Kick the Can

There are several simple games children play today that their Grandparents were backyard champs at – kickball, hide n’ seek, hopscotch; but one that seems frozen in the past is Kick the Can.  Remembered as a vintage game, not many children nowadays really know how to play.  You’d be an odd child out if you didn’t know how to play Kick the Can eighty years ago.  For those of us under the age of forty, I’ll lay out the rules:

The objective is simple.  Kick the can and don’t get caught!  A can is filled with rocks and set in the middle of the game area.  Like tag, or hide n’ seek, one player is designated “it” and the other players run and hide while the “it” player closes his eyes and counts.  When the “it” finds the hiders, he calls out their names and they must race him back to the can to kick it far into the air first.  If the hider beats the “it” person, he returns to hiding while the “it” retrieves the can, counts and begins searching again.  But if the “it” person wins the race to the can, the hider is sent to an allocated “jail” area, near the can.  Other players hiding may rush out to kick the can at any point, freeing the imprisoned players!  The game ends when “it” wins, capturing all the hiders, or when a hider kicks the can over.


The origins of the game are like many antiquated practices, imprecise.  It is fondly remembered as a popular game during the Great Depression. Because of limited extracurricular resources and abundance of children in the neighborhood, it seemed only natural for kids to grab a paint can from the trash, fill it with rocks and participate in hours on end of unfacilitated playtime.  During these difficult economic times, the kids seemed to have the right idea – making something out of nothing.  Not requiring any designated materials or playing field, Kick the Can was the perfect pickup game that has been lost somewhere in oral teaching along the way.

Perhaps kids of today could take a lesson in unplanned playtime.  In his book “Children at Play: An American History (2007), Howard Chudacoff discusses the importance of unstructured play, referring to the early 20th century as the ‘golden age’ of kid’s free play.

At the turn of the 20th century as child labor decreased, kids had a lot of free time on their hands – freedom to play from dawn ’til dusk, to read comics and to explore their world in whatever way satisfied their fascinations.  However, with the increasing priority of education, extracurricular activities became less significant and more structured as adults realized their responsibility in nurturing a balanced growing person.  Adult involvement in free time inevitably led to more structured play, as adult-directed sports replaced pickup games.  Simultaneously, parents worried about their children playing with other neighborhood kids unsupervised, as parental control became a topic of concern.  Today, though we realize the need for children to play, society has entirely limited kids’ ability to play and explore in their own chosen ways.

Though antiquated, perhaps we could all learn from a little game of kick the can.  Like organized sports, these types of outdoor, movement-oriented games are beneficial for both the mind and body.  Next time you’re outside, give it a try!

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