Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
1 Dec

Grok Tag

There was a time when you could go to any schoolyard and see kids being kids. Kids would run, leap, throw, and exert themselves with the pure joy of uncorrupted youth. They were suddenly realizing their bodies were incredible machines capable of precise, complex movements, and the games they played developed these capabilities. Dirt clod fights, epic dodgeball matches, and tetherball developed hand-eye coordination and agility; roughhousing that never graduated into enmity taught kids the value of a few bumps and bruises (as well as how to dish ‘em out); games like tag, capture the flag, and monkey in the middle emphasized foot speed, lateral agility, and rapid changes of direction. The teacher on yard duty might hand out a citation or break up a little scuffle once in awhile, but recess was generally pretty relaxed. About the only thing your average schoolyard athlete worried about was explaining away the grass stains, or maybe the scuffed knees. Looking back, we really had it good: unstructured play, impromptu workouts that didn’t feel like work but got us into great shape and developed our social skills. We were little Groks, cultivating our minds and bodies without actively planning a routine (or play date). It probably helped that we didn’t have Nintendo DS Lites or smart phones (or overbearing parents) to distract us, but the fact remains that we just were. A bit like Grok, we didn’t run and jump to get better at running and jumping; we ran and jumped because it was fun, because it simply felt like the right thing to do. Our athletic development was merely a bonus.

We’ve totally lost that. Kids now spend recess checking their Facebook statuses, their weekly itineraries, and catching up on piles of homework. I actually have a close friend in school administration – principal of a public elementary school – who laments what she sees as the loss of recess. Well, recess is technically still around, but it’s been neutered into some unrecognizable form. Dodgeball is widely banned (promotes competition and inequality), and the random roughhousing and general tomfoolery kids used to get into are completely cracked down on. Dirt fights and wrestling, I can understand, but dodgeball? I weep. I weep, but I’m not even that surprised. Those red rubber balls sure do sting (the ego?), and we wouldn’t want our precious kids made aware of any discrepancies in ability between their peers and themselves. Save that revelation for adulthood – that’ll be healthy!

But the latest schoolyard casualty is too much to handle. I won’t stand for it. As of 2006, administrators in Cheyenne, Boston, and Spokane elementary schools have banned tag. Tag. It’s perhaps the oldest game in the world, and it’s being banned from schoolyards across the country – even here in my backyard, Santa Monica. They cite “concussions, broken bones and numerous bumps and scrapes” as potential causes for concern, as well as the “self-esteem issue.” I dunno about you, but I foresee far greater self-esteem issues for the kids who never learn the value of honest competition. Getting picked last is part of life. Losing is an essential skill. If they don’t learn these lessons early on in a natural, organic manner, how are kids supposed to handle the rigors and responsibilities of adult life, where the consequences are graver and your parents can’t come pick you up at lunch and get you ice cream?

I’m beginning to digress.

My point is this: those childhood games teach us important lessons, and they facilitate our athletic development. As adults, we stand to gain a lot from going back to these games, even if we were lucky enough to grow up in an age where kids were allowed to be kids (strike “allowed,” actually; kids simply were kids). Games like dodgeball, monkey in the middle, and especially tag are excellent ways to get a great, fun workout (I would advise against dirt clod fights and roughhousing with random adults – these tend to morph into actual fights). Play, after all, is one of the Primal Laws, and what better way to show your children the value of a good game of tag than by playing it with them?

Let’s remove the “childhood” tag from tag, shall we?

I focus on tag because it can be played anywhere without equipment. Dodgeball is great, but a good game requires a special ball, a court, and a certain amount of players. All you need for tag is a few participants and an open space. Tag’s also perhaps the purest, oldest game. I’m strictly guessing here, but I’d imagine organisms – hominids, dogs, otters, baboons, and squirrels – have been chasing each other around for no particular reason for millions of years. Go to a zoo or a dog park or a playground (sometimes) and you’ll see evidence of animals left to their own devices who default to chasing each other.

