Ball games

Steve Roud explores the wide variety of ball games popular among children.

Forget fire, the wheel, and the steam engine, the person who deserves the gratitude of countless generations of humans across the world is whoever invented the ball – that simple piece of technology which affords us fun in an apparently infinite number of ways by simply throwing, kicking, hitting, catching and bouncing a small spherical object.

For generations, British children have had a wide variety of ball-games for use in street, playground, back garden, and anywhere else they happen to be. Some games are for teams or groups, others can be done solo or in pairs; some are for running around, while others are static and involve rhymes and actions which impose rhythm, dexterity and style on the player. As with all aspects of children’s play, some have survived into the modern world, but many have faded away over the years.

This short film explores the impact of the 2010 Football World Cup on childrens' games.

For many generations, boys have been obsessed with 'Football', and will play it every chance they get, and its very ubiquity means that many adults take little notice. But it is the local rules, by which children make the game their own, which are of interest – how do you choose sides, how do you cope with different age groups and abilities who want to play, how do you factor in irregular or restricted playing spaces, and even, when times were poorer and games were played in the street, what do you use when you don’t have a ball? Many a pair of rolled up gloves or caps were ruined on the way to school in the interest of sport.

Children, in 1970, describe the rules of 'kick can' to Iona Opie

If there are only two or three of you, you can practice your skills against a wall with games of 'Spot' or 'Slam' or 'Cannons' where you get a set number of lives in trying to return the ball your opponent has kicked or thrown. Or the very widespread 'Kerby', which needs a kerb, steps, or ledge to introduce an element of uncertainty and extra skill in the angle of the bounce back. There are also infinite variations of 'Dodge-ball', where the ball is either thrown or kicked at people running across the playing-space in front of a wall

One of the predominately girls’ games which was extremely popular up to about the 1970s but is now rarely seen, was 'Two-balls', played mainly in spring or summer, with two tennis balls against a wall, involving a hand motion which looks a bit like juggling.

A surprising number of actions and poses could be incorporated into the incessant rhythm achieved by the skilful player – each with its technical term, and done in strict sequence and regulated by a chanted rhyme – “Plainsie, Clapsie, Round the world and Backsie, First your heel and then your toe, Then your knee and back you go”. Or a girl can move in and take over from another without breaking the rhythm – “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John / Next door neighbour carry on”.

This footage was filmed in London in 1957 and shows a girl playing the two-ball game 'One, Two, Three a-Leary'.

Any blank wall was fair game, and many a householder who had the misfortune to live on the end of a terrace complained about the incessant thudding of balls when the game was in season. One of the reasons put forward for the game’s demise is that modern schools don’t have the high windowless walls of their predecessors, coupled with the fact that ball-games were, for a while, discouraged in the playground. But the plain truth is that the children themselves went off the game, and we will never know why.

A solo game with a single tennis ball, bounced (or as some say ‘stotted’) on the floor with a patting motion, can also involve a surprising number of moves, and many rhymes developed to accompany the action – “One two three a-leary / My ball’s down the airy / Don’t forget to give it to Mary / Not to Charlie Chaplin”. A competitive edge can be added if a group of girls chant the rhyme while one tries to see how long she can keep it going.

Another solo game involving ball and wall is ‘Stocking ball’, involving a tennis ball in the foot of a stocking (or on a piece of elastic). The player stands with her back to the wall, bouncing the ball to right, left, above the head, between the legs, to the rhythm of special rhymes, such as “Have a cigarette, sir / No sir / Why sir / Because I got a cold sir / Where’d you get the cold sir “, and so on.

The hand-size tennis ball (or its equivalent, such as the post-war plastic balls with holes in, which were supposed to preserve windows) turns up in wide variety of other games, like 'Queenie Queenie who’s got the ball?', 'Bad eggs', 'Ball he' or 'Ball tig' (in which the chaser does not have to touch people but has to hit them with the ball), Bob-in-the-cap, and many more.

But the presence of a ball of any size can trigger the need to play, and it is astonishing how persistent many forms of ball-play have been over the years, and how easily we (adults as well as children) fall into accepted patterns and formulae.

This video explores the development of children's ball games over the years.

In any situation, on beach, in the park, or at a garden party, where someone has a ball, of any size, a form of 'Piggy in the Middle' will spontaneously develop, or people will instinctively gravitate into a circle and throw the ball from one to another – counting the number of successful catches, doing silly or clever throws, or developing simple rules to penalise those who drop a catch. Several well-known games are based on this principle, including 'Broken bottles' or 'Wounded soldiers', when with each successive dropped catch the player loses an arm, leg or eye, or 'Donkey' where on each failure the player is awarded a letter and when they have acquired the whole word they are out.

Banner credit: Ray Bellisario/Popperfoto/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.