Where you live spring might be heralded by the smell of spring flowers or blossoms. But here in eastern Canada where the ground has been covered by a thick layer of snow for many months, it’s a whole other story. Spring smells like mud. Seriously. And what a glorious and most welcome smell it is.

Of course we still have lots of snow, but now that the temperatures are nudging above zero most days, and the sun is lovely and warm, there are patches of melting right down to the ground. And along our back path next to the house, it’s even a little muddy. When Hubby and I got out of the car the other day, I took a deep breath and sighed. “Smells like spring,” I said. “And spring means marble season.”

Marble season was the biggest harbinger of spring when I was a kid in the sixties. Once the ground was bare and soft enough to be able to make a pot in the earth with the heel of our boots, every kid on the playground lugged a bag of marbles to school for recess entertainment. I wish I had a shot of us playing marbles outside the big, old, brick school we attended. I don’t have any playground images from when I was a kid, as a matter of fact. Who does, I wonder?

boys and girls playing marbles in the 1940's , a spring activity when we were young too
Boys and girls playing marbles in Missouri, 1940’s. source.

We played a game whereby we used the heel of our boot to make a small pothole in the ground near the brick wall of the school. Then we each bounced our marbles off the wall, and the person whose marble came closest to the pot was first up. You used your finger to nudge each marble into the pot. One nudge, if the marble went in, you kept going, if not it was the next closest person’s turn. I seem to recall that the person who flicked the last marble in the pot won them all. Of course we might not have been playing for keepsies. But we probably were. Playing just for fun did not awaken our competitive spirit like playing for keeps.

I loved marble season. We were ruthless in our drive to acquire larger and larger bags of winnings. Of course one never, ever cleaned an opponent out entirely; we always gave them back a few to be able to stay in the game. We had a myriad of self-imposed rules like that. In my memory every kid was consumed with playing marbles at every spare moment. At school and at home. That is until the rest of the school yard dried out enough to allow for skipping. Then we were consumed with that.

Do kids anywhere still skip in the school yard? I remember the play ground as a maze of whirling pink and blue plastic ropes. When I was little, we skipped single rope, and chanted skipping songs. I’m sure that most of you did as well.

I even remember some of the rhymes we chanted. And I’m telling you, people, some of them were a little dark. “Had a little brother. His name was Tim. Put him in the bathtub to see if he could swim. He drank all the water and he ate all the soap and he died next morning with a bubble in his throat.” I’ve seen other versions of this song that aren’t quite as blood-thirsty as ours. How ironic that those sing-song-y lines were chanted by pig-tailed, little angels in ruffled dresses and white socks.

We were ruthless in more ways than one: dedicated gamblers with our marbles, and killers of annoying little brothers when we skipped.

When we were a bit older, and probably a little more coordinated we left the skipping rhymes behind and concentrated on skipping “double Dutch.” Jumping two whirling ropes at once, and counting. I think you were allowed to stay “in” until you messed up, missed a rope and got tangled, and then it was someone else’s turn. I remember a girl named Sharon who was so good the rope turners could not get her out. She jumped all of recess, and then fainted. That was the most excitement we had all skipping season.

spring fun: young girl sitting on a step making mud pies. wearing plaid pants, a sweater and a corduroy jacket.
Me, age three, not pleased to have my mud pie making interrupted.

Of course our spring activities were not confined to marbles and skipping. I remember making mud pies when I was little. And then one year when I was older, age nine or ten, we had a mud war. We divided the neighbourhood children up into two sides, and generally risked life and limb every evening after supper. At least until it began to get dark and our mums yelled for us to come in. Then we declared a truce until the next night. And when the hostilities ceased to provide diversion, we called a détente. And, instead, we began to build dams in the ditch that ran down the hill, along the road in front of our house. The spring run-off ensured that the ditches were torrents.

As kids we didn’t know, or care, that playing outside was good for us. But according to all the experts I’ve read, unstructured play like we engaged in, especially if it’s outdoors, is a necessary part of a healthy childhood. I know I’m running the risk of sounding like a broken record, since I have written about this topic before. But free play time helps kids learn to be more creative and helps to develop what the psychologists call “executive function.” Executive function refers to the skills “that help us to plan, prioritize, negotiate” and generally be able to solve problems. And if that unstructured play time is outdoors, well, better and better. If you’re interested, have a look at this short article on the Harvard Medical School website.

Now where were we? Oh yes. I was talking about how wonderful spring was as a kid. Even if it did turn me and my friends into gamblers, bloodthirsty skippers, and warmongers. Ha.

You know, the sound of water trickling in the ditches under the snow, the feel of the softening ground where the snow has melted, and the glorious smell of spring mud still make me feel like a kid again. I long to buy myself a bag of marbles and challenge Hubby to a game. Maybe he’d rather skip, though.

What do you think?