Tag is completely free form. There are no boundaries and few rules. In football, there are clear goals. A guy’s chasing you, but he knows exactly where you’re headed: to the endzone. In tag, you can be completely unpredictable. You’re darting this way and that way without a real spatial goal in sight – except to get the heck out of the other guy’s clutches. You’ll develop moves you never knew you had and agility you thought was long gone, all because you remove those conscious mental filters that slow things down and prevent pure instinctual reactions.

Tag is sprinting made effortless. Well, effort is still there, but you won’t be aware of it in a good game of tag; you’ll be too busy trying to stay “alive.” If you can’t seem to get out for a regular sprint session, you might try getting a gang together for tag. You’ll end up running what amounts to dozens of sprints without even thinking about it.

Tag promotes full-on effort. Even if you’re a committed sprinter, it can be tough to really hit maximum effort each time, because at the end of the day you’re alone on a track, or a stretch of grass. Unless you’ve got a competitive training partner, you’re in an official competition, or there’s a mountain lion on your tail, you’re missing that sense of urgency that compels the true sprint. When you get in the zone in a game of tag, you do everything you can to avoid being “it.” You dodge, roll, fake, and sprint as fast as humanly possible to avoid being tagged. If you really get into it, it’ll be as if there’s a lion on your heels or a world record to be broken – your body won’t know the difference, and your performance will improve.

There are dozens of varieties of tag. Most will work for your purposes just fine. British bulldogs, for example, begins with two “bulldogs” standing in the middle of the play area. Everyone else lines up on one end and tries to rush past the bulldogs to the other side. Those who are caught become bulldogs. The last one standing is the victor. Then there’s the always classic freeze tag, or even the modified tag variant hide and seek. Too many to name, but I think we can do better with our own variant.

Grok Tag

I suppose the real “Grok Tag” would look something like basic schoolyard tag: one person trying to tag another person, who then becomes “it.” Just basics, no tricks or gimmicks. That’s fine, but I’m thinking we can distinguish ourselves and make it a real workout by throwing in a little twist.

  • Gather a group of people together. At least five is ideal, three is good, and two will technically work.
  • Go to a field, the beach, a forest – pretty much anywhere with real earth underneath, rather than hard concrete. You’re going to be running a lot, so avoid high impact ground.
  • Have everyone do five burpees simultaneously for time. The slowest is “it.” Everyone else is the hunted.
  • Once you’re ready to play, have the hunted disperse. “It” waits ten seconds and then begins the chase.
  • If someone is tagged, they immediately drop and do ten pushups. Once they finish, they are now “it” and the person who tagged them is now the hunted.
  • Next person tagged drops and gives fifteen pushups. Once they finish, they are now “it” and the person who tagged them is now the hunted.
  • Continue in this manner until you reach thirty pushups. Whoever does the thirty is “it” for the next round, which begins in two minutes. For the next round, use squats instead of pushups. And for the round after that, use burpees, but start with five and end with twenty-five (unless you’re up for the full thirty). If there are low hanging branches or pull-up bars in the area, do a round with pull-ups instead.
  • There are tag backs and yes, a single person might end up doing a disproportionate number of repetitions in a given round. That’s life, though, and it’ll only make you stronger.

You can modify Grok Tag to suit your needs and abilities. Raise or lower the reps as needed. Wear weighted vests for the duration. Have kettlebell stations positioned around the field of play, and substitute kettlebell swings into the game. You could even have a barbell sitting on the field – get tagged, do five deadlifts. The possibilities are endless, but the basic concept of being “punished” for getting tagged is key. You won’t want to do those twenty burpees or thirty squats, so you’re going to run like your life depends on it. Even the guys or girls who never get tagged still get a great sprint workout, and the guys or girls who always get tagged will only get stronger and faster.

