itself to be infinitely adaptable and variable over the centuries. In the basic game, there is a solo ‘itter’, but there are many versions where the role is cumulative, as in 'Family tig' (where the itters operate independently) or 'Chain tig' (where they must hold hands). Then there are variations in what happens when a player is touched. Probably the most widespread is 'Stuck in the mud', where those tigged do not become the ‘itter’ but are stuck in place until other players free them by crawling between their legs or under their arms. Even this is amenable to embellishment, those stuck may only a limited time to survive (as in 'Melting candles') or must wave their arms around like 'Octopuses'.

This film explores a variation of the game "tig", otherwise known as "tag".

Other rules add variety: all players must follow the netball or football lines painted on the playground ('Line tig'), or can gain temporary immunity with 'Feet off ground', or while touching iron or wood. In fact, the game of 'Tiggy tiggy touch wood', where you are safe while touching a door, fence, tree, etc., was so widely known in the nineteenth century that it gave us the phrase ‘touch wood’ which people still say when they want safety. In 'French tig' the itter must hold the part of the body where s/he was tigged, and in 'Bum tig' you can only be tigged on your bottom.

This recording discusses the various ways in which children play 'tig' also known as 'Tiggy scarecrow', tag' or 'it'.

But there are winners and losers in the games world, as new variations are introduced, others are abandoned and forgotten. 'Toilet tig' (a version of 'Stuck in the mud' where you have to pretend to sit on the loo and can only be released by another pulling your chain) is probably quite recent, and boys nowadays talk affectionately of 'Take-down tig', where the touching is replaced by wrestling to the ground. But the previously well-known 'Ball tig', where you throw a ball to ‘it’ someone, does not seem to have survived, while the previously ubiquitous Kiss chase, loved and loathed in equal measure by children over the years, appears to have only a tenuous hold in the modern playground.

This film shows a variation of the traditional came of "tig", or "tag", as seen in playgrounds around the country.

One major development on the chasing theme is when there are two opposing teams – one chasing the other in some way – which opens up a whole new world of characters: cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, English and Germans, aliens and humans, dinosaurs, and so on. The emphasis here is often on ‘capture’ and there is always a prison or other place where captives are held, and rules about how they can be released by their team-mates.

This footage was filmed in 1957 and shows children playing the popular variation of ‘Tag’, commonly called ‘Cops and Robbers’.

Some of the most exciting and fast-moving games, such as 'Relieve-O' and 'Forty forty' have this release as one of their main features, and this often leads to interesting verbal elements – cries and formulae which have the force of law within the game and are used to regulate play or to mark key points - you have to shout “Forty forty home” or you are not truly safe, and “No fools around the pole” stops people standing too close to the home.

Another way of re-fashioning the basic chasing game is to restrict the playing-space, or change its shape. One of the most common formats is for the players to be required to cross the playground or street, with those who are it in the middle trying to intercept them.

The main variations here are in the way that the players have to get across – in 'Cockerusha', they have to hop across and are barged by the hopping itters – or there is a dialogue in which the one in the middle controls the movements of the others by giving selective permission, as in 'Farmer farmer', or lays down conditions, as in 'Colours' – “only if you’re wearing red..”.

In a class of its own, of course, is 'British bulldog', played in school gyms and army barracks but usually banned in the modern playground and spoken of in hushed and awed tones. But children play similar games, given the chance, and firmly believe they are fooling the authorities by calling it something else.

Played indoors, 'Hide and seek' is a relatively sedate game, but variations played out in the open often included elements of chasing back to base which added a much more exciting dimension, especially when played in the street in the twilight. Often called something like 'Kick the can', as that action starts the game and is what the players have to do to get safely ‘home’.

In this film children play a singing version of hide and seek.

In this film children from Gateshead play "hide and seek", a game seen in playgrounds across the country.

The circle is another of the basic formats for children’s play, and a number of circular games include an element of running and chasing. 'Cat and Mouse' or 'Fox and chickens' have players running in and out of the circle, while in the often fondly remembered 'Drop handkerchief' or 'I sent a letter to my love' the chase (or race in opposite directions) is initiated by one person strolling round the outside of the circle and choosing who must run by dropping an item behind them or tapping them on the back. A more recent development on the same lines is 'Duck duck goose', usually played by younger children.

As indicated, many of these chasing games have long roots in Britain, and they often had split personalities. They could take on a very different character, depending on the social context, who was involved, and, most importantly, whether or not adults were around. They could be found as party games in the home, at church picnics and socials, at school events, or on the village green, as well as in the classic street and playground, sometimes spontaneous and at other times highly organised.

A version of 'Drop handkerchief', for example, was hugely popular in Victorian times as a game called 'Kiss in the ring', played by young adults, and as far back as the sixteenth century courting couples did not disdain to play chasing games based on 'Tig'. Two games especially, 'Prisoner’s base' or 'Chevy chase', and 'Barley-break', were so much part of everyday life that they were mentioned in passing by William Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries.

Banner credit: Haywood Magee/Stringer/Getty Images

  • Steve Roud
  • Steve Roud is a retired Local Studies Librarian and is now a freelance writer and researcher interested in all aspects of British folklore and social history. His most recent book, The Lore of the Playground (Random House, 2010) is an in-depth study of children’s games and traditions over the past 100 years, based on numerous interviews with both children and adults and on wide-ranging historical research. Previous publications include: London Lore (2008), The English Year (2006), The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain & Ireland (2003), and the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore (2000). Another continuing project is the Folk Song Index database, which is an exhaustive guide to English language traditional songs found in publications, recordings and unpublished collections in Britain and overseas. It currently contains over 175,000 references and is becoming the worldwide standard reference tool in the subject. It is available on the website of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.