How to Play Red Rover

Classic Pastime Has Been Banned on Some Playgrounds

teach the grandchildren to play Red Rover
Red Rover can be a fun game but requires adult supervision. John Lund/Tiffany Schoepp | Getty Images

There's hardly an oldster alive who doesn't remember playing the schoolyard game of Red Rover, but it has fallen out of favor in some areas because of the risk of injury. Since it requires at least ten or so kids to play, it is most popular as a neighborhood or playground game for school-age children. If you are fortunate enough to have a lot of grandchildren, you may have the chance to introduce them to this traditional game, which they surely don't know how to play. Avoid getting in trouble with the parents by supervising them carefully!

Get Ready to Play

No special equipment is needed. Only a good-sized open area is needed, preferably a grassy area.

How to Play Red Rover

Divide the group of kids into two teams. The kids then form two lines holding hands and facing each other. The lines should be 30-50 feet apart. The team chosen to go first calls for a runner from the other line, saying, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Thomas come over!” Thomas then takes off running and tries to break through the other line. If Thomas is a wise player, he will choose what he judges to be a weak link for his effort. If the two players who are targeted are unable to maintain their grip and Thomas breaks through, he chooses one of the kids that he broke through to take back to his team. If he doesn’t break through, he has to stay with the other team. The game ends when everyone is in one line.

The game is fun because of the suspense of wondering when your name will be called and wondering whether the runner from the other team will choose you as the weak spot to try to break through. It’s not a highly competitive game as everyone ends up on the winning team.

Is Red Rover Too Rough?

Red Rover has been banned on some playgrounds as too rough. Undoubtedly there have been some injuries associated with the game, but definitely, no more than are associated with organized sports such as peewee football or Little League baseball.

Obviously, the risk of injury is lessened if the kids are close to the same age and size. In addition, three practices should definitely be banned. The first is double-linking by holding each other’s wrists or arms. Only hands should be joined. The second is raising the arms high to “clothesline” the runner. The third is thrusting the joined hands outward so that the runner encounters the equivalent of an outthrust fist.


In one of the variations of this game, the player who breaks through a line may choose any player from that team. In a less common variation, the player who breaks through joins the opposing team.

History of the Game

Red Rover is thought to have originated in Britain. It was commonly played in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Several other countries have similar games. 

No one has been successful in learning why the game is called Red Rover, although there are records of a number of ships with that name. The game sometimes goes by the names Octopus Tag and British Bulldogs. The Chinese call their version Forcing the City Gates, and the Japanese play a similar game called Hana Ichi Monme.