Get your family unplugged this summer with these favorite old-school outdoor games.
Summer evenings growing up in the Midwest were as magical and fleeting as the fireflies we chased. Late bedtime. Chirping cicadas. Bright, deep-blue moonlit skies. Scents of fresh-cut grass and bug repellant. Sweaty, sticky fingers sandwiching sweet, smoky marshmallows and Hershey squares between honey grahams. All in the backdrop of the joyful screams signaling the main event: outdoor games.
We played a hundred different outdoor games on a hundred different nights, but there were always those favorites, the ones we were sure to include each day. I tell my own kids about these outdoor games, and we try to copy them in our neighborhood but can usually find only a handful of kids outside in comparison to the hordes I remember as a child.
While you can still walk around many neighborhoods in the U.S. on summer evenings and hear the excited cries of “Ghost in the graveyard,” in many places the sounds have grown fainter. Some kids are inside, possibly texting or gaming or snacking, which are perfectly acceptable activities. In moderation. It’s no secret that “sitting is the new smoking.” Yet it’s what many kids on the block are doing, so what’s a modern family to do?
Perhaps all we need to be drawn outside are a few flashlights and some simple, old-school outdoor games. And maybe all we need are a few reminders of how to play.
(Disclaimer: The rules listed below are based on both the memories and research of the author and may not be the exact way you played the game growing up, as there are several versions of most outdoor games. Some variations are noted!)
1. Ghost in the Graveyard
Materials/players needed: This classic outdoor game can be played with as few as three players, but it’s the most fun with a large group. This is a great game for groups that might gain or lose players throughout the night, as players may join and quit without affecting the game.
Ideal setting: A “graveyard” (basically someone’s backyard with a number of hiding places, so yards with trees, bushes, play sets, sheds or other structures offer the best hiding places). The graveyard can also extend over larger areas, such as several yards or an entire block, depending on how many people are playing. The players set the boundaries at the beginning of the game.
Rules of play: All players begin in the front yard and choose a home base, such as a large tree, front stoop, porch, etc. Then the players choose one “ghost” (you can draw straws, eeny-meeny-miny-moe it, bubble-gum-in-a-dish it, etc.). The “ghost” player runs to the backyard to hide while the other players chant loudly in unison, “One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, rock…” And so on until they get to 12 and shout, “Midnight!” Then they can shout either, “Hope I don’t see a ghost tonight,” or, alternatively, “Star light, star bright, I hope to see a ghost tonight!” All players then spread out in search of the ghost. The first player to spot the ghost yells, “Ghost in the graveyard!” and all players run toward home base. The first player to be tagged by the ghost becomes the ghost in the next round. If no one is tagged, then the last player to reach home base becomes the ghost.
2. Cops and Robbers
Materials/players needed: Minimum of four players, two to be cops and two to be robbers. If you have more people, just increase the number of cops and robbers. If you have an uneven number, it’s fun to have more robbers than cops.
Ideal setting: Neighborhood with back alleyways or connecting backyards in which players can run around the entire block (or more).
Rules of play: The most popular version of cops and robbers involves one or both teams on bikes, but it can also be played on foot. First, divide players into two teams and decide which team will be the cops and which the robbers. Once this is established, the robbers get a 10-minute head start before the cops can begin pursuing them. One variation of the game requires the team of robbers to stay together, and another version allows them to split up. Whichever version is chosen, the rules should be consistent for both the cops and the robbers (e.g. if the robbers must stay together, the cops must as well). Once the robbers have been captured, the teams can reverse roles for the next round.
Materials/players needed: A ball (preferably softer than a basketball, as this could hurt when thrown at a player. Three or more players. This is another one that’s more fun with more players.
Ideal setting: Open field or large, wide-open backyard. SPUD is often played during the day but can also be played at night (especially with a fluorescent ball).
Rules of play: To set up the SPUD game, have each player count off and remember their number. An optional variation is to have more than one person per number. After everyone is assigned a number, have each player group together in a bunch. One person starts with the ball in the center of the bunch.
At the beginning of each round, the person with the ball (who is in the center of the bunch) throws the ball upward while yelling a number. Everyone disperses and runs in all directions away from the bunch except for the person(s) whose number was called. The person whose number was called catches the ball and then yells, “Spud!” When they yell this, everyone must freeze. The person with the ball then is allowed to take three giant steps toward any player. They throw the ball and try to hit someone. To dodge, players are allowed to move all parts of their body except their feet. If a player is hit the first time, they earn the letter “S,” eventually spelling the word S-P-U-D. The person who was hit becomes the new thrower. If the thrower misses, they earn a letter instead. The next round begins and continues in the same manner. Whoever spells S-P-U-D is out of the game. The last person left is the winner. (Note: if you don’t have enough players to eliminate players, you can set a time limit, and whoever has the least letters when time is up becomes the winner.)
4. Freeze Tag/TV Tag
Materials/players needed: Minimum of three players.
Ideal setting: Large, outdoor space.
Rules of play: Freeze tag is different from regular tag in that once a player is tagged, they don’t become it. Instead, they’re frozen and have to stand where they are while the tagger goes on freezing the other players. Whoever is the last to be tagged wins. In freeze tag, there’s usually a way to “unfreeze” players. For example, one player who’s not the tagger and not frozen may tag frozen players to release them. Some versions allow a player to unfreeze if another player who hasn’t been tagged crawls through the frozen player’s legs.
There is usually a rule in freeze tag that says if you’re tagged/frozen a certain number of times, you become the tagger.
Alternatively, you could play so that the first person to go 10 seconds without being unfrozen becomes it.
TV tag variation: In this version of freeze tag, a player cannot be tagged if they touch the ground and call out the name of a television show. If the player is successful, the tagger must chase someone else. If a player can’t think of a show or calls out a show that someone has already said, they can be tagged.
5. That Game You Made Up
We all have at least one. Most of us have That Favorite One. You know, the one you and your friends made up one day on the fly, and it actually stuck. For me and my sisters, it was “jail,” which consisted of a front porch prison, back porch base, a witch and lots of players to imprison. (Note: you may need to dig up your old journals, message an old neighbor, consult a sibling or reach far back in your memory for this one!)
What games did you play as a kid? What games did you make up?