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49 thoughts on “Smells Like Spring”

  1. I had identical trousers to those you sport whilst mud-pie making. I loved them. Also had the side bob. Cool. Marbles were popular at school but mostly with the boys. We girls tended towards Jacks (Five Stones to some) and it had to be warm weather so we could get down on our hands and knees to play. And skipping. God, I loved it. Happy to report that when I was a teacher I took it upon myself to get out the skipping ropes at playtime and taught the children myself. Boys loved it too and it took the girls to show them how to do it properly, getting a rhythm, waiting their turn, not to dash at it like a bull at a gate. Great way to practise times tables too. Playground duty was always fun. Buy the marbles and enjoy.

    1. We were rocking the plaid trend, I guess. I remember loving the little corduroy jacket I’m wearing. I love the fact that you taught the kids to skip.

  2. I love glass and recently bought a bag of marbles to use in a vase to hold flowers.

    We used to play a (nameless) game with a long loop of elastic, a sort of skipping version of cat’s cradle.

  3. That elastic game was my favourite game too. We called it Yogi and 2 friends would hold the long chain of elastics and move it to different heights, knees,waist, shoulder and then way up in the air, we would do a twirl and catch the elastic rope with our toes and go over it, what fun it was!

    1. Wow… you had to be nimble to do that. We used to do something similar with our skipping ropes around the ankles of two people. While the rest of us jumped in and out.

  4. I like loved jacks, skipping and elastics, thanks for bringing back these memories. It really was such a simple way to learn about the now much vaunted teamwork and the value of community.

  5. Hi Sue, what a memory you have!
    Gosh, I love allies or marbles. I carried mine in a crown royal bag. We would trade them too. Ha! Jumpsies, loved. We used a white stretchy elastic…the kind in waist bands. Double Dutch, skipping, rubber balls, string games…gosh, the list goes on along with the happy memories. Thanks. I’m smiling!
    Ps…I bought allies recently and put them in old mason jars. 😉

  6. Wendy from York

    Love the old pictures & yes , we were so active in those days . The noise in those school playgrounds was deafening . Marbles seemed to be for the boys here whilst we were busy with skipping, hopscotch etc but I did collect pretty marbles . I’ve a jar of old Victorian ones at home which are like little jewels . The children I see now seem to have mountains of toys & lots of organised play . There are lessons in this & that plus lots of companies take groups of children on special ‘ themed ‘ days . I suppose others are plonked in front of the tv or computer . I shouldn’t criticise as I don’t know what’s best but we loved our freedom to roam , learnt to occupy ourselves & I don’t remember being bored .
    PS I’ve a photo of me feeding mud pies to my little sister – she still complains about it

    1. I think we organize things for kids too much now… but that’s just my take on it. Love that you tried to feed your sister your mud pie. H.a

  7. Yes! Marbles and jump rope – certain signs of spring in my youth as well. And the big day when Mom would let me go outdoors without rubber boots over my shoes. Generally to walk to church and ONLY if I promised to avoid puddles. 🙂

  8. I absolutely love your 3 year old furrowed eyebrow look. Imagine you still use that look to good effect these days when aggravated.
    As for the subject of play, my 50s childhood in UK meant I had quite a collection of marbles (loved my aggies), Matchbox cars, jumping ropes, chalk for playing hopscotch and my trainspotter notebook (the only girl who hung out with the boys on an overpass to capture engine numbers–which has been followed by a lifelong love of all modes of transportation).
    When we lived in a small, rural village, I used to wander off with other children either by foot or on bicycles to the play by the village pond or search a nearby stream for tadpoles, or simply play make-believe for hours in the woods–no hovering parents. Like Wendy, I don’t remember ever being bored. Hard to imagine that kind of free play for many of today’s children–especially in the US–whose lives are scheduled to the minute. Happily, for my grandchildren, their parents make sure they have unstructured, outdoor play time.

  9. Marbles and double dutch…our favorite games. But hopscotch was another favorite. Every driveway had a hopscotch board composed of varying colored chalks. Not only do I miss those days, I regret my daughters generation never had that experience.

  10. All in together girls, this fine weather girls, when it’s your birthday out you go! January, February, March…etc…

  11. Oh gosh – you were so cute at three! I remember we all played outside whenever it wasn’t raining – skipping and hopscotch with chalked squares on the pavement. We also played something called “two-balls”, which consisted of throwing and catching two tennis balls – one from from each hand – in various complicated routines or up against the house wall, which annoyed the hell out of my mum.

  12. Marbles and jump rope! You make me smile. I haven’t thought of either in, well, decades…

    I think I may have (ahem) lost my marbles since then…

    What a delicious post.

  13. What a trip down memory lane. I so remember cherishing my cats-eyes and clearies. Today kids are all glued to their ‘devices’, missing out on so much healthy, character-building, outdoor games and experiences. We had to be so creative with our time.