I’ll admit. This can be a pretty hardcore workout and a far cry from the tag of your childhood, but its scalability means it will never be too hardcore for anyone. Plus, it’s a good way to ambush a reluctant workout partner: “Hey, wanna play a friendly game of tag?”And if your kids have never played the game, this might be a good way to introduce them to an archaic tradition while teaching them proper burpee and squat form.

Just don’t expect to see it in P.E. classes anytime soon.

Have your own thoughts on a variation of Primal tag? Share it in the comment board. Thanks, everyone!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Very cool idea!

    Chris wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • I agree! That is pretty sweet! Mark, I heard about your website and crossfit from friends Anders Eiremo Jonas Eiremo. I really like what people like u r doing! It’s awesome! That game of tag can be a workout if u play for a while! I might have to try that. Keep up the good work Mark!

      Tyler Lanham wrote on December 2nd, 2009
  2. One of my favorite things about recess was the big toy. They should also make big toys for adults. I remember lava monster being of the favorite games on the playground…encouraging children to climb in odd ways all over the place. I suppose an obstacle course like military training would do too…My husband said that was the most fun of BMT.

    I agree that parents have become overbearing these days. I feel it goes hand in hand that people are too afraid of germs and using chemicals to get rid of “germs”.

    If only I could get people to play that kind of tag with me…or build a big people’s big toy at a park.

    kongluirong wrote on December 1st, 2009
  3. I wasn’t particularly an overly fit child, and found that tag in an open space was too challenging. It was impossible to catch up with the star runners.
    However, what myself and my friends always did, was get 4 or 5 and do play-ground tag games.
    Stipulations included not being able to step out of the sandbox or gravel pit. Everything else was fair game. This promoted climbing the features and not just running around. And the sand/gravel kind of evened out the running field too since everyone was slowed down.
    Theres tonnes of variations, and I kinda miss these activities… Maybe I can get some friends together for this… 😀

    romesaz wrote on December 1st, 2009
  4. I LOVE tag. It was my favorite childhood game. And I can’t wait to teach Grok Tag to my little groklings.

    And on the comparative play issue, I’ve seen footage of young chimps in Gombe (Jane Goodall’s field site) playing chase, including one instance in which a young chimp and young baboon chased each other in pure inter-species playing heaven.

    Aaron Blaisdell wrote on December 1st, 2009
  5. Absolutely. And it sure is a clear sign of CW thinking when something like Tag gets outlawed.

    (You’d think that somewhere along the line, at all those policy meetings where those rules were decided on, someone would either a) talk to a child, or b) get slapped back to reality.)

    Grok Tag reminds me of some of the great games they’ve come up with at CrossFit Kids (, which is a great resource for this kind of thing.

    Play on!

    Adam Kayce wrote on December 1st, 2009
  6. I feel fortunate. When my kids (now 18 and 16) were smaller, they had access to 20+ acres of dirt, fields and a 6 acre lake. They’d be gone much of the day. We jut gave them a walkie talkie if they wanted to talk to us. Before that, they could see our garage door. If we opened it, it was time to come home. My son, now at collage, rides his bike 5 miles to the mountain bike park, rides the trails then rides back to his dorm. He’s worn out his bike he rides so much!

    dave, RN wrote on December 1st, 2009
  7. At my last apartment I saw a group of boys playing the hunting game. It looked like so much fun. Wish I had some people to play that with.

    Diana Renata wrote on December 1st, 2009
  8. I loved and still love these games. Though my kids are 16 and 20, we don’t hesitate to play Ghost in the Graveyard (a tag derivative)with the younger cousins on a warm, summer night! Marco Polo, underwater breath holding races, Dodgeball, Capture the flag get the juices flowing for young and old. We try to integrate these games to our pre-holiday meals so everyone has fun together, works off the ants-in-the-pants and works up a health appetite! I look forward to it so much because as you said, it is mentally effortless to be caught up in the competition! Great idea for a post!

