Sunday, February 6, 2011

Games were features of Early Schools

Frost's Map of 1907 Emerson School playground.

Frost Wrote About Earlyday School Life

Margaret Fullerton Frost was born in Iowa in 1900. Her father came to Oklahoma Territory in 1900, and brought his wife and children to the new town of Lawton in December 1901.
Margaret attended school at Lawton's Emerson Grade School, Lincoln Grade School, and Lawton High School, graduating in 1918. She was editor of the 1918 LHS Lore Yearbook in which she included her drawing of the Emerson School playground where she was a student from 1907 to 1910.
 In 1980, 1981, and 1982, the Institute of the Great Plains printed Margaret Fullerton Frost’s account of life in the newly settled Oklahoma, which she wrote as an adult. Her story, titled “Small Girl in a New Town” spanned three volumes of the Great Plains Journal. An excerpt dealing with her memories of early school playground games is printed here with permission of the Institute of the Great Plains. Mrs. Frost died in 1995.


"Between the ages of seven and ten, children do not need a calendar to tell what season it is. Seasons are marked by games. Some primal instinct makes children wake up some morning and shout, 'It’s time for marbles, or hopscotch, or jump ropes.' All over town, all over the country, it happens in a cycle as predictable as the phases of the moon.
"Of course, weather has something to do with it. Oklahoma has many beautiful balmy days. It also has some terrors. Games had to be adjusted to the whims of the elements, but basically they went by seasons. In those years no one had yet heard of a recreation or sports director. Neither did we have a lot of stylized playground equipment. The games for each season just happened and we got along very well, thank you.
"It is worthwhile here to explain about a few of our most popular children’s games. Some were strictly schoolyard games. Tops and marbles headed the list of schooltime, summertime, anytime universal recreations. All that was needed was good weather and at least two players. With the following information you are on your way to becoming champions."


"School playtime games for little girls fell into several categories. For running games, one of the wildest favorites was crack-the-whip. Also, there were six kinds of tag. London Bridge and drop-the-handkerchief were fun. I dreaded crack-the-whip because usually they put me on the end because I was so little. So I learned to disappear to the far-off corner of the playground when I saw this game being organized.
"The sitting games we girls played mumblety-peg, jacks, or hully-gully. This last is a mild gambling game. You hide a few nuts or stones in your fist and twirl your hands around behind your back. Then the players guess how many things you have and which hand they are in. You win some and you lose some.
"Jump rope had its strenuous season. So did hopscotch. The craze for bouncing balls lasted a couple of weeks. For a nickel we bought a two- or three-inch rubber ball at Allen’s Five-and-Ten. The more we bounced it, the springier it got. The game was to see how many rebounds we could make without a miss. We had to hit the ball with the palm of our hand as it bounced up. Having to catch it in our fist or letting it drop was a miss.
 "Lawton was getting concrete sidewalks so we could bounce our balls all the way to school. Good practice for basketball dribblers, but we had not yet heard of that game.
"It seems strange, but we girls often played school. There were steps at the end of the front sidewalk where we could sit in rows. The format was what we dreamed would be the ideal school program. The pretend teacher always did nice things like letting us sing. Many times we had Marjorie McClure read to us. She was our best reader. Her mama would buy her the latest children’s books and we eagerly listened to each new chapter. Our favorites in the fourth grade were fairy tales. There was a whole series: The Pink Fairy book, The Green Fairy book, and others. We had outgrown nursery rhymes and were tired of Grimm’s and Hans Christian Anderson’s stories. Sometimes we found some good horror stories. We laughed at these. We must never admit that we were scared.

"Our Emerson playground was new. For some geological reason it was sprinkled with rocks which were a hazard to our running games. Periodically the big eighth-grade boys were required to have a cleanup day. They picked up rocks and piled them at the edge of the yard. These were a challenge to us third-grade girls. So in the spring we put in two or three weeks building rock houses. These were not shelters. They were floor plans for our dream houses. The older girls thought this was a childish thing to do, so they left us alone.

"How did we do it? Four or five of us would get together and stake out a homestead, an area big enough for our house. No trespassing on our property. For example, our land might be from the third to the fourth mulberry tree near the northeast corner of the block. There would be a string of these houses with different groups of girls.

