Tom Purcell: Red Rover, Red Rover, are childhood games over? |
Tom Purcell, Columnist

Tom Purcell: Red Rover, Red Rover, are childhood games over?

Tom Purcell

I’m on the fence about this, if you want the truth.

You see, more school districts are banning childhood games that were staples when I was growing up in the 1970s.

Some say dodgeball, kickball, keep-away, tug-of-war, Red Rover and other games are teaching children the wrong lessons.

This past summer, for instance, researchers in Canada argued that dodgeball is a tool of oppression that can unfairly target “weaker” students.

On one hand, I can see the researchers’ point. I was a good athlete, able to hold my own in these games. But the less athletic kids got eliminated early, sometimes by meaner kids who humiliated them by throwing balls off their noggins.

On the other hand, these games helped prepare me for some of life’s unpleasant realities.

Keep-away certainly could be unpleasant. One kid carried the ball and everybody else tried to rip it away from him. It was about individualism; there was no teamwork, no rules, no adults to intervene. It was simply you against everybody else — just like the adult world often is.

Kickball definitely favored the more athletic kids. I loved crushing the ball with my right leg and rounding the bases. But some kids couldn’t kick it out of the infield and surely didn’t enjoy the game as much as I did.

My favorite was dodgeball. We played it during gym class in the winter months. Thirty to 40 kids would line up on either side. Balls were whipped back and forth until the herd was thinned. If you caught a ball thrown at you, or avoided it, you stayed in the game. If somebody caught a ball you threw, or somebody hit you with a ball, you were out.

I was always among the last survivors, but the kid who won the most was Mikey Miller. Quick, agile and cunning, he was nearly impossible to hit. And though he lacked the arm strength to knock you down, he usually figured out a way to catch a ball you whipped at him.

I still remember — with glee — the day I beat him. It was a great victory that filled me with excitement, pride and, dare I say, self-esteem. It won me the other kids’ respect.

I realize that childhood has changed since the rough-and-tumble 1970s. It’s a good thing that educators are concerned for the well-being of every child. But there’s a fine line between concern and coddling.

Efforts to shield children from every sort of unpleasantness — efforts to ensure that every child gets a trophy, regardless of performance — aren’t doing children any favors when it comes to preparing them for adulthood.

Like it or not, adults occasionally face mean people in the real world. Like it or not, adults have to compete if they wish to succeed in their chosen fields. Like it or not, trophies in the adult world are granted only to people who win.

If you want to ban dodgeball for safety reasons, fair enough. But kickball, tug-of-war and many other traditional childhood games?

To borrow from the ABC “Wide World of Sports” motto of the ’70s: In order to truly experience “the thrill of victory,” it’s helpful to also experience “the agony of defeat.”

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at

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