Folk Games

By: Martha Hartzog

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: October 22, 2020

The variety and range of games played by children and young adults in Texas today and in the past reflect the familiar cultural migration patterns of Texas history as well as the creative imaginations of children. The games played by prehistoric and historic Indians are now faint outlines like the fading images of Indian rock art. The games brought by the children of the first Spanish settlers reflected a Western European culture that was later blended into mestizo culture. These games found counterparts in the games played by nineteenth-century European immigrants who came to Texas directly by sea and those who came to Texas after first stopping for a few generations on the Atlantic seaboard and in the inland Southern states. Finally, the games played by African-American children are only now being fully recognized for their unique blend of the European and the African. Games defined generally are those forms of individual or team competition, played to a decision according to agreed upon rules. They are voluntary and nonproductive and are played outside everyday reality, in their own territories by their own characters. "Folk" games are those traditional games passed along informally from one group to another. The folk games of Texas children, like the games of today, had the same functions that games have had from the beginnings of the human race: they amused, instructed, and inspired. They reflected the values and beliefs of their parent cultures. Games help small minds and imaginations mature, providing children with a chance to act out roles, make choices, and experience the thrill of winning and the disappointment of losing.

A form of hockey and "spear the hoop" were popular games among the Caddos in East Texas, as well as elsewhere. Games that developed toughness and physical endurance were especially favored by the boys. In the nineteenth century, Plains Indian boys were observed staging mock buffalo hunts, in which some of the little boys went out on stick horses to hunt other little boys who were the "buffaloes." The "buffaloes" defended themselves with prickly-pear leaves mounted on sticks. Indians played many forms of ballgames. Kickball and a simple form of field hockey were played by Plains Indian girls, and a game the French named Lacrosse was played throughout the Indian world. Indians especially loved guessing games and gambling games and developed a large number of these, which both children and adults played.

By the Middle Ages Europe and the British Isles were bound together by a set of common cultural ties, among them the games that children played. Many of these-tops, marble games, and jacks, for instance-can be traced to Greek and Roman times. Some of these games are played with rhymed formulas, often set to song, which have been handed down from generation to generation. Many are grounded in superstition, religious belief, historical events, or celebrations tied to specific times of the year. They exhibit such themes as courtship, warfare, stolen children, and the magic of numbers and prophecy. They are often built around the joys of motion and jest. They exist in numerous variations. Successive waves of immigrants from throughout Europe brought these games to the North American continent. In Texas the first European children arrived in significant numbers in the early part of the eighteenth century, when Spain began to attempt to colonize the East Texas frontier, the Rio Grande valley, and the San Antonio area. Games played by Mexican-American children in the early part of the twentieth century are a good illustration of pan-European culture. La Puerta Esta Quebrada ("The Door is Broken") is a variant of the well-known London Bridge. In both games, two children form an archway with their hands; the other children file through as a song is sung. As the song ends, the last child to file through is caught in the arch and must pay a penalty or choose between joining the side of good or evil, represented by the two arch makers. Often, after every child has been caught by the arch and has joined one side or the other, a tug-of-war ensues to determine the victor. The Germans also brought this game to Texas when they began to establish their colonies around such places as Fredericksburg. There it was called Zieh Durch. London Bridge has been traced in recognizable form to the year 1553, when it occurred simultaneously in such countries as England, Italy, and Germany. Some think it had its beginnings in an early belief that a bridge would be opposed by evil spirits and that a human sacrifice would be required to keep it from falling down. Another consistent theme in the pan-European games was the stealing of children by the devil or an old witch or a buzzard. The children of Anglo pioneers in Texas played Chickamee Craney Crow, German children played Kluck mit Heunkel ("Hen with Chickens"), and Mexican-American children played Colores, a game in which the children were assigned colors and the devil had to pay a forfeit to win the color or child desired. Variations of the familiar Hide-and-Seek (or I Spy) and Blindman's Buff were also played by Anglo, German, and Mexican-American children in Texas. These very old games were described by Julius Pollux, a Greek lexicographer, in the second century and played throughout Europe. In Fredericksburg the variation of Blindman's Buff was Blinde euch, ich Fuehre dich. Special games for certain seasons of the year were notably played by both German and Mexican-American children. Mexican Americans inherited a particular love for wordplay, with riddles, sayings, or dichos, as well as animal fables, favored by young and old alike.

