Listen to the Recess! Clip
Imagine yourself a Roman Legionaire, dressed in full battle gear, as part of your training, having to hop up and down a 100-foot long line of squares that have been scratched into the ground. That’s one of the possible origins of the game that we now call hopscotch. And there’s a hopscotch diagram in the Roman Forum to prove it. The Roman armies took this boot-camp exercise with them to the British Isles, and there it became, after a millennium or so, a children’s game. And the simple grid that had been used to train troops morphed into more elaborate drawings that, some game scholars believe, ultimately reflected the journey of the human soul from the world to heaven — heaven (or as it is sometimes called, Sky Blue) literally being that final resting place that you get to at the end of all the hopping. Interestingly enough, it’s that place where you get to turn around before coming back down to earth again. In one of the Italian versions of the game, which has remained long after the legions have disappeared, the last three squares are called, with a bow in the direction of the Italian national poet, Dante: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
The “scotch” of Hopscotch most probably came from the Middle English word for a scratch or cut, or a line that’s drawn on the ground, which in turn came from a Norman French word for cutting a notch — escocher. The hopping we all know about — that’s where the real sport comes in, and the rules for the hopping sequences change with the country or the neighborhood or even the block where you’re playing the game. Everyone also uses a stone or a piece of an old flower pot, or, if you want to be really fancy about it, a thick round, unbreakable piece of molded glass with a scene from one of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales on it. That’s the kind of marker that kids have traditionally used in Denmark, at least until recently when the European Common Market unilaterally banned such objects as being too risky. In some versions you have to hold the stone between your sneakers, as you leap from square to square. In another, called “Snail Hopscotch,” the spaces spiral into the center, like the medieval labyrinths that some scholars think the design is based on, until you reach a place called “Rest.” Girls, as we know, can handle all of this much better than boys; and sisters have been humiliating their brothers at this game for centuries. Take it from one who knows — who never reached Sky Blue in an entire childhood of trying. And whoever said these games are just for the fun of it? Ask any group of kids with a piece of chalk and they’ll tell just how serious they are.