"First we huddled over sketches of floor plans for our dream house. Then we started marking it out, using larger rocks for the outer walls, and small rocks to divide it into rooms. It took a lot of talking to decide on the design. It was never very complicated, but it must be better than any house the other girls were planning. Like many of the houses around town, it seldom had more than four rooms. Dining room and kitchen were one. There were few closets. As for space for a bathroom, it was not considered a necessity at that time.

"We were ingenious in creating the furniture. We came to school early and brought scraps of cloth or colored paper for rugs, bedspreads, and tablecloths. Leaves made good dishes for the tables. Cottonwood leaves were especially nice because they were round. Flower petals were pretty for small dishes.

"Sometimes there was too much to finish at school, so we met on Saturday afternoon to work on our project. Our mothers always had work for us to do in the morning. Now you wonder why we did not build these houses at home instead of school. Front lawns were for grass, and backyards were for spring gardens. Our school ground was our park and we could play there anytime, any day. Also, it was at school that we had the rocks.

"This plan-your-dream-house game lasted until the first spring windstorm descended and blew the furnishings over toward Ardmore. Then we put the rocks back on the rock pile and decided whether we would bring our jump ropes or our bouncing balls to school for the next day’s pleasure."

"I don’t know who invented the Emerson School game of sardines. I have never seen it described in a book of games, but I know it was quite generally played in that era. It was one of the year-round favorites. Sardines was played by either boys or girls or both, but it was mostly the favorite of the big boys. For a good sardine squeeze, it was necessary to have an inside corner. The front entrance of our building extended a dozen feet in front of the main structure of Emerson. This created a suitable corner on either side.

"The game was to lure someone or some group into the corner. Then someone shouted, “Sardines! Sardines!” Everyone within hearing distance came rushing over to help push toward the corner. Even those six feet away from the inside point felt like they were being mashed flat. They said it was a most frightening, but delightful experience. The screams of agony brought a teacher or the janitor on the double to shout, “Break it up! Break it up.” Suddenly everyone was gone and there was no evidence to show who started it. You can guess what we little girls did when someone yelled “Sardines!” We disappeared to a safe distance. However, yes, we did help with the screaming."

"Summer was definitely on the way as soon as our playground dried off enough so the big boys could play shinny. As you know, shinny is an informal game similar to hockey. The difference was that shinny was played on good old Oklahoma hardpan instead of on ice or green English lawn. Instead of a puck, the boys used a tin can. Great ingenuity was exercised in contriving a good shinny stick.

"The very best was an old broom, with the straw cut back so short that the end was more the size of a narrow hoe. Another variation was a tree limb that happened to have a crook at the end, making it more like a golf club. A strip of ordinary board was too brittle, too narrow, and too difficult to hold to give a good whack at the can.

"Boundaries were marked off in the dirt with lines at both ends of the field and a center line across the middle. Loosely organized teams soon developed into groups that fought like warriors in a gang war. The game was apparently condoned by the principal, but had to be played with certain restrictions. Players had to stay in the southwest corner of the playground, away from us little kids.

"The boys could not bring their shinny sticks into the classroom, but had to stack them in the corner by the entrance door. They could not use a tin can after it had been beaten flat or had been pounded into a ball. In that condition it became a lethal weapon. Shots were supposed to be made so the can stayed near the ground, as in shuffleboard. If a shot went too high, someone got wounded, usually on the shin, hence the name of the game. Wounds also resulted when a wayward stick hit a kid instead of the can. A tricky part of the game was to keep out of the way of a shot. The object was to put the can over the boundary line, not to wound the players.

"The bruises sustained in the pileups of players trying to get out of the line of fire were never fatal. They were true badges of courage, proving that you were in there giving the game your whole heart. Scars and a little blood were extra hash marks on your service record. It was very seldom that the can ever got knocked clear into either end zone. When the school bell rang for classes, the winner was the team that had the can on its side of the center line.

"The shinny season was short. After a few players got wounded, irate parents were sure to show up. This was a relief to the principal. If he had banned the game before it started, there would have been rumblings of resentment because the boys had not been allowed to have their choice of fun games. But since they had agreed to the rules, and had broken them by being too rough, the principal would declare that shinny was all over, through, and finished for the season. The next day the big boys were sure to show up with the mitts, balls, and bats. It was strike one for the opening of baseball season."

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