The theme of courtship is a perennial favorite with children as well as young adults. A ring game with courtship implications played in South Texas in the early twentieth century was introduced into that area directly from Mexico. It thus illustrates the continual cultural interchange between the two areas that has taken place. In María Blanca (called Doña Blanca in Mexico), the children form a ring. A girl is chosen to represent María Blanca, who stands in the center of the circle; a toy called Jicotillo ("the Hornet") is outside the circle. The game ends with Jicotillo chasing María Blanca until he catches her. In German Fredericksburg, the girls pretend to be little birds and flutter inside a circle drawn on the ground; the boys are "buyers" and must bid for the girl they desire by handclaps. This game is called Vögel zu verkaufen ("Birds for Sale"). Jump-rope games became very popular in Texas in the first half of the twentieth century. These often have courtship themes, linked to prophecy through numbers, the numbers being functions of the number of times a girl could jump the rope without missing. Some of the rhymes are adapted from familiar verses, like the button-counting rhyme "Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief." Newer verses expressing romantic themes include "Cinderella Dressed in Yellow" and "Ice Cream Soda, Delaware Punch." A particular favorite on the Gulf Coast was the rhyme that began "Down by the Ocean, Down by the Sea."

Very popular in frontier Texas, where strict religious precepts sometimes forbade dancing, were the ring and longways games played at play-parties, or Josey parties, a uniquely American development. Many of the songs sung at play-parties had their origins in Europe, but the words were distinctly and peculiarly American. Many of the songs have words that could have come only out of the West and South: "Shoot the Buffalo," "Wish I Was a Cowboy," and "Raise Big 'Taters in Sandy Land."

Blacks came with Southerners to Texas, mostly as slaves, occasionally as free people. They brought with them their own cultural mixture, a blend of the European with the African, developed within the conditions of slavery and rural life. Black children played and sang games from the Anglo tradition, like Chickamee Craney Crow and Lil' Liza Jane. As to be expected, many of their game songs, like those of Anglo children from the South, exhibited regional flavor, referring to raccoons in persimmon trees, collard greens, and even hangings. Although most of the Black games seem to be European in origin, it is now increasingly recognized that they have been significantly modified by the strong oral traditions and the love of rhythm originating in Africa. The handclap games of Black children, such as Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, exhibit more syncopated rhythms than do handclap games of White or Hispanic children, and Black children show a greater willingness to experiment with sounds for their own sake. The ring games and the line games played by Black children, such as Little Sally Walker, are really primarily performance games, in which the child in the middle of the ring actually puts on a dance or a mime. In this the games also reflect the heritage of African dances.

The folk games played by children in Texas have an important role to play in the development of the children. Through game playing, children act out the war between good and evil and learn moral lessons. Games instruct children in the folklore of a culture as well as in the mental and physical skills required of them as adults. They teach children about courtship and marriage, and about power and cunning and luck. They help them learn about humor. They show them how to think by solving riddles and how to make choices. And finally they are a child's outlet for often secret hopes and fears and dreams.

Francis E. Abernethy, ed., Texas Toys and Games (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989). J. Frank Dobie, Mody C. Boatright, and Harry H. Ransom, eds., Texian Stomping Grounds (Austin: Texas Folklore Society, 1941). Julia Estill, "Children's Games in Fredericksburg," in Texas Folk and Folklore, ed. Mody Boatright et al. (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1954). Rosalinda Gonzales, "Work and Play on a Border Ranch," in The Golden Log, ed. Mody Boatright et al. (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1962).

  • Peoples
  • French
  • Germans
  • Sports and Recreation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Martha Hartzog, “Folk Games,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
October 22, 2020