Prairie Tayles: Good For Body And Soul

Oct 20, 2017

As daylight wanes and nights grow longer, neighborhood kids return to classrooms. While much of these kiddoes’ work involves the three R’s combined with social studies, science, technology, art, and music, don’t forget all-important recess. Seeing little ones walking to school made me wonder if youngsters still love to jump rope as much as I did when I headed to school, pig-tails bouncing and dressed in plaid dirndls and black and white saddle oxfords. While I loved learning to read and figure math problems, I adored breaks where we took turns turning the rope for one another and jumping in time to catchy rhymes.

As a youngster, I never considered the history of my favorite playground activity, but after some research, I discovered it’s been around more than a while. That’s not surprising when you think ancestors had to deal with vines, fallen trees, big rocks, and deep ditches. The ability to leap high and far made a difference between our DNA contributors eating and being eaten.  I’m guessing this aptitude is programmed into bone and muscle, even if we haven’t consciously developed it.

Over centuries, folks learned to weave lengths of cord and then turn that result into skill training for boys. By the 1600s, painters captured scenes of children jumping rope on Europe’s cobblestone streets. Soon afterward, Dutch immigrants brought the game to America, where English settlers titled one activity Double Dutch. I bet that rings a bell with older readers.

Yes, those of us who attended elementary school from the 40s through 60s recall gathering a minimum of three participants—two to turn long ropes in opposite directions and one to jump into the spinning midst while also reciting a memorized verse. If you were lucky, friends spun those lanky cotton twists at a speed you could manage without hurting yourself.

Once you’d developed stamina and agility, the chants required the performance of tricks while simultaneously leaping over cement-slapping cordage. My favorites included, “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear turn around, Teddy Bear Teddy Bear touch the ground…” and “Not last night but the night before 24 robbers came knocking at my door. I asked them what they wanted, and this is what they said: Spanish Dancer do the splits, Spanish Dancer do the twist, Spanish Dancer turn around, Spanish Dancer touch the ground, Spanish Dancer go out back, Spanish Dancer please come back, Spanish Dancer read a book, Spanish Dancer 1, 2, 3, …” and continued till the jumper missed or got tired. Girls interested in romance could skip rope while counting the number of Cinderella’s fella’s kisses.

What good memories! We thought we were just playing while, in reality, we refined coordination and agility and practiced counting skills, verse memorization, and turn taking. It didn’t take new kids long to learn that they had to play nice if they wanted to be included.

I know modern youngsters participate in Jump for the Heart and other physical education class challenges. I hope my little grandchildren have the chance I had to join friends on the playground and take turns either spinning ropes or jumping in the middle of crazy egg beaters. It does them good physically and socially.