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by Joe Mikuliak
Many dense urban neighborhoods have blocks where cars park up on the sidewalk and mine used to be one of them. The weight of the cars ruptured the cement. The large paving stones got pushed up or down. Forget shoveling the sidewalk clear of snow, pushing a carriage, or playing ball on it with the kids.
It was so uneven it was an obstacle. It was so bad pedestrians walked in the street just to avoid it.
Then my block got a new sidewalk. This had a big, unintended, positive consequence in the lives of our children.
Some of our older neighbors, who had already raised their families on the block, spent time teaching children who lived here exciting sidewalk games to play. Soon kids from around the neighborhood came to our block to play. Here are three games that our kids grew up with during the eighties and nineties:
This game requires two or more players, a sidewalk, and a large, soft, rubber ball. Adults can teach children as young as three years old to play this game and teams of three or four kids up to nine years old can have a great time playing it. This game also teaches youngsters the skills and rules of baseball but it is not baseball.
Sidewalk kickball should be set up so each kid has many chances to kick, run, catch, and throw. The traditional baseball diamond isn't part of this game because the bases are in a straight line. Home plate is a spot on the sidewalk (make a spot) and the one, two, or three bases are anything that can be grabbed or stepped on. First base might be a doorway or telephone pole, second base the manhole cover. Bumpers of parked cars, the front stoop of a house, railings, tree trunks, and the big crack on the sidewalk are some of the other bases I've seen used. The number of bases and how far apart they are should be set according to the players' ages. The aim is to make it pretty easy to get on base and once in awhile, to make a home run.
The pitcher rolls the ball to home plate. The kid who's up tries to kick it straight because into the street is a foul ball. Three fouls and you're out. A hit can be an uncaught pop up, a grounder, or a ricochet off the wall. The runner is out when he is tagged or hit by a thrown ball while off the plate. Imaginary men on base are OK. The rest of the game uses regular baseball rules. Kickball moves quickly if it's properly set up. Children can soon get the game started without any adults.
It's a good feeling to watch children playing well together. Unobstructed sidewalks are best for bigger kids. If the sidewalk is against the end of a row of row houses or alongside a factory wall they can play until their kicks can cover 40 feet or more. Eventually kids outgrow playing sidewalk kickball at full strength and I've seen them having fun teaching little kids the game. Youngsters who learn kickball together then graduate to play other games.
KICK THE CAN
This one is played on the sidewalk and in the street. It involves as many "hiders" as want to play and one "seeker". A pebble filled soda can is thrown in one direction by a hider and then all but the seeker go hide in the other direction. The seeker walks to the can, picks it up, and then walks backwards to the starting place without turning around (no peeking). The can goes on the ground and the hunt begins. At first, the seeker moves only a short distance away from the can in their search for the others.
When the seeker sees someone, he or she runs back to the can, hits it against the ground, and yells "1,2,3, I see (whoever) behind the (whatever)". If it's true, the hider gives up, and walks up to stand next to the can. Slowly, the seeker goes farther and farther away from the can in the methodical search of all the hiding places.
This game becomes an action game when the seeker and a just discovered hider race one another back to the can. If the hider kicks the can before the seeker picks it up, all the hiders who were caught run and hide again. The game is over when everyone is found or the can gets kicked three times. The next seeker is the last person to be found or the third kicker of the can.
Around here places to hide include behind fences, steps, and cars, in doorways, yards and trees. "Not allowed" places are agreed upon in advance. When the younger kids play, it's not allowed to race around the block and come up from behind, hide in pick up trucks, or under vehicles. With the big kids, less is "not allowed".
I've seen young adults join the fun in the evening. It might seem a suicidal game as people race one another back to the can in the street. One big person is trying to pick up something another big person is trying to kick. Collisions between the seeker and a hider take place. The results are sometimes bruised bodies and egos, but it all gets sorted out. If the parents get along, the kids will. And a parent should stay nearby to look out for cars, but let the kids deal with their own egos.
SUICIDE WALL BALL
The kids did learn to play a game called "suicide". It requires the solid brick wall at the end of a row of rowhouses (or a factory wall), a tennis ball, and some street. This one is hard to watch because it looks like the kids are really hostile, but it's only a game.
The game starts when the ball is hurled against the wall, bounces, and then must be caught with just one hand by anyone who dares.
If they try but fumble, everyone else grabs for the ball while the fumbler races to the wall. The fumbler is a target for a hard throw by anyone who catches the ball in one hand. They can be hit repeatedly. They are "clear" when they touch the wall.
And anyone else grabbing for the ball, who fumbles it, is also the target of a hard throw. They're not "clear" until they run up and touch the wall. The play lasts until the ball rolls dead or there is no one to throw it at. Sometimes people run to the wall two or even three times on just the first throw.
The action swirls around the bouncing ball and the cycle restarts with every new hard throw against the wall. Of course coordinated kids do better at this game but sooner or later everyone gets to be a target. For many years fumbling and being hit have sharpened the eye-hand coordination better than Nintendo for kids around here.
Lots of kids can play this game at the same time and the sharpest players like to stay up front to have the first chance to "peg" any fumbler. And when anyone gets "pegged" three times they have to go stand facing the wall and everyone else gets one, hard, direct, throw right at the "target". (That's one throw by each kid playing.)
These games and others are a release of aggression but require cooperation and self-control. If any game runs unfairly it dissolves and no one wants to play together for awhile. A day or week later, a knock at the door is often an invitation to get a street game started.
Warm evenings. Kids playing. New and old residents sitting on lawn chairs and steps, watching the kids and talking long into the night. How different this is than the "media" view of growing up in the city. I thank the new sidewalk for the circumstances. For bringing the sidewalk to life I thank my older neighbors who shared the games, and the kids.