How to Play Kick the Can

A Spirited Version of Classic Hide-and-Seek

Children run to play a game of kick the can.
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Kick the Can is a classic kids' outdoor game that has been played by children in the United States for at least a hundred years. A variation of Hide and Seek with elements of Capture the Flag, it was traditionally played in several adjoining backyards. It was popular during the Depression because no special equipment is needed.

Kick the Can is appropriate for school age children. The only equipment that is needed is an empty can.

A plastic coffee container is safer than a metal can, or you can use an empty milk carton or jug. Traditionally, players put a few pebbles or washers in the can so that kicking it creates a noise that all players can hear. If you are using a plastic container, you may need to use small jingle bells or some other item that will make a lot of noise. 

The game is played in a good-sized yard or similar area in a park or schoolyard, as long as it's not too open. There must be some hiding places!

How to Play Kick the Can

Prepare to play Kick the Can by designating one person as “it.” Then place the can in the center of the yard or other playing area. Designate another area of the yard as "jail." It shouldn't be too close to the location of the can.

The player who is “it” covers his or her eyes and counts to a predetermined number. “It” then goes in search of the other kids. When one is sighted, “it” runs to the can and calls out the person’s name, saying, for example, “Thomas is in the can!” Thomas then has to go to "jail."

If the person who has been spotted is able to run to the can and kick it before “it” reaches the can, he or she is still free and can hide again. A player who has not been spotted can “kick the can” and free all the players who are in “jail.” The game continues until all players are in "jail." Then the person who was captured first becomes “it.”

Variations of Kick the Can

In one of the variations of this game, the players must be tagged instead of being merely spotted. This makes for a more physical game. Grandparents who want to run the smallest risk of injury to a grandchild should stick to the sight-based version. 

Another variation is played at night, with a street lamp replacing the can. The person who is designated "it" searches for the other players in the dark and runs to the street lamp to tag them. 

In another variation, a player who has not been spotted who "kicks the can" frees only one person, usually the one who has been in "jail" the longest.

When to Play Kick the Can

Kick the Can is great fun at family reunions, Fourth of July picnics and Grandma Camp, if your campers are old enough. 

If you have enough grandchildren of an appropriate age, kick the can is fun to play on a multi-generational vacation, especially a camping or cabin vacation.  

Fun Facts About Kick the Can

  • A 1962 episode of Twilight Zone and the 1983 film feature the game of Kick the Can, where it symbolizes the magic of childhood. 
  • In Kick the Tin, a variation played in Australia and other Commonwealth countries, the game begins with one of the players giving the can a mighty kick. "It" must retrieve the can and count before play can begin. 
  • The colloquial expression "kick the can" is a shortened version of "kick the can down the road." This expression means to put off action on something. This expression doesn't refer to the game but instead refers to the old-fashioned childhood amusement of kicking a can ahead of oneself while walking down a road.