There’s no scientific proof of it, but we suspect that the love of a good game is encoded somewhere in our DNA.
Ever since the first time a caveman picked up a rock and sidearmed it to another caveman — who probably didn’t find the exercise much fun at that exact moment — we’ve been a species whose peculiar genius lay in figuring out a way to create a game using any ball, rock, paddle or open field we happen to stumble across.
This time of year, our game-playing memories return to the simple, often invented games we played in our childhood and which we now watch our own kids playing. But, for parents whose mental inventory of backyard or picnic games has become slim, we offer these ideas from Bart King (especially handy for a three-day holiday weekend).
King is author of "The Pocket Guide to Games" (Gibbs Smith, $9.99) a compendium of simple, inexpensive, fun games for kids — and parents — that are perfect for playing whenever a lazy summer afternoon and a kid’s attention span collide.
In his book, King runs down the basics of dozens of games, from classics (Circle Dodgeball and Spud) to twists on newer themes (Paranoia Ball and Toilet Tag).
The best backyard or picnic games are ones that players can lose themselves in, King says. "The real acid test is: Does your face hurt when you’re done, because you didn’t realize you’d been smiling for so long and your facial muscles just kind of cramped up?"
In writing his book, King adds, "that’s the sort of gleefulness I was looking for."
Here, adapted from the book and displayed in handy tear-out form suitable for tucking into picnic basket, camp duffel or purse, are a few of King’s suggestions for games to play at home, in the yard, at the campsite or on a visit to the picnic area.
CAN’T WALK THIS WAY
Number of players: Six or more
Can be played: Anywhere
Line up players side by side and set up a finish line 10 to 15 yards away. Then select a member of the group randomly who will go first. Have that person cross over to the finish line in any way he or she wishes (walking, running, skipping, whatever).
Now, every other person has to cross the finish line, too, but they have to do it in a way that’s different from the first person. So, if the first person walked across the finish line, another player may crawl, another may walk backwards and another may cartwheel. But nobody can walk across the line because that’s how the first person crossed the line.
Come to think of it, include the adults in this game, too. That should be fun to watch.
Number of players: Four or more
Can be played: Anywhere
One player who is It and tries to tag or touch one of the other players. The player who is tagged then must place his left hand on the spot that was touched (back, knee, elbow, whatever). Now, in that position, the new It must chase the other players, and is relieved as It only when he or succeeds in tagging somebody else. That person then becomes the chaser and must place his or her left hand on the place he or she was tagged, and so on.
Kids probably would enjoy seeing mom and dad participate in this one, too.
Number of players: Four or more.
Can be played: Any open area
One player, the Pebble Holder, clasps a small pebble between the palms of his hands. The other players stand around him, each with hands extended, thumbs on the outside and palms touching. The Pebble Holder puts his hands between the palms of each player and appears to drop the pebble, concealing who it is going to. That’s because the person who actually does receive the pebble will be chased by the others, and can be saved only by running back to the Pebble Holder and giving the pebble back to him. (The Pebble Holder cannot run away and must accept the pebble back.)
The chase may begin as soon as the players suspect who has the pebble. So, each player should carefully watch the hands and faces of the others to determine who gets it. Once a decision is made, the chase begins.
It’s also n the interest of the player who gets the pebble to conceal that fact until the attention of the group is distracted from him, when he may slip away and get a good head start before he’s detected. He may do this whenever he likes, but must move by the time the Pebble Holder has passed the last set of hands.
If the person being chased can get back to the Pebble Holder and give him the pebble before being tagged, he continues with the group. If he is tagged, he becomes the Pebble Holder.
Numbe of players: Six or more (but it must be an even number)
Played: Outdoors or in a gymnasium
One player is chosen as It and another becomes the Runner. All of the other players pair off by hooking arms. These pairs spread out a reasonable distance (it helps to have boundaries established).
Play begins with the Runner trying to save himself from being tagged. The Runner does this by hooking arms with any member of any pair he chooses. Whenever a Runner does this, the third member of the group becomes the new Runner and must save himself the same way. If the runner is tagged at any time, he becomes It and the player formerly known as It becomes the new Runner.’
To add fun, couples should run and twist away from the Runner (although they must make their arms available), who is liable at any time to lock arms with one of them and so make the other a Runner.
Number of players: Five or more
Can be played: Indoors in a gymnasium or outdoors
Equipment: Blindfolds and a bell (although another sound-making device would work, too).
All but one of the players is blindfolded. The one who isn’t’ carries a bell loosely in one hand so that it rings with every step (the bell even may be hung around the neck).
The blindfolded players try to tag, or touch, the one with the bell, who tries to avoid being tagged. Whoever catches the bell man changes places with him.
(Note: With large groups of more than 20 players, two or more bell men can be chosen.)
Number of players: Two
Can be played: Anywhere
In one version of the game, "Back Bump," two people stand back-to-back with their feet a bit more than shoulder-length apart and their heels no more than two inches apart, but they can be touching.
On the count of three, the two players try to make their opponent move one or both feet by, for example, bumping them using their hindquarters but no hands. Players will learn quickly that moving out of the way of an opponent’s bump can bring victory and, because of that, contestants who seem mismatched by heights or weight can often hold their own.
Another version, "Side Bump," follows the same rules, but players line up side-by-side. On the signal, they try to bump their opponent using only their hips. And, as before, any player who moves his foot or makes contact with anything but his hip is disqualified.
Both games can be scored, with points given to the winner of the matches.
CLEAN YOUR BACKYARD
Number of players: Four or more
Can be played: Outdoors (particularly suitable for adjoining Southern Nevada yards separated by block walls) or gyms.
Equipment: A wide assortment of any kinds of balls (no hard balls, but balls of any type, size and shape.)
Divide the playing area into two equal parts (such as two adjoining yards), then randomly distribute an equal number of balls on both sides. Divide players into two teams, one for each side.
The goal is for each team to move as many balls as possible over to the other team’s side of the field by the end of the allotted time (which can be as short as one minute).
Ask players to get ready, then shout, "Clean your backyard!" Players can throw, kick, head-butt or do anything else they wish to propel balls to the other side, but when time expires they must stop. Count up the number of balls on each side, and low score wins.
(If playing in a field or gym, balls count only if they lie within the field’s boundaries.)
Number of players: Four or more, plus a referee/scorekeeper adult.
Can be played: On a playground, picnic area or gym
Equipment: A volleyball or beach ball; a blanket; a volleyball net, fence, hedge or other opaque barrier.
Hang the blanket over a volleyball net, fence, hedge or something players won’t be able to see over. The idea is to hit the ball back and forth over the curtain or barrier even though players won’t be able to see the ball coming until it’s hits the apex of its arc.
The ball is not allowed to touch the ground, and it’s a score for the opponent whenever it does. Players may try to deceive their opponents about where the ball will come over the curtain, and the more rapid the play, the more alert players will have to be.
For large numbers of players more than one ball may be used.
Contact reporter John Przybys at email@example.com or 702-383-0280.