School days and playground games

Our latest exhibition, School days, focuses on the shared memories of our schooling years while also highlighting some of the changes that have occurred over time. The majority of a school day is spent inside the classroom, but for some past (and current) students, their fondest memories are the times spent out of it, preferring to play games in the school yard.  Schoolyard games are constantly evolving – influenced by technology, cultural differences, and trends – and if a fad gets too popular, sometimes banned by schools entirely!

Dr Dorothy Howard, an American schoolteacher and sociologist, toured Australia from 1954 to 1955 to document this schoolyard culture. She took notes of the games, rhymes, riddles and jokes of Australian children. Her findings were revolutionary for the time as many did not consider the schoolyard games played by children a ‘culture’ in their own right, let alone one that was evolving over time.[1] During her time travelling around Australia, she was prolific, documenting over 1000 games and making 1000 pages of notes.[2] Howard discovered that many of the games and rhymes that children played had originated in England and had been modified to suit the Australian climate and history.[3] These games were passed down by generation to generation in the playground, as younger children watched and learnt from the older students.

The findings made by Dr Dorothy Howard are still relevant today in understanding children’s folklore and have become the basis of the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection held by Museum Victoria.[4] The significance of this collection has been recognised, having been included in the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register.[5]

During the mid-1950s, the most popular games in Australian schoolyards included hopscotch, elastics, marbles, yo-yos, knucklebones (also known as jacks), handball, skipping, tag and a variety of handclapping routines. Over time as resources and technology have developed, this has changed the way in which students use their break times, as some children now play basketball and football. Many enjoy playing games on their mobile phones/electronic devices or use social media, however, a majority of schools are now trying to limit their use during school hours.[6]


Image: Children playing jacks in the playground, Melbourne 1955. Source: Museums Victoria, courtesy of Dr June Factor.

“A child today needs great patience and ingenuity to collect a set of real bones [to play knucklebones]… the children who have no money or bones revert to stones…” – Dr Dorothy Howard, ‘The game of “knucklebones” in Australia, Western Folklore’, vol 17, no. 1, January 1958, p. 35.

What games did you like to play at school? Here are some you may remember:


Skipping was once considered to be the most popular game on the playground, particularly skipping with a long rope.[7] This would be a group activity of three or more children; two would be on each end of the rope while one or two would skip in the middle to the beat of a rhyme or chant.[8] There were also variations such as ‘double dutch’ which used two skipping ropes rotating in different directions simultaneously. Popular chants in Sydney playgrounds included counting rhymes where participants could see how many times they could skip without missing. One such rhyme included ‘Cinderella, dressed in yellow, went downstairs to kiss her fellow, how many kisses did she give?’.[9]

Click here to view recordings of school children skipping to ‘Bluebell cockle shells’ in 1957 from the British Library’s YouTube channel.[10]

Cat’s cradle

Playing with a loop of wool, sometimes referred to as string games or ‘cat’s cradle’, is a game that is still played today.[11] This game involves tying the ends of a piece of wool together and weaving the loop around one’s fingers to produce a variety of shapes. This is generally played by one person at a time, sometimes two for more intricate and complicated designs. Popular shapes include ‘cat’s whiskers’, ‘the Eiffel tower’ and ‘the Sydney Harbour Bridge’.


Image: Girl playing ‘See-saw’ string game, Dorothy Howard Tour, 1954 – 1955. Source: Museums Victoria, courtesy of Dr June Factor.


This school yard game is played with a piece of elastic stretched around the ankles of two children at either end while another child jumps in and out while singing a rhyme.  After each turn the elastic is raised higher on the children’s legs until it is too high to jump over.


Image: Elastics game, date unknown. Source: Museums Victoria.[12]

Visit School days to re-discover other games you may have played at school and for the opportunity to play a game of hopscotch!

Exhibition on until 6 October 2019.


[1] Dorothy Howard, ‘Rope-skipping games: Language, beliefs and customs’, Maryland English Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1964.

[2] Ray Edmondson and Roslyn Russel, ‘Collecting Australia’s Folklore Culture’, The Australian Register – UNESCO Memory of the World Program,

[3] June Factor, ‘A forgotten pioneer’, Child’s play: Dorothy Howard and the folklore of Australian Children, edited by Hilary Ericksen, P. 8.

[4] M. McFadzean, ‘Australian Children’s Folklore Collection in Museums Victoria Collection’, Museum Victoria,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kate Darian – Smith, ‘Children in Sydney ’, Sydney Journal, Volume 2 Issue 2 June 2010, p.10

[7] Julia Bishop, ‘Skipping games’, British Library,

[8] Ibid.

[9] ‘Skipping rhymes’, Sasks Schools,

[10] Julia Bishop, ‘Skipping games’, British Library,

[11] Judy McKinty, ‘String games in Australia’, published in Seal, G. & Gall, J. (eds), Antipodean Traditions: Australian Folklore in the 21st Century, Black Swan Press, Perth, 2011

[12] M. McFadzean, ‘Australian Children’s Folklore Collection in Museums Victoria Collection’, Museum Victoria,

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