Childrens Games

Children still make "arrows" of the stems of RUSHES, described as half-peeling a strip of the outer skin away from the pith, balancing the stem across the top of the hand, then pulling sharply on the half-peeled strip, which propels the arrow at a target. Girls make "Lady's Hand-mirrors", by bending the stem of a rush sharply at the middle at two points about a quarter of an inch apart. The stem is then plaited by bending each side in turn sharply over the other at right angles, and so on (Mabey. 1998). REEDS, too, have their uses. Children would put the leaf between their palms and blow, to make a piercing whistle, and another pastime in the Fen country was to make boats out of the leaves. "You took the leaf with its hard little stalk still on it and folded each end back. Then you split the folded ends into three and tucked one of the outside ones through the other outside ones, leaving the middle one flat for the little boat to sail on, and the stalk would stick up in the middle like a real little mast" (Marshall).

COUCHGRASS earns the name Grandmother Grass from a game children play with it. It involves cutting the head of a piece of the grass, and sticking it in another head, still on its stem. A flip of the hand holding the stem, and "Grandmother, grandmother, get out of bed" is recited as the first head springs out (Mabey. 1998).

The best known of all is CONKERS, the nuts of HORSE CHESTNUT, that are Conquerors or shortened to Conks. The reference, of course, is to the game children play with the nut on a string, to be struck by the opponent's similarly strung conker in an effort to establish a conquering, or champion, nut. So popular has it been that there is now a World Conker Championship, held at Ashton, Northamptonshire, on the second Sunday in October (Mabey. 1998). A variation on the game was described by George Bourne. It was called Mounters, and consisted in whirling a conker on its string round and round, and letting go so that it "mounted" up into the sky. Not much of a game, perhaps, but the tree was actually called Mounter-tree at the time of year the game was played. The petioles of Horse Chestnut are known as Knuckle-bleeders in Norfolk, evidence of another boys' game.

The flower heads of RIBWORT PLANTAIN are used as "soldiers" or "fighting cocks" in a children's game. "Soldiers" is described in Kintyre : one child holds out a duine dubh (black man), and his opponent tries to decapitate it with another. If one soldier knocks the head of another, it is called a Bully of one, Bully of two and so on (MacLagan). Hebridean children knew the ribwort stalks as "Giants", but the game was played in exactly the same way. Girls find the "giants" useful for making daisy chains - they pick the daisy tops and string them on the tallest giants they can find (Duncan). The "soldiers" game is also known as Black Man (the duine dubh already mentioned), Cocks-and-Hens, Hard Heads, or Knights (Opie & Opie. 1969). "Cocks", for the plant as well as the game, is the name in northern England (Brockett), and in Kent it is apparently called "Dongers" (Mabey. 1998). The game had another significance in Somerset, where the plant is given the name (among many others) of Tinker-tailor Grass. The blow that knocks the head off marks the profession of the future husband, in the Tinker-tailor-soldier-sailor tradition (Elworthy. 1888), a divination game is also played with RYE-GRASS. The "Soldiers" game is also known as Kemps in the northern counties and Scotland. To kemp is to fight (OE campe, soldier, etc.,). In some parts of Scotland, the game is called Carldoddie, probably from the names of Charles Stuart and King George (MacLa-gan) - carl is Charles (the Prince) and doddies were the supporters of King George, doddie being the local name for George.

A children's divination game once played with COWSLIPS was called Tisty-tosty, or Tosty-tosty. Blossoms, picked on Whit Sunday for preference, were tied into a ball, and strictly, the balls were the tisty-tosties, though the growing flowers got the name too. Lady Gomme mentioned the game as belonging to Somerset, but it had a much wider spread than that. The cowslip ball is tossed about while the names of various boys and girls are called till it drops. The name called at that moment is taken to be the "one indicated by the oracle", as Udal puts it, for the rhyme spoken at the beginning is:

Tisty-tosty tell me true Who shall I be married to?

That is quoted as the Dorset rhyme, but the same is recorded in Herefordshire (Leather). The game was also known in Wales, where the purpose was different, for the rhyme there was:

Pistey, Postey, four and twenty, How many years shall I live? One, two, three, four ... (Trevelyan).

There is, too, a game described by Northall, which mentions the name Cobin-tree, by which WAYFARING TREE is meant. The rhyme is:

Keppy-ball, keppy ball, Cobin-tree, Come down and tell me How many years old Our (Jenny) will be ...

The number of keps or catches before the ball falls is the age. It seems that the game was played under this tree (the rhyme is said by Northall to be a Tyneside one, so presumably the name Cobin-tree was local there, too). Another of these divinatory games involved RYE GRASS. One kind,of the Love-me, love-me-not variety is played by pulling off the alternating spikelets, hence the Somerset name Yes-or-no, and there is also Aye-n- Bent, from Gloucestershire. A different version of the game accounts for Does-my-mother-want-me, yet another Somerset name (Grigson. 1959). Another game that girls used to play involved striking the heads of the grass together, and at each blow saying Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, etc., The blow that knocks the head off marks the profession of the future husband (Elworthy; Leather). Hence Tinker-tailor Grass, from Wiltshire.

Children at one time liked to strip the stems of WATER BETONY (and FIGWORT) of their leaves, and scrape them across each other, when they will produce a squeaking sound, hance the name Squeakers (Macmillan), and more imaginatively, Fiddles, and also Fiddlewood, Fiddlesticks (Grigson. 1955, God-dard & Goddard. 1934), and Fiddlestrings (Macmil-lan). Crowdy-kit is another relevant name for these plants - crowd is a fiddle or similar instrument, the Welsh crwth.

MARBLES VINE is a plant that grows in West Africa on sandbanks or seashore, and the seeds are used by children all over the area in a game played like marbles (Dalziel), hence the common name.

Churn is a name given to DAFFODILS in Lancashire (Britten & Holland), where children played a game that involved separating the corolla from the stem bearing the pistil, and then working it up and down with a churning motion while repeating the rhyme:

Churn, churn, chop,

Butter come to the top (J B Smith).

Children play a sort of game with the seed pod of SHEPHERD'S PURSE. They hold it out to their companions, inviting them to "take a haud o' that". It immediately cracks, and there follows a triumphant shout, "You've broken your mother's heart". That is why the plant has the name Mother-die (Vickery. 1985), or Mother's Heart (J D Robertson), a shortened version of Pick-your-mother's- heart-out (Grigson. 1955).

Some of the many names given to GOOSE-GRASS, Bleedy-tongues, Tongue-bleed for example, are references to a children's game, if it can be called that. "Children with the leaves practise phlebotomy upon the tongue of those playmates who are simple enough to endure it" (Dyer. 1899). It simply involved getting someone to draw a bristly leaf or stem across the tongue, and it inevitably would draw blood.

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