Kick the can

This article is about the children's game. For the Twilight Zone episode, see Kick the Can.

Kick the Can (also known as 40 40, Pom Pom, Tip the can, and Can up Can Down) is a children's game related to tag, hide and seek, and capture the flag which is played outdoors, with as few as three to as many as several dozen players. All players must remain outside at all times. If caught indoors, the player is disqualified and therefore is the seeker for the next round. The game is one of skill, strategy, and stealth, as well as physical fitness. Rather than using a ball, the only piece of equipment is an object that can be kicked. The name of the game is Kick the Can, because often a discarded empty can from the trash is used that can have rocks inserted into it to make noise. The game was a popular pick-up game for children during difficult economic times. The origin of the game is unknown, but during the Great Depression in the 1930s the game was a popular pastime for children because it didn’t require any designated equipment or playing field.[1]

Basic play

One person or a team of people is designated as "it" and a can or similar object—paint can or metal pail or bucket—is placed in an open space: the middle of a backyard, a green, a cove or cul-de-sac, parking lot or street. The other players run off and hide while "it" covers his or her eyes and counts to a previously decided number. "It" then tries to find and tag each of the players. Any player who is tagged (caught and touched) is sent to the holding pen (jail) which is simply a designated area for all the captured players to congregate, generally in plain sight of the can. Any player who has not been caught can "kick the can" or "tip the can". If they can do this without being caught, then all of the captured players are set free.[2] Alternatively, one of the captured players is set free each time the can is tipped—the first person caught is the first to be set free, the second caught the second to be set free, etc. until the person tipping the can is tagged or all the captured players are freed. If "it" catches all of the players he or she wins that round and generally a new "it" is designated for the next round. The new "it" is usually the person that has been held the longest by the time round ends.


In some variations "it" merely has to call out a player's name and hiding place rather than tagging him by touch. In some variations, "it" must jump over the can after calling the player's name and location.

In another variation, when "it" sees or finds a person hiding, "it" must run back to the can and place one foot on it while saying the found person is in the can (e.g. "Tim is in the can") before the found person is able to reach the can and tip it. Thus, once a person is found or seen by "it", the game becomes a race to the can between the found person and "it". In order for someone to be caught and put in "jail", "it" must have beat the found person to the can and pronounced that person "in the can". "It" also could say "1–2–3 on.." whoever they found, while touching the can. [This variant is also called "Pan Hoop" in Trinidad & Tobago]

As another variation, more than one can (or milk carton—easier on bare feet when tipping them over) is used. The cans or cartons are scattered at the beginning of the game when everyone runs to hide. "It" must gather them and stack them so they don't fall over. Then, when "it" spots someone hiding, "it" must run back and touch the tower of cartons without knocking them down. If they fall, the "caught" hider can run away and hide again. If they remain standing, the hider goes to jail. While "it" is searching for others, someone not yet caught can sneak in and tip over the cartons, freeing those in jail.

In some cases, if the can is being tipped by one of the players that was hiding, instead of tagging the tipper to prevent the tipper from freeing any more captured players, the "it" must get in a tip at the can to prevent the other tipper from freeing any more captured players.

Another variation was to have two teams at either end of the road with an upright can in a chalk circle in the middle. In turn each team would roll a soft rubber or tennis ball and attempt to knock over the can. If your team (Team A) managed to knock over the can they would then run off and to win the game they had to return to the can and stand it up using only their feet. The opposing team (Team B) would try to stop them from standing the can up by throwing the ball at the Team A members. The ball holder from Team B had to stand in the same position and either pass to another team member or throw at an opponent . If they managed to hit a person from Team A they had to freeze. They could only be released if one of their own team went under their legs or when the can was eventually stood up. During the active game Team A could not touch the ball.

Cultural significance

Play scholar Rodney Carlisle notes that: "As outdoor and unstructured play of children continues to dwindle, the game of Kick the Can is becoming less and less known to each generation... At one point in time, teenagers played Kick the Can with younger children, and the game and its variations were passed on from child to child. Past generations remember this game fondly, and it was enough of a cultural phenomenon that it was a central player in a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone and was incorporated later in the 1983 film of the same name."[2]

A 2010 PBS documentary, New York Street Games, includes people talking about the why and wherefore of Kick the Can.[3]

Kick the can down the road

The expression "kick the can" is sometimes used to mean "to procrastinate", or in political terms, to put off solving a particular problem until later.[4] This usage does not refer to the children's game, but rather is shorthand for "kick the can down the road".[5]


  1. Play and Playground Encyclopedia
  2. 1 2 Carlisle, Rodney P. (2009). Encyclopedia of Play in Today's Society. Volume 1. SAGE Publications Inc. p. 347. ISBN 978-1-4129-6670-2.
  3. New York Street Games (Motion picture). Hector Elizondo (Narrator); Matt Levy (Director). New York City. Retrieved 14 Nov 2011.
  4. "Congress weighs another round of kick the can". Politico, cited at September 9, 2012. Retrieved 10 September 2012.
  5. "Definition of kick the can down the road". Online Slang Dictionary. Retrieved 10 September 2012.

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