    Anne wrote on December 1st, 2009
  9. I loved Tag and another game called “Smear the Queer.” Kids aren’t always politically correct, so we loved the name simply because it rhymed. At the end of the day, aren’t we all a little off or queer? What is the PC name for that game anyways? Tag?
    These are great points though – the simplest of games should never be taken away and replaced with a handheld device. How does that really teach our kids about socialization with others and the hard work needed to get ahead in life?
    For the record, I was a victim of tag; I gouged myself with a boundary stake playing tag at night. I missed my vital area by about 6 inches, so I don’t get to show the scar too often. The scar is about 5 inches long but it taught me that accidents can happen, so stay sharp and play hard.

    Jeff P wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • Where did you grow up? We played “smear the queer” too! This was in the late 60’s and early 70’s in California.
      I can just see someone starting a game of “smear the queer” these days. We’d probably get suspended.

      Dave, RN wrote on September 21st, 2011
  10. I am motivated to play tag right now. Awesome!

    Barry Weidner wrote on December 1st, 2009
  11. To all those out there who “wish other people would play tag with me”… DO IT!!! : ) Seriously, if you organize it, they will come. If that fails, get into a “fitness” class or a casual running group to find like-minded people, make friends and then con THEM into doing it. You’d be surprised how many people will break down and “play” if you give them the opportunity to – it’s just that most won’t do it by themselves. : )

    Laura wrote on December 1st, 2009
  12. My kids actually played tag over Thanksgiving week. Completely tired out their CW cousin – he just couldn’t keep up. Go girls!

    DebFM wrote on December 1st, 2009
  13. Ah recess. We had a big concrete tube called “The Big Cheese”…we could slide off the sides, play in the sand inside, some kids would get their heads stuck in the holes…I personally puked on it once. I’m pretty sure they would be banned now. I also distinctly remember playing soccer with the boys and accidentally kicking the ball right into a kid’s face…oops. We also did intense jump roping for a few years, along with double dutch which is hard!, and played a lot of tag and freeze tag, where you’d have to crawl through the frozen person’s legs in order to un-freeze them. We always had so much fun playing those games, and would come back in from recess with a bunch of red, sweaty faces :)

    hannahc wrote on December 1st, 2009
  14. I never played sports or considered myself athletic, but I loved a game of kickball during recess when I was in elementary school. There really is no replacement for “active” fun.

    This post made me want to play tag! Really!

    Emily wrote on December 1st, 2009
  15. The youth organization I volunteer with (boys and girls ages 13-19) does use dodge ball as a fitness exercise, so it’s not *completely* a lost art as yet.

    gcb wrote on December 1st, 2009
  16. Kids are very aware of the realities of competition, probably more aware at an earlier age than any previous generation. And, anyway, dodge ball sucks!

    Too bad they banned tag, though.

    lr wrote on December 1st, 2009
  17. Some of my best memories from middle school were playing Capture the Flag, in my opinion the greatest recreational game ever invented. Thank heaven I went to school back in the day when they let us play CTF, dodgeball, flag football, tetherball, and other games with ‘risk’ involved.

    Tom Woodward wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • I forgot about tetherball, now that was a dangerous game! Rope burns, tetherballs to the face, and serious 1 on 1 competition where somebody will lose…a helicopter parent’s nightmare.

      hannahc wrote on December 2nd, 2009
  18. Jeff P, you must have grown up in California. We played “smear the queer” too back in the late 60’s early 70’s. I imagine these days someone would file a lawsuit for calling it that.

    dave, RN wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • I guess that would rule out “capture the fag”, too? Or how about “dyke, dyke, loose”? Sorry, couldn’t resist the PiC (Politically inCorrect) puns.

      Aaron Blaisdell wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • LOL – No doubt! We had that up in Washington State.

      Gigi wrote on December 2nd, 2009
  19. Bicycle tag… riding around on bikes, one kid was “it” and was armed with a tightly rolled and bound up newspaper. ride around the school and try to hit each other with it. Always had some good wipeouts.

