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Evolution of Gilman Recess

For over 100 years, Gilman’s playgrounds have been a place of physical activity, creativity, innovation, and fun.

“Wood chips” - a game that many of you likely played on the lower school playground here at Gilman.

Essentially, it is a game of tag in which the person who is “it” has to tag their friends on the playground set while remaining on the wood chips. The person who is tagging can leave the wood chips and enter the playground equipment only if their eyes are closed.

Back in the 1920’s, the 1930’s, and the 1940’s, Lower School (LS), Middle School (MS), and Upper School (US) Gilman students played marbles at recess. The boys who played marbles would carry around a drawstring bag filled with marbles that they had collected or won from the day’s previous games. The game was played by putting marbles in an enclosed circle.

A player, tossed their “shooter” – usually a larger sphere made of agate – into the ring, drawn into the dirt, to knock out the other players’ marbles. Those marbles knocked outside the circle became the property of that player.

To keep the game interesting, many variations were played over the years including:

  • how the players held the marbles and then shot them from their hand

  • how the players stood when shooting.

  • how big, or small the ring was drawn into the ground.

  • And how far back the players stood from the ring.

  • I even read a documented account of a controversy that ensued when a student brought into school a shooter made of steel rather than one made of agate. You see, glass shooters were never used because they would shatter on impact.   

In the book, Gilman Voices, former Gilman student Cooper Walker ’33, wrote about his memories of playing marbles in a piece entitled, “Anyone for Marbles?”

Mr. Walker recounted his Gilman recess days in the following fashion:

“When and why the game of marbles disappeared from the Gilman landscape is as mysterious as the passing of dinosaurs. When I was in LS and through the early years of US, shooting marbles was the preferred entertainment divorced from the school regimen."

He goes on to describe that, “If an opponent hollered “knucks up knee high, no knee bend” the marble shooter had to stand with a locked knee and shoot from the unbent knee.

In the 16 years, I have been at Gilman, I have seen some interesting recess games come and go. I have seen a hybrid version of baseball played with a lax stick, I’ve seen numerous versions of tag, various versions of soccer, AND I’ve even participated in a game of frisbee that involved me climbing trees multiple times to retrieve Cole Randell’s frisbee…I’m not sure I entirely understood the rules of that one.

But the game that has remained constant, and is very unique to Gilman is... Pill Ball!

Pill Ball is essentially a hybrid version of 4-square with many rule variations. Although it is typically played with a ball purchased from the school store, I have also seen this game played with a tennis ball, soccer ball and a dodge ball.

Played using 8 marked squares, the server (or the King) serves the ball, often calling out rules changes in the process. If you are not listening, you will certainly miss the change in rules.

Your goal is to protect your square by not letting the ball bounce in your square either once or twice – usually dictated by the King during the serve. For those who dare, a player can leave their square to hit the ball…this is called poaching. If you are knocked out, you must leave the game and wait on the sidelines for a new square to open up. If the King is knocked out, well….he’s not really knocked out, is he? He simply moves to the “trash” square and remains in the game.

I wonder….in 20 years…what games will be played during recess?

In the spirit of recess, playing and inventing games…I have arranged a bit of a demonstration…a friendly competition of pill ball between a student team and faculty team.

To the best of my knowledge, pill ball has never been a “team” game…instead, it has typically been every person for themselves. But, I think I have come up with a solution and we’ll see how this works.

Out on the blacktop right now is a student team consisting of 8 players schooling a faculty team on the rules of pill ball. They are simply waiting for an audience. There are cones outlining a pill ball court and I ask for your cooperation by standing behind those cones. My assembly is not your recess time…not yet. Please enjoy this as an audience member, be a fan and cheer on a teacher or student,  and celebrate the game. My assembly will now convene out on the blacktop.

Contributed by David Anderson, MS Art Teacher.