Old Fashioned Games for Dreary Days


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

In our neck of the woods, “November” is our shorthand for “bleak days with unremitting gray skies and lots of rain.” Sometimes we say “No” because that’s even shorter. But it doesn’t change anything.

What do you do with energetic children when the weather is too drippy to go out?

Here are some old-fashioned games we used to play when I was a kid. They’re good for corralling a herd of young’uns when you don’t have access to a gym or the great outdoors. I’m sure there are infinite variations; I’m explaining the simplest rules I know. Feel free to improvise and use what you have on hand.

Michael Finnegan

One person is chosen to be “It” and leaves the room. The rest agree on an action he must take upon his return – such as closing an open book, patting someone on the shoulder, or turning on a light switch. When he comes back into the room, they begin to sing Michael Finnegan or another nonsense song, on repeat. When he comes close to the thing he must do, they lower their voices. When he moves to the wrong part of the room, they sing louder. When he does the right thing, everyone stops singing and cheers. It seems impossible that he could guess, but who can decipher the secret coding of childhood? (all ages)


Need I say more? If you don’t know, ask your students how to play. In my childhood, we used a rolled up newspaper to hit the knees. In Europe, I found they used an empty plastic pop bottle on the head. Yikes. (all ages)

Jump Rope Games

Jump ropes are good for a lot of games besides individual skipping. Google it. Here are some ideas to get you started.  (age 6+)

Hide the Thimble

Like hide and seek, only hiding one thimble instead of many persons. Everyone tries to find it; the one who does hides it next time. (< age 8)


Everyone sits in a circle and receives a penny; the one whose penny says 1982 (or another chosen date) is the Winker. When the game begins, he tries to wink surreptitiously at anyone in the circle. If they see him wink at them, they must throw their penny into the middle of the circle. They have been eliminated. If they see him wink at someone else, or in general feel he is behaving suspiciously, they may say, “I suspect.” Someone else may say, “I agree.” The one who suspected then says his guess – “James Smith.” If the second person disagrees, the moment passes. If she agrees, James Smith is asked if he is the Winker. If they are correct, he is eliminated and everyone else wins. If they are wrong, the one who suspected him is eliminated, and the game goes on until a) the correct Winker is found and dispatched, or b) the Winker has eliminated all but one person. Multiple Winkers may be added for larger groups. If a Winker winks at them, they simply wink back and keep playing. (age 8+)

Farmer in the Dell

Everyone stands in a circle and holds hands to march around the farmer while singing The Farmer in the Dell, with a new person picked each time to be the farmer’s wife, the child, the dog, and so on. The circle narrows each time, as one more person moves to the middle with the farmer. (< age 10)

Animal Sound Match

Slips of paper are made ahead, with the name of an animal on each slip, but only two alike for each kind. (Pig, pig, horse, horse, sheep, sheep.) On the count of three, each person starts making the sound their animal makes, and trying to find the other person who is making the same noise. The game ends when everyone finds a match. (< age 10. I’ve known teenagers to play it, but only in the right mood.)


The group divides into smaller groups, with four or five people in each. In each round, one person from each group is sent out of the room. These “Congress members” collaborate in choosing an item to remember in their heads – as simple as a pumpkin, or as complex as George Washington’s thumbnail. They return to their groups, and answer rapid-fire questions to guess the item, answering only yes or no. The first group to guess the correct item wins, and new delegates are sent out of the room. (age 10+)

Nursery Rhyme Game

One person is chosen to be “It” and leaves the room. The rest pick a well-known nursery rhyme and are each assigned a word from it, possibly skipping nonspecific words like “the, it, and, or, etc.” So in order, children may have “Jack, Jill, up, hill, fetch, pail, water” and so on. When the It person returns, he asks any of them a question. “What did you have for lunch today?” Or, “Where did you buy your blue jeans?” They may answer truthfully or fancifully, but their answer must include the nursery rhyme word they were given. “I cooked up a bowl of soup.” Or, “I didn’t buy them, my friend Jack handed them down to me.” The It person tries to identify the nursery rhyme based on their answers. He may ask the same person a different question three times in row, if he wishes, and their word becomes more obvious. (age 10+)

People I Know

Each player receives three scraps of paper. On each, he writes the name of a person – historical, Biblical, literary, or personal acquaintance. All the scraps are gathered and shuffled in a basket. All players sit in a circle, and two teams are comprised, using every other person. The basket passes around the circle. Each player gets one minute to help his team guess as many names as he can, speaking quickly and using clues. He may say anything he wants, but use no hand motions or parts of the name. A name like Anne Frank might be recognizably easy, but even if the person knows nothing of the name, he breaks it into parts to describe it as best he can. “Who lives at Green Gables? Okay, that’s the first part, and the second is another name for hot dog.” He keeps the papers for any names they guess. When his time runs out, he throws any unguessed name back in the basket and passes it to the next person, who starts describing names for HIS team. The game ends when all the papers are used up, and the teams count their points, one score per paper. (age 10+)

Upset the Fruit Basket

I’m sure you remember this one from your own childhood. A circle of chairs is set, with one chair too few for the number of people. All players receive the name of a fruit – apple, plum, cherry, grape, apple, plum, cherry, grape, around the circle. The remaining person stands in the center, and calls out a fruit. “Apple!” All the apples stand and rush to find a different chair to sit in. No one may return to her own chair. The middleman tries to find a chair too, and whoever is left standing moves to the center and takes a turn to calls the fruit. “Upset the fruit basket!” means everyone finds a new chair. (< age 12)

Four on a Couch

This one is more complex. Each person writes their own first name on a slip of paper and places it in a basket. The names are shuffled and redrawn. You are the name you draw, but it’s a secret. Teams are boys versus girls, because teammates need to be identified at a glance, though some girls may have to join the boys’ team to even out the numbers, etc. All players arrange themselves in a circle: boy, girl, boy, girl. One extra chair is added to the circle, so there is an empty spot. Four chairs in a row are chosen to be “the couch.” The goal of the game is to fill the couch with your own team members. The person to the right of the empty chair calls out a name, and whoever has that name on her slip of paper comes to sit in the chair. These two people trade names. The person to the right of the newly vacated chair calls a name, and the game goes on, with a name trade happening at each call. Names are first called at random, and then with increasing knowledge and strategy. You must remember enough of your own team members’ names to call them up to the couch when you get a chance, and enough of your opponents’ names to call them off the couch. Do you see? The team who fills the couch with their own players wins. (age 13+)


I hope you enjoy these games, perhaps for your next honor roll evening or indoor recess. Whatever the weather, we’ll make it together—right? Fingers crossed.

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