My kids literally couldn’t wait for this book to arrive. I foolishly told them it would be coming by post the following day, in the way you promise them something and then threaten to withdraw it if they don’t eat their carrots. They demanded to know the name of the book. Thirty seconds later, we were out the back playing Red Rover, Red Rover. The carrots would have to wait.
Joe and I stood holding hands, lined up opposite Freda and her mum, and roared Red Rover, Red Rover, send Freda over.Freda ran as hard as she could and tried to break through our hands. We didn’t let her, because we’re men and unable to let anyone win for the sake of it. (I’ll shoulder some of the blame there, given that Joe is only three.)
We played like this for ten minutes or so, in the late autumn gloom, laughing and teasing and crying eventually, because everything ends in tears when you have small kids. But I have to say, it was magic.
The book duly arrived the next day, and we moved onto Donkey. I can’t recommend it highly enough (the book, although Donkey is pretty good too).
Red Rover, Red Rover is a long list of old-school games, tidily organised into sections with names like Chase/Hiding, Singing/Circle, Turn-Taking and Party Games.
There are some Pen and Paper Games for a rainy day, and a charming section at the end, recalling the various rhymes used to choose ‘Who’s On’. (At least it was charming until I got to, ‘My Mum and Your Mum were Hanging out the Clothes, My Mum gave Your Mum a box on the nose’. At that point, it became gripping.)
That rhyme is at the heart of what I liked about Red Rover, Red Rover. There is a danger with something like this, that it will turn out as a rose-tinted nostalgia-fest, where we sit around bitching about iPads and how nothing good has happened since 1984.
This book avoids that and captures the truth about old-school games. And the truth is a lot of them were vicious. What’s more, my kids love vicious. So do yours.
I don’t necessarily mean physically vicious. Although there is no shortage of that. You can reacquaint yourself with Slaps or Bulldog, known as Butcher where I went to school, where you essentially found someone smaller than you and hit them over the head. (Those are not the actual rules, it’s just the way it panned out.)
No, by vicious, I mean psychological terror. As in the sweet terror of being left standing in Musical Chairs, having only one letter left in Donkey, or trying not to laugh when someone is very close to finding you in Hide and Seek.
Kids don’t shriek with delight when everyone gets a medal at the end of the game. They shriek when they are being chased by someone faster than them, playing Tag. That’s why they’ll go mad for the scary, high-stakes games in Red Rover, Red Rover.
This book is more enjoyable than playing on an iPad, in the same way that Roadrunner is more fun than Peppa Pig. It’s got a little bit of spice about it, a nod towards the fact that life doesn’t always come with soft edges.
That’s not to say your kids will be led into dangerous territory. The description of each game includes a physical risk score, so you can judge for yourself if it’s safe for your little Jack or Sophie. And a lot of the games have no risk at all. Unless you can see some danger I missed in teaching them how to play Xs and Os.
There is also a game you can play yourself, as you make your way through the various sections of the book. This game is known as Jesus, You Couldn’t Call it That Now; it’s where you rename the games for these more politically correct times. So, The Farmer wants a Wife become The Farmer is looking for a Partner, Possibly of the Same Gender.
Charge! becomes Mind Yourself, in case you introduce it at a playdate and some kid’s mom decides to sue over a burst lip. Finally, changing Hangman to Hangperson isn’t going to cut it. I’d nearly tear that page out, before you end up explaining capital punishment to a five-year-old.
I caught up with the author, Kunak McGann, to find out why she wrote Red Rover, Red Rover. She started by telling me that Kunak is a Russian word, meaning best friend, which must have marked her out as someone who would write a book to bring people together.
“We played almost all of the games in the book, on a large estate in 1980s’ Drogheda”, she told me. “There were loads of kids there then, teaching each other the games their parents had passed down to them. I get the feeling that most of these games aren’t played anymore and wanted to write them down before they are lost. And of course, these games are something fun and active that you can do with your kids.”
She’s right there. The tongue-in-cheek message on the cover — Warning! Actual Physical Activity May Be Required — hints at the real upside.
Red Rover, Red Rover is a thoroughly enjoyable list of things you can do for free, to bond with your kids. (Or, who knows, a trip down memory lane if friends call in and you end up cracking open a bottle of red.) Either way, here’s a warning for anyone, like me, who waited until their 40s to have kids. These games might bring your mind back 40 years. But your body isn’t necessarily going to go with you. It’s tough, falling to the ground, only to discover that you can’t stand up. But then, that’s fun. It certainly gave my kids a good laugh.
Wolf faces the wall, the others shout what time is it, she says 4 o’clock, they take four steps towards the wall. The idea is to reach the wall before Wolf turns around and roars Dinner Time! and tries to catch whoever is nearest. This is full of suspense, teaches you to measure and balance risk and reward and it’s actually quite enjoyable, taking a bite out of a child.
Brutal and brilliant. You face your opponent, both of you with your hands joined, as if in prayer.
Whoever is on tries to hit the back of the other’s hands. If you miss, they’re on.
If they flinch and pull away before you try a slap, you get a free go. Ouch, a lot. The game goes on until someone gives up.
They genuinely don’t make them like this anymore.