An introduction to ball games

Ball games are, of course, a test of skill and coordination in all playgrounds, but they’re also part of a long cultural history.

Games played by girls with one or two balls, sometimes against a wall, sometimes not, and accompanied by a rhyme, such as the popular ‘One, Two, Three, a’Leary’, or ‘Oliver Twist, Can You Do This’, were collected across Britain throughout the 20th century. These games, variously called ‘plainses’, ‘sevenses’, ‘exercises’ and other names, seem to have largely disappeared from school playgrounds. Others however have taken their place, and these are played by boys and girls.

This two-ball rhyme 'Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Jews' was recorded by Iona Opie in Salford in 1975.

Football has become the dominant ballgame of many playgrounds but all is not quite as it seems. In virtually all playgrounds, it’s impossible to play 11-a-side standard football. Children instead improvise footballing games using, say, one goal only, everyone against everyone else, three goals and in, and so on. Again, as with all the other games, football is used as a source, which the children transform to fit the participants of the moment and the contingencies of place. Children may also practise individual skills and tricks, like spot, headers and volleys and keepie-uppy. Football has perhaps the most conspicuous cultural dimension, and many children will enthusiastically tell you which team they support, which player they idolise, which stadium they visited or aspire to visit.

A short film exploring how girls play football, with and without boys.

It is worth remembering that not all children enjoy games of physical prowess. We came across one child who had found an ingenious way around this whilst still engaging with footballing culture, which was to improvise football commentaries on the playground in the style and tone of professional commentators, complete with imaginary microphone.


In this film Michael Rosen introduces the history of ball games.

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Article: © Michael Rosen

  • Michael Rosen
  • Michael Rosen is Professor of Children's Literature at Goldsmiths University. From 2007–2009 he was Children's Laureate.

    Born in 1946 in North London he started writing poetry when he was twelve years old, creating satirical poems about people he knew. Now he  is one of the best-known figures in the children’s book world, he is renowned for his work as a poet, performer, broadcaster and scriptwriter. As an author and by selecting other writers’ works for anthologies he has been involved with over 140 books. He visits schools with his one-man show to enthuse children with his passion for books and poetry. You Can’t Catch Me won the Signal Poetry Award in 1982 and such is the enduring appeal of the poems that the book was re-issued in 2006 with Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard as Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Bloomsbury). His classic picture book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books), won the Nestle Smarties Grand Prize in 1989. The English Association awarded Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (Walker Books), an Exceptional Award for the Best Children’s Illustrated Books of 2004, in the 4-11 age range. More information about Michael, his books and what he's doing is available on his website: https://www.michaelrosen.co.uk/