Chalk of the town: how hopscotch reclaimed Britain’s streets

    2 June 2020

    In the afternoon my street bustles with children. The pavement is their canvas: they draw chalk rainbows, noughts and crosses, treasure-hunt arrows, and wicked, gurning faces. But what absorbs them most, is hopscotch.

    Since March, hopscotch has reappeared in public spaces all over the UK. One of the biggest, a course of 1,400 squares racing along Edinburgh’s Leamington Terrace, lasted ten days before rain washed it away. The project was set up in April by urban designer Jenny Elliott in an effort to boost community morale. A bucket of chalk was passed up the street, neighbours encouraged to add their own squares, and messages of hope.The aim was to extend the hopscotch to the end of the street; but as young and old chipped in with their own wobbly squares, the course grew to nearly 200 metres, all the way to the top of the hill.

    What makes hopscotch, that old-fashioned game of stones and squares, so enticing?

    In many respects, hopscotch is the perfect lockdown game: it can be played alone as well as with friends. The boxes don’t break the ‘two-metre’ rule, and it is a physical activity that requires nothing more than a piece of chalk, a stone and a stretch of hard ground. Perfect for the urban landscape.

    At once simple and complex, hopscotch captures an essence of childhood. It is a game of progression, and of learning to balance and count at the same time. There is comfort in its pattern; and, as with most things in life, once you learn the rules you can make the game as complicated as you like. The potential is limitless.

    Most begin with ‘eight-square’ hopscotch: numbered 1-8 and alternating between single and double squares. There’s a ‘marker’: a stone or bottle cap. Before each hopping sequence the marker must be thrown onto a square, starting with the first. If it lands in the wrong square, it’s the next player’s turn. The same happens if you step on a line, or place two feet in a single square. It’s a kind of dance that develops and rewards agility, and can be played at dizzying speed – fitting for a time of spatial rules and directives.

    The game has enjoyed a long history. Brought to Britain by the Romans, it originally served as a military training exercise. Today, variations exist all over the world.The French version is called “marelle”, and has the added drama of Heaven and Hell placed at opposing ends.

    Its English name combines two words: “hop”, and “scotch” – to scrape, or score. In the US, “hopscotch” has turned into a verb, meaning to flit between policies or places.

    1947: Schoolchildren from Fairview School in Seattle, Washington, play a game of hopscotch. (Getty)

    Adults hop along real hopscotches too. Last month, police officers in Derbyshire were spotted enjoying a pavement hopscotch on the beat. In the US, a Monopoly-mad family created a hopscotch version of the game using the neighbours’ houses as property – I wonder what they used for the jail.

    Scribbling on the pavement involves reclaiming public space; hopscotch in traffic-free streets creates an ordered environment in chaotic times – literally, “taking back control”. There’s a kind of freedom to go with the joy.

    But beware: it’s illegal in Britain to draw on public streets without permission, and miscreants face an on-the-spot fine. In 2013 a young hopscotcher made UK headlines when police fined her £60 for drawing outside her house.

    Memories of the 1950s recall children’s endless street games of knock-down ginger, soccer and cricket. Tea time, the only rule they abided by. Today’s children do not know such freedom. Helicopter parenting and fear of the outside world has meant controlled playtime, slotted between school and homework.

    Under Corona adults have had their personal freedoms curtailed, but children have seen an expansion. Tired of screens, they crave the outdoors which has, for the time being, at least, returned to locality and community. Providing they stay two metres away, a stranger no longer represents ‘danger’, but a chance to talk to someone new.

    The other day I asked my young neighbour why he likes hopscotch so much. He sniffed and said: “‘Cos it’s fun”, and continued hopping.

    Chalk, like childhood, is a temporary thing; to be enjoyed while it lasts.