Remember joy? I’m talking about feeling alive, catching a little break from the heat because you’re moving, you’re sweating, you’re on top of your game. Maybe your game was stickball, or lawn darts, or bocce. Or maybe you don’t even remember, it’s been so long. I’m here to jog your memory, to make you believe again in backyard magic.
But before you run out to buy a brand new Bocce helmet (not necessary), arm yourself with both Banana Boat® Men’s Triple Defense sunscreen (to defy the sun responsibly as you bask in its glory) and knowledge (to ensure you don’t waste your summer playing stickball when you’re more a cornhole kind of guy). Here’s a taxonomy of outdoor games that’ll help you make an informed decision as you dive back in to your glory days.
Originating from America in the early 1950s, the game of lawn darts was conceived by a privileged middle class having just enough land to throw darts at hoops on the ground, and not enough land to generate crops and oppression. Enter lawn darts: 12 inches in length, and properly weighted for throwing parallel to the ground in hopes of landing said dart in the middle of one of the aforementioned hoops.
But by the 1960s, a modest parcel of grassy lawn, leisure time, and having friends proved a rare trifecta, and the demand for lawn darts sank. Its popularity surged again in the 1970s thanks to increased fortunes and suburban sprawl, but its restored popularity would be short-lived. Sadly, the end of the 80s taught us that upright bi-pedal land mammals could be trusted with very little. Death and injury were never part of the plan, things went south, and it became clear that lawn darts were like crime or art made from neon lights: not such a good idea. Lawn darts were outlawed in America, and today we’ve got several safe and sane versions of the game. Same objective, same scoring, but safe.
Bocce originated in Greece during the 6th century B.C. and was refined in Italy, but it also has roots in the Roman Empire. Evidently a coliseum full of condemned crooks and working class loners battling to the death isn’t always the order of the day.
Bocce is played on a soil or asphalt court a few feet wide and 90 feet long. Bocce balls are usually made of metal, and you can play bocce one-one-one or in teams of up to four. Simply put, the object of the game is to bowl as many of your team’s balls as close as possible to the smaller ball, called “the Jack,” which sits in the endzone. You can play to either 7 or 13 points. Actually, you can play anyway you want. Play to 30 in a motorcycle helmet alone if that’s your deal.
Stickball traces its roots to the northeast and was likely invented by the Mississippi Choctaw, then spreading to other tribes throughout North America (if we’re to rely on my source, a middle school student named Ben who seems to have his head on straight).
The rules of stickball are those of baseball — but instead of the standard bases and mounds, the field relies on geographical landmarks. Ira’s stoop is first base, the crazy lady’s three-wheeler locked to the street sign is second base, etc. What I’m going to ask is that you resist the urge to play with a whiffle ball bat — trying to improve on stickball is kind of a 2014 dot-org podcast chunky black reading glasses thing to do. Just get a stick, get a ball, and play some stickball. You can play it anywhere. My Dad played it in 50s Buffalo and I played it in 90s Brooklyn, just before all the guys on my block gave up stickball for whittling, growing long beards, and dressing like 49ers headed west to strike it rich.
Some historians have cornhole as being invented by a Bavarian man in the 14th century, but there are many theories about the game’s origin that place its beginnings squarely in the garage of any number of bored men in 1970s Cincinnati. That feels a little more accurate to me, if we’re guessing at how a game called “cornhole” came to fruition.
The entire object of cornhole is to toss beanbags into the hole at the top of a cornhole platform — a wooden box, essentially. The game is played in innings similar to baseball. A beanbag clearing the hole scores three points, and landing on the platform scores one point.
If you enjoy simple games with myriad regulations, you’re in luck — there are more than could be imagined by a bored family over a couple fried chickens and liters of soda. The game’s basic rules are simple and colloquial, riddled with down-home zingers like the suggestion of letting the ugliest person in your group go first. Cornhole lives in the most popular game group: the lower-middle proletariat pastime that is both approachable and not too demanding physically or mentally. Expect to find it popular in prisons and homespun inland backyard cookouts.
Sometimes called Hillbilly Golf, this game is most immediately identifiable by the three-to-five foot ladder-like frame you’ll spot standing upright in North American grasslands. Ladder Golf is a game in which the participant aims to fling a bolo-like construct of two spheres at either end of a string toward the ladder structure, with the objective of wrapping it around one of the rungs and scoring accordingly.
Like cornhole, ladder golf seems to distract us from its humble beginnings with legends of a daring and exotic history: it is often rumored to have been played by cowboys, gauchos, and early outlaws, on wide open plains. There are even tales of cowboys using live snakes as bolos in early incarnations of the game, but sensible thinking prevails in accounts that the game originated with bored or buzzed normal folks in auto-friendly campgrounds.
The bottom line is, there was once an America where playing games had nothing to do with sitting indoors staring at a phone. So get out there and explore the rich history of America’s yard games while the weather is on our side. And as the saying goes, the best offense is a defense — so wear Banana Boat® Men’s Triple Defense sunscreen to help keep from getting a sunburn and you’re covered. (You didn’t think you were going to get through this without at least one sports/game/strategy metaphor, did you?)
Dan Kennedy is host of The Moth storytelling podcast and author of the novel AMERICAN SPIRIT. Twitter @DanKennedy_NYC