    Lars wrote on December 1st, 2009
  20. 3 words – Kick…the…Can

    I spent hours late into the night playing that with my friends. It seemed to have a way of leveling the playing field so that no one was “it” for that long. The lack of lighting made the night games even more fun and challenging.

    Geoff wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • Agreed! My all time favorite, besides climbing my huge maple tree up to the very tip top!

      Gigi wrote on December 2nd, 2009
  21. In elementary we got intense about ball tag – tag with a nerf soccer ball. If you got hit, you were it. If caught you were not. (we rhymed the rules on purpose). Taking ball tag to the play ground or jungle gym made it ten times better. Throwing around and in between obstacles on the run is so much fun. And boundaries are definitely needed in tag. Isolating someone to a corner between the boundary and you and the ball elicits very primal instincts and emotions.

    Michael wrote on December 1st, 2009
  22. This is an awesome post. I remember playing a form of “bulldog tag” as a kid and absolutely loving it. I could play those games all day if only I could find other people to play them with…

    And I agree, it is very sad that kids can’t play like kids anymore. Sad, sad, day.

    Matt wrote on December 1st, 2009
  23. This post makes me so sad. Not because of Grok Tag but because kids today are SO SOFT.

    On a same token, would you be interested in doing a post about overuse of antibacterial stuff? I was thinking about that as I was reading this – commercials for Clorox and such that are like DISINFECT EVERYTHING YOUR KID EVER TOUCHES. I think it’s making everyone sicker! Kids need to eat dirt!

    Meghan wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • It’s not just kids. I look around the office at all the handcleaner dispensers and I do not know whether to laugh or cry.

      Cody wrote on September 23rd, 2011
  24. Good post, Mark. Don’t forget that you can always play a game of tag with your dog, too. You will just be it the entire time! They love to play though.

    Matt wrote on December 1st, 2009
  25. This sounds awesome. Hell, I think I could even rally up a few friends to play this one.

    Bret M. wrote on December 1st, 2009
  26. Mark, you should really contact the free-range kids lady. ( I’d love to see you two put your heads together about how to toughen up kids today in a fun and safe manner.

    kam904s wrote on December 1st, 2009
  27. Tag, smear the queer, red rover, tetherball…. all of these should be required not banned…. the world is coming to an end with participation trophies and what not. Kids need to learn to loose and learn how to win graciously. Saying everybody is a winner is the same as saying nobody is. Competition as you said is something that needs to be learned young when ego’s aren’t at stake. The older kids get before they experience the feeling of loosing the harder it becomes to understand and deal with.

    Jeremy wrote on December 1st, 2009
  28. This is such a great idea! I’ve gotten sooo tired of going to the gym all. by. myself. BORING! This is going to be fun, I can tell! =)

    Tia wrote on December 1st, 2009
  29. Smear the Queer (and queer just meant “weirdo” to us) was really rough and really great! We played it with a football… if you had it, be prepared for every other person to try and tackle you. Your only hope was to toss the ball away before you were “smeared.”

    Freeze tag, TV tag, and every other kind of tag and ball game ruled the 70s. We would jump rope at the bus stop in the mornings too…even the boys. Badminton, kickball,baseball, and red rover,red rover… it was all a blast.

    Marie wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • Smear the queer, what a classic. The smearing part was much better!

      Tony M wrote on December 2nd, 2009
  30. We played “boys chase girls” and “girls chase boys” when I was a kiddo. I loved it. I’m not sure that I’ve ever run faster. 😉

    gilliebean wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • Which I see now is on the Wiki list Mark linked to as “Kiss Chase.”

      gilliebean wrote on December 1st, 2009
  31. We played “Smear The Queer” with a football in southern Illinois in the 60s and 70s. We also played a gauntlet type game–don’t remember what it was called–that was tough for me, because I was usually the first “it”. But it taught me to use my head to overcome my physical disadvantages (both small and slow). I used angles to intercept faster runners; I learned how to unbalance larger and stronger runners. I also learned, as Sun Tzu said, that “all warfare is based on deception”! For example, appearing tired and dispirited, and then putting on an unexpected burst of speed to catch the cocky.

    alpowolf wrote on December 1st, 2009
  32. Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, and mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lillies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education. –Luther Burbank

    Steve Daniels wrote on December 1st, 2009
  33. Please not tag! Are you kidding me? There are so many variations of tag so what is next, hide and seek? Well that can be very damaging – what if no one finds you, what if you are found right away, what if you scrape your face on the bush you are hiding behind, the dangers abound. It is just ridiculous.

