“Four-Square” Rules and Children’s Social Space

Main Piece:

B: So basically, there’s four squares. So each square has a name. So the first square is “baby,” the second one is, “jack,” the third is, “queen,” and the last one is “king.” So basically, the king, serves the ball to the other square, and the ball can only hit your square once. If it hits your square two times then you’re out. And then if it bounces in your square and you hit it to the other square, and if you get that person out, then you move up a square until you’re King. and then all the lines are out, and if the ball hits the line then you’re out. 


My informant is my cousin’s 10-year-old son, who is in the fourth grade. He lives in a suburban neighborhood near Des Moines, which is the capital of Iowa. He goes to a public elementary school in his district, where he learned how to play this game from his friend in the third grade. He tells me that he likes this game mostly because of its social aspect; he plays with his friends and converses with them, telling each other stories while they wait for their turns.


This is a transcript of our conversation over the phone. Lately, he has been telling me stories about what goes on during school, though this conversation was prompted specifically for this collection project. I was curious about what kind of games he plays during school with other kids, and four-square was unsurprisingly brought up.


Growing up also going to a public elementary school, four-square was a popular recess activity. I was curious about what kind of different rules his school might have for their version of the game and was surprised about how simple and similar it was to my school’s version ten years before him. The main difference was how his school named the squares, which seem to go along with the suits in a deck of cards, aside from “baby.” Our version simply numbered them from 1 to 4, with 1 being the top position (which would be their “king.”) The most fascinating aspect of his story is how four-square was not just a physical activity for kids to burn off the calories of lunch and antsy-ness built up from sitting in class all day, but how it was also a highly social activity. Within our larger conversation, he revealed to me that it was through playing four-square and waiting in line to play four-square that he learned about many other folk stories such as “bloody mary” and the phenomenon of killer clowns from 2016. Thus, children’s games such as this game of four-square can be much more than physical activities to burn off energy. They can represent social spaces where children test each other’s fears and courage.