Tag Archives: recess


Additional informant data: My informant is a 2nd-grader in South Los Angeles. He has lived in LA his entire life. He is Latino and speaks both Spanish and English. He attends a public, coeducational elementary school, which has students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Several times during the day, the children at my informant’s school have a recess period, when they’re given access to balls, jump ropes, etc., and are allowed to play outside.

Contextual data: My informant and I sat down outside his classroom after two months of my teaching his class the fundamentals of folklore through USC’s Joint Educational Program. When asked about games he and his friends play at recess, he immediately thought of handball–a game he learned from his father. The following is an exact record of our conversation:

Jackson (me): Why don’t you tell me about handball?

I (my informant): Well, you hit the ball, you can bounce it, you can catch it, you can . . . you can’t scratch the ball and then you can’t hit the ball like straight, or else you’re gonna be out, uhh . . . you can do, you sometimes you can do rainbows, uhh you can do treetops sometimes, umm . . . that’s it, that’s all I know.

J: So those are different moves you can do with the ball?

I: [Nods]

J: What’s a “scratch”? What does “scratch” mean?

I: When you scratch it, it goes, like, on the wall, you scratch it, and then it goes like down, and then you’re . . . you’re out because you can’t scratch it.

J: Oh, ok. What’s a “rainbow”?

I: A rainbow is when it goes over the wall . . . umm . . . that’s it.

J: And, uhh, what’s a . . . what’s the last one? A “treetop”? What’s a “treetop”?

I: It’s when you get the ball on the . . . on top of the . . . the roof of the wall and it stays there and then it falls and that’s it.

J: Do you remember who taught you handball?

I: My . . . my dad.

J: Your dad?”

I: [Nods]

J: Was it a long time ago, or was it pretty soon? [sic “recent”]

I: Long.

J: Ok. And you guys play this at recess?

I: [Nods]

J: You play with your . . . with your friends from your class? Or do you play it with kids from other classes, too?

I: Kids from other classes and my friends from my class.

What my informant described for me is a common game played in elementary schools and middle schools, which I’ve also heard go by the name of “wallball.” While he had some difficulty explaining the technicalities of the game, for the most part, I understood what he was trying to convey–especially having played a very similar game growing up in the state of Washington. The point of handball is to take turns bouncing the ball against a wall, not letting it bounce twice on the ground in front of you before you hit it back. There is a strict set of rules that must be obeyed. If one is broken, the guilty player is “out.” For example, as my informant explains, “you can’t hit the ball like straight”–meaning you have to bounce the ball off the ground and then against the wall. If, when it’s your turn, the ball bounces twice before you can get to it, you’re out, and you generally go to the end of a line of waiting players.

The boy’s description of the game was particularly interesting for me because of its unique terminology. Unfortunately, I had a hard time visualizing what he was trying to explain, and I was unable to watch him play, but what we see is a complex system of etiquette and jargon all associated with the recess game of handball. I’m unsure about whether the game has some kind of underlying social significance, but, as far as I know, there is no canonized style of play, and it’s usually played by children without adults having to teach them. The game changes, in terms of specific rules and terminologies, and it remains popular across the United States.

Annotation: Seen in Louis Sachar’s 2011 children’s novel A Magic Crystal? (beginning of Chapter 5, no page numbers) (called “wall-ball”)


Jump Rope Dogsledding

My informant remembers playing this game during recess in elementary school. She and her friends were especially fond of it during second grade. The following is her account of it:

One kid is the “musher”, and he or she holds one handle of the jump rope in each hand. Two or three (depending on the length of the jump rope) other children are the “huskies” who stand in a line with the rope of the jump rope wrapped around them. The “musher” stands at the back of the line. The “musher” calls out: “Mush!” and the “huskies” begin to run. The children run around the playground like this, pretending to be a dogsledding team.

Sometimes there are “dogsled races” in which two or more “dogsledding teams” will race each-other on the playground. I was on a particular “dogsledding” team that only lost twice. It is a game played for pride, not actual prizes. Often the more dominant child will be the “musher”, and the more submissive children will be the “huskies”. Some children will take turns, rotating between who is the “musher” and who are the “huskies”, but usually a dominant “musher” will remain in that position for the majority of recess. Being the lead “husky” not the most desirable position, since the first child usually gets rope burns on their stomach from straining to run against the jump-rope. Some “mushers” will snap the rope to get the “huskies” to run faster.

I remember playing this game when I was in elementary school as well. I always liked to be the “musher” because I was a very bossy child. I remember that when my team would race against another, we would first have to designate where we were racing to, since there was no common racing path that we all used. This was a game often played in the spring, even though we mimicked a winter sport. This may have been due to the shortage of jump ropes in the winter, since they are usually a spring and summer toy. I believe this game is important because it allows the children to work on their team-working skills while using their imagination. While it was fun, it also brought about a lot of problems. Often the teachers would ban the game because kids would pull too hard on the ropes and hurt the other children. Some kids even began to whip one-another with a jump rope once after they lost a race.

Girly-Girl Chant

My informant remembers chanting this with her friends in elementary school. She believes that it was around third grade that girls began singing this to each other in line-up before school began.

Oh, my gosh! I think I need a manicure! (looks at nails)

The sun, I swear, (presses hand to forehead) is greasing up my well-done hair! (touches hair)

Go! Go! Fight! Fight! (bobs head back and forth), Gee I hope I look alright! (points to herself)

Forty-three, fifty four, I don’t know the stupid score! (Makes confused face)

I remember this chant from elementary school. It was used to mock the “girly-girls” by singing it in a high-pitch tone and using dramatic eye-rolls for emphasis. There was no purpose to the chant, other than to show your friends that you knew it. I believe that it is important because it reflects upon the American societal image of a “girly-girl” and the fact that girls themselves recognize how ridiculous it is.