    When I was young, we played keep away, boys versus the girls. We were allowed to tackle each other on black top. We finished each recess with skinned knees and elbows and all chose to play again the next day. Teachers rarely, if ever, interfered. We were busy releasing energy which truly made it easier for them to teach when we returned to the classroom. Too bad no one realizes that today.

    I make a concerted effort to not be a helicopter parent although at times I am. But for today I was not. Seven kids played afterschool and I never interfered with football, baseball, tag or the lovely show they created. Free play is becoming a lost art.

    Margaret wrote on December 1st, 2009
  34. In my biology classes, we play a game called Predator-Prey each year, where the students (10th grade) are assigned an animal role to play and have to avoid being killed while they try to collect food (the taggee) or be the predator (the tagger). We have a large track of wooded land on the school property. This has been going on at my school in bio classes for at least 10 years and is so popular that the kids coming in from 9th grade ask on day one of 10th grade “When are we going to play Predator-Prey?”

    In the last couple of years, some helicopter parents have called with complaints – some kids got poison ivy or scratches, aggravated their asthma, etc. – and our admin has threatened to stop the game. Luckily, the game is so popular that if they took it away, there might be a riot of 10th graders! One of my best players last year was a girl with spina bifida in a wheel chair. She go around quite well down those trails and managed to survive the game to the end (she was a squirrel who could avoid capture by touching shrubs).

    lbd wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • As a future teacher, I’d love to hear more about this lbd.

      Tony M wrote on December 2nd, 2009
  35. We will have to play Grok Tag at the next Seattle Primal meet up!

    MamaSofi wrote on December 1st, 2009
    • I was thinking the same thing! How much fun!

      Gigi wrote on December 2nd, 2009
  36. I can’t remember the last time I saw some kids playing outside. Tag is such a fun, childlike game. If you’re a kid, it’s extra fun at nighttime. Makes me want to do more fun things for exercise…

    Tracey @ I'm Not Superhuman wrote on December 1st, 2009
  37. Another part of childhood killed by politically correct schools. Heres an interesting thought. We teach kids survival of the fittest in class. then we make sure they never get any real world examples. No competition (we can’t have anyone losing), no cops and robbers or cowboys and indians ( can’t have rampant pointing and cries of *bang bang*) and no red marks on wrong answers ( purple is much friendlier). How do we expect kids to survive in a world where they can’t play and superiority in a particular field is treated as meaningless!?

    muramasa wrote on December 1st, 2009
  38. I recently finished reading a book that touched on some of these discussions. The main focus was the the lack of outdoor freedom children today have and the impact. It’s not just recess, it’s the weekends and summer/winter break too that children no longer have opportunities to just go outside and play. It’s called Last Child in the Woods if anyone is interested.

    I feel lucky to be part of the last generation to really “get” to play dodge ball, tag and generally run around at recess. I wasn’t the most fit, but I remember those few occasions where I would surprise my peers and outrun or outsmart them were so encouraging and rewarding. The idea that these kinds of activities could lower self esteem is ridiculous.

    Tina wrote on December 2nd, 2009
  39. Maybe they’re just planning ahead for the overpopulation crisis? Conspiracy theory! 😀

    Brett wrote on December 2nd, 2009
    • On second thought, I just realized how preposterous this was, even for a conspiracy theory. I’m dumb at 4:38 AM, it seems. :(

      Brett wrote on December 2nd, 2009

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