Children’s Game – American

The informant says he “probably learned [the following game] in elementary school or something”:

The game is called “Red Light, Green Light,” and the basic rules are that one player allows the rest to rush forward from a start line when he says, “green light,” and has his back turned, but the other players must stop suddenly if the leader says, “red light,” and turns around, lest they be caught moving and get sent back to the beginning. The first player to reach and touch the leader becomes the next leader. Here are the rules in the informant’s own words: Red Light, Green Light

When asked when the game was usually performed, the informant responded, “I don’t think I played it any time beyond, like, elementary school, or . . . Either during recess or with some friends of mine at, like, a kiddie birthday party—four, five, six, seven, you know, something like that.”

The informant’s opinion of the purpose of the game is that it allows children to “get some of their inherent sneakiness, you know, resolved without getting into any real trouble, ’cause the worst that happens is you get sent back to the beginning of the line.” This might be construed as a useful function, making children more governable the rest of the time; however, the informant thinks the game is more “a subversive game designed to, uh, uh, to effectively teach people that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t get caught.” In his words, the game is “designed to teach you to be sneaky—the idea that if someone’s not looking, you can get away with something.” He concluded by saying, “I’m not sure that, ultimately, the message is all that positive.”

The informant compares “Red Light, Green Light” to other games that might be considered folkloric cognates—“Mother May I” and “Simon Says”—commenting, “There’s a whole sort of series of games that’s about can you follow instructions, can you be sneaky without getting caught.” However, Rae Pica and Mary Duru, authors of the book Great Games for Young Children, have a different concept of what the game is supposed to teach: “listening skills,” “traffic safety skills,” and “self-control” (47), among others. Clearly they endorse the game from an adult standpoint and do not consider it subversive. That the game is included in their book is evidence of multiplicity, and there is a slight variation in their rules for the game:  instead of being sent back to the beginning, children who get caught moving are designated as “yellow lights, which means they must walk in place until the signal to go is given again” (47). And instead of the person who reaches the leader first getting to go next, Rae and Duru recommend a less partial system of deciding an order in advance (47). Clearly the name “Red Light, Green Light” has a terminus post quem of the invention of the stoplight, but the cognate games that the informant mentioned may be older.


Pica, Rae and Maray Duru. Great Games for Young Children: Over 100 games to develop Self-Confidence, Problem-Solving Skills, and Cooperation. Beltsville, Maryland: Gryphon House, 2006.