  14. My 83 year old mom has talked about playing marbles at recess, but I don’t remember much of that in my time. We played a lot of jump rope, hopscotch, and some game which escapes me where you threw a ball into the air and did various moves before you caught the ball. A couple of years ago I was still an aide at an elementary school and none of that goes on today. There were jump ropes available, but rarely used. Some painted on hopscotch, but again, rarely used. Mainly kids play on the equipment (no swings, of course, as there aren’t any), play tetherball, play kickball, or 4 square (which is a game that had to be explained to me as we had nothing like that in my day or maybe it’s where I grew up).

  15. That brought back a lot of memories. We’d all run out at recess with our marbles in our Crown Royal bags yelling “allies, last” hoping to win a ”Croker” (big marbles) or at least a really pretty one. I remember finally conquering double Dutch in grade 7 only to have that not be cool anymore and baseball was the new in-thing. Or we made up games based on tv shows which I wasn’t allowed to watch (past my bed time) so I’d have to figure out my role on the fly. Yup, active, outdoor games and imagination, kids don’t know what they’re missing!

  16. I used to love jumping rope at recess time. The stretchy band style was called Chinese jump rope — looked like bungy cords. We’d start out low, around the holders’ ankles, and if you could do all the moves without tripping up, they’d move the rope higher up their legs, so you’d have to jump higher to do the moves. It was kind of like Cat’s Cradle for the lower limbs!

  17. Lovely photo!
    Longer days,full of games (aw,Bonanza series…Calamity Jane…beside this two,I always wanted to be an Indian warrior-we used to build wigwams all the time),skipping,jumping,climbing trees……injured knees (sometimes head,too),what a wonderful childhood….I don’t remember playing marbles a lot

    1. Ha. I remember when my friends children were young she took them to the musical Calamity Jane, and her five year old daughter sang all summer in a western twang.. “Oh you can’t git a man with a gun…” It was hilarious.
      P.S. I sent you an e-mail with our trip timelines etc:)

  18. In Southern California. during the 50’s, I grew up around several empty lots! There were remnants of grape vines, spring wild flowers, tumbleweeds used to build forts, rocks as ammo, and a few bloody injuries, to boot. But we had much more open spaces back then in the Los Angeles area. Yes, to games of Jacks, Freeze Tag, Hide n’ Seek til dark, bicycles, throw-the-ball over telephone lines, etc. Also, my 1st generation Japanese grandfather created a backyard goldfish pond with tadpoles in season. We had to be quiet or get chased out with a few foreign sounding words! Thanks for the memories!
    I am thankful that my son and wife give their kids lots of outdoor time with unstructured play. I can see that when my grandkids are with other children, they seem to have more “ideas” of activities to do and the other children follow. “Executive functions”, indeed!

  19. Yep. Also with the Crown Royal bag for the marbles. We played a version of marbles that required a piece of corrugated cardboard 15 to 18 inches wide, about the same high — along the bottom we’d cut out square openings of various sizes, and above each opening, the reward for getting a marble through that hole. Some squares would win you 5 marbles, some a Cob, some a King Cob. . . (and btw, no one else has used this term for the big marbles — was it just used out here?) and steelies. . .
    As for skipping, anyone else skip to “On a mountain stands a lady, Who she is I do not know, All she wants is gold and silver, All she wants is a fine young man, . . ” Ah, the programming started early ; -)

  20. Sadly, here in parts of the USA, some of the elementary schools have banned jump ropes, several outside activities, and equipment for fear of injury and lawsuits, our students are only allowed one 10-15 minute recess a day, only because our district believes our students need more classroom instruction.
    I miss the days where kids were allowed to be kids and education was more than testing numbers and Data.

    Thank you, for sharing those memories.

    1. I know… education has become obsessed with data. What we called marks lists are now “data sets.” But In Finland they have tons of outdoor play time for kids and it’s reputed to be one of the best education systems in the world. They don’t care about testing numbers but about the whole child. And in New Zealand they have experimented, with wonderful results, with “dangerous” outdoor playground equipment, like piles of wood and old tires which trigger the kids creativity.

  21. Great memories. We skipped like mad, played marbles and collected them in our Crown Royal bags, played with our hard cross balls (that is what we called them) softball and many more games. Grew up in a small town and no kids were left out. They were included in all the games. Sometimes the softball teams had 15 kids on each side. It worked.

    1. Those Crown Royal bags seem to be ubiquitous, all the ladies at my book club remember those too. How we loved dividing up into teams for ball and tossing the bat back and forth to see who was first up at bat.

  22. Marbles, skipping, Chinese jump rope, jacks, and hopscotch were all part of my childhood! For many years when my children were growing up we had a hopscotch painted on our driveway, but it gradually faded away after they grew up. As a teacher, I jumped rope with my students at recess and I’ve played marbles, jacks, and hopscotch with my grandchildren.

    1. I’ve never played jacks! I remember a few years ago an older colleague bringing in a game of jacks to show the young teachers how to play.

  23. I never played marbles… Their popularity was dying by the time I started school and kids were finding other games to pursue.

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