This Spring, Get the Balls Rolling05/02/2021
A year ago, when shelves dedicated to toilet paper and baking yeast yawned empty and respirator masks and hand sanitizer were sold out seemingly everywhere, shoppers in England encountered another shortage: croquet sets.But supplies have rebounded, and as leisure seekers everywhere should recognize, croquet and related lawn games — played outdoors and at a convenient distance — are reasonably safe alternatives to team sports or going to the gym.
So this spring, with many adults still awaiting second vaccine doses and children still entirely unvaccinated, why not pick up a mallet (or a racket, a horseshoe, a bocce ball) for some intergenerational fun? Beci Carver, a lecturer at the University of Exeter, described playing a lawn game as “a socially distanced intimate encounter, which is kind of a lovely thing, really.”
Lawn games do have rules, but not too many, and they don’t demand a great amount of skill. “They aren’t athletic endeavors,” said Brooks Butler Hays, the author of “Balls on the Lawn: Games to Live By.” . “The stakes are low enough that even if people aren’t into the competition, they can still have fun.”
A noncontact leisure activity, lawn games don’t require much efforteither, and you can wear whatever you like. “Most of these games were promoted as you wouldn’t get sweaty while doing it, you could look quite nice,” said Kasia Boddy, a lecturer at Cambridge University.
People have played some version of a lawn game for thousands of years, with equipment as varied as cow intestines, pig bladders, sharp sticks and loose stones. There are exciting regional variations like Sweden’s Kubb, Germany’s hammerschlagen and Italy’s ruzzola, a game played with a wheel of aged pecorino.
But the games suggested here are less esoteric (no cheese wheels required) and none require a dedicated court, just a reasonably flat stretch of grass or dirt or gravel. In most games players take turns, which makes distancing a snap. Shuttlecocks aside, there is little reason for many hands to handle the same items required for play. Lawn games are a low-key, low-cost, public-health-friendly way to give structure to an afternoon, and whether you flout open-container laws while you play is strictly up to you.
The origins are croquet are disputed. Some historians trace it back to a French game called paille maille, while others trace it to an Irish game played with broomstick mallets called crookey. Croquet as we now know it surged throughout Britain in the 1860s and was soon exported to its various colonies.
Some of croquet’s popularity owed to its status as the rare sport that men and women could play together, which made it a favored avenue for flirtation. (Some clerics denounced it as immoral, a good indication that it was probably a lot of fun.) “Women would be wearing special croquet dresses that were slightly shorter than normal dresses, so they would glimpse ankles, and so on,” said Ms. Boddy. These days, sets are available for under $30, though equipment from Jacques of London, which has crafted sets since the 1800s, will run you a bit more.
Jane Austen knew how to have a good time — quilting, gardening, whist — and in 1808 she wrote to her sister that she and her nephew had taken up a lawn game, battledore and shuttlecock, a precursor of badminton. “He and I have practiced together two mornings, and improve a little; we have frequently kept it up three times, and once or twice six.”
Shuttlecock games go back thousands of years. Badminton, the modern iteration, is typically played by either two or four players, who bat a shuttlecock or birdie, usually made of plastic, across a net. (These nets are lightweight and can be assembled most anywhere.) Plenty of sets are available for less than $50 and you can even pick up glow-in-the-dark shuttlecocks for nighttime play.
Bocce, Pétanque, Lawn Bowling
Depending on how loosely you define these games, in which larger balls are tossed toward a smaller one, the concept emerged perhaps 7,000 years ago. In medieval England, bocce was briefly condemned by both the church and state as it distracted the working classes from both. (Nobles were addicted, too; legend has it that Sir Francis Drake delayed defeating the Spanish Armada so that he could finish a round.) The games are played worldwide. Dutch colonists brought it to America in the early 17th century, and here in New York, many city parks still include bocce courts and bowling greens, though you can manufacture your own on any reasonably flat rectangle of ground. Wooden, metal and resin sets can be had for under $40, with light-up sets available too.
Horseshoes, Quoits, Ring Toss
These dexterity games can trace a lineage leading back to recreation for idling Roman soldiers, or even further back to Greek discus events. In the 14th century, quoits, a game in which a metal disc is aimed at a wooden peg was considered so diverting that King Richard II banned the general public from playing it. Exported to America, both horseshoes and quoits flourished in the colonial era, though horseshoes eventually became more popular, so much so that the 19th-century Duke of Wellington credited “pitchers of horse hardware” with winning the Revolutionary War. Wooden and rope ring-toss sets — the successors to quoits — are widely available, as are metal and plastic horseshoe sets.
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