At this time of year, our local park is littered with conkers (otherwise known as horse chestnuts) – at times they are literally (and rather painfully!) raining down on us. Who can resist prising open spiky cases for that thrill of discovering shiny brown nuts inside? My kids certainly can’t, and so over the first month of autumn we tend to accumulate a big pile. And what better way to make use of this autumn bounty than through a smashing game of conkers? We love it so much, I had to share it with you. So read on to discover all the do’s and don’ts, rules and the cheats, hows and whys of playing conkers!
A History of Conkers
While we don’t use all our horse chestnuts playing conkers, the classic game of conkers is a great way to carry on a childhood tradition that has been going strong in Britain since the 1800s – the first ever recorded game using horse chestnuts being held on the Isle of Wight in 1843, though it was played for hundreds of years before that using hazelnuts or snail shells instead of conkers. It’s a simple game that’s easy to play (if harder to win!), and where a good part of the fun is in the preparation.
Harvesting Horse Chestnuts (or Conkers)
The first step is to locate a horse chestnut tree and find some conkers. They’ll start to fall around early September, but you’ll see the clusters of bright green shells much earlier so should be able to tell which trees will have a good harvest.
Don’t confuse them with sweet chestnuts, which come in shells completely covered in longer, needle-like spikes – horse chestnut shells have short and blunt spikes with big gaps between them. Sweet chestnuts are good for eating but bad for playing – the complete opposite of the horse chestnut, which is inedible but fantastic for playing with.
Picking a Winner
Once they’ve got some conkers, it’s time to pick a potential winner. The World Conker Championship source over a thousand conkers for their annual tournament, and the requirements are for nuts 32mm-35mm in diameter, symmetrical, and with no flat sides. As a child, I found that while big conkers can look very impressive, small ones can be harder to hit – being a smaller target – and harder to break.
The most important thing is to make sure there are no cracks or holes, as conkers can be damaged when they fall from the tree. A great, and very scientific, way to find out which of their haul is the best is to get the kids to put their conkers in a bowl of water. Denser (and therefore likely to be stronger) conkers will sink, so those should be the best to use for playing conkers.
Drilling and Threading Conkers
Before they can start playing conkers, their horse chestnuts must be threaded onto a piece of string or something like a shoelace (about 25cm – 30cm long). You can use a metal skewer or a small, sharp screwdriver to make the hole – a conker shell is fairly thin and pierces relatively easily.
This year I treated us to a great set of kids’ conker drills, which came with a mushroom-shaped nutcracker to hold the conker securely while you make the hole.
- Corvus “Kids at Work” Nutcracker/Chestnut Holder
- Corvus “Kids at Work” Wood and Chestnuts Drill (3-Pieces)
We found they make it much safer for the kids to make the hole themselves, and being able to do this adds immeasurably to the kids’ enjoyment of the whole process! I recommend wearing a gardening glove or similar on the hand holding the conker, to protect them against any slips (erm, yes, something we should – and usually would – have done…).
When drilling, go slow to avoid cracks that will weaken the shell. The hole needs to go completely through so that the string can be threaded and knotted at one end.
I often use butchers string, which is waxed, as it’s easy for the kids to thread. If you’re using regular string, you might want to wrap one end tightly with a bit of sticky tape to create a needle-style point. It’s also traditional to use a shoelace, but go for the thinner type to avoid needing a massive hole to thread it through.
Playing Conkers: the Rules
The object of the game is to break your opponents conker by hitting it with yours. One conker is held dangled (but steady) by its owner, so that the other player can swing their conker, with as much force and accuracy as they can manage, at this target. The players take turns doing this until one (or both!) of the conkers is destroyed. Pretty simple, but of course no sport is complete without being over-complicated by rules and scoring. There can be regional variations on this, so these are the generally agreed ones:
- Each player wraps the end of their string around their hand. The player whose conker will be the first to be ‘target’ dangles their conker for the ‘striker’ to hit
- Each player takes turns striking the other conker.
- If the striker makes the target swing up and over in a complete 360° arc (known as ‘around the world’), they get one extra strike.
- If the strings tangle, the first player to shout ‘strings’ gets the next strike
- Victory is declared when one conker is smashed (sometimes, in bitter irony, it’s the striker that falls apart, not the target…).
- Some insist that tampering with a conker to harden it artificially (for example, with varnish) or even using an old conker from a previous year (which will have hardened naturally) counts as cheating. Others say it’s a part of the game…
How to Cheat…
When it comes to cheating at playing conkers, there are several ways to go about it. My kids loved having a scientific enquiry into the best method but as two of them require the conkers to be left in a dark, dry spot for a year, the jury is still out on the results. In case you want to try to create that Ultimate Champion Unconquerable Conker yourself, there are a few ways to go about it.
Soaking in vinegar (some say a 50/50 mix of vinegar and warm water) is a one old method, while baking the conker at a low heat is another traditional method. We’ve not tested out another tradition of soaking in urine – one probably best left untested! For a more modern cheat, varnish, PVA glue or clear nail varnish are all recommended, though having a super-shiny conker can be a bit of a giveaway.
Scoring is where playing conkers gets most complicated, as the player doesn’t get points for a win; instead the points go to the conker. After winning its first match, a conker gets the title ‘Oner’. If it beats a new conker in its second match, it becomes a ‘Twoer’. However, if that defeated conker is also a veteran of other matches (for example, if it is also a Oner), the winning conker gets all the points that conker has, plus an extra point for defeating it. A Oner defeating another Oner becomes a Threer. If it then defeated another Oner, it would become a Fiver. A Fiver defeating a Threer would become a Niner… and so on. This scoring system could only have been invented by small children, but it is great maths practice for the kids.
The Benefits of Playing Conkers
Playing conkers is a lot of fun and actually has a several developmental benefits for young children as well. It requires hand-eye coordination, fine motor control and muscle strength to drill into and thread the conkers, and then there is the coordination needed to aim and hit another conker. Losing at conkers can be tough for little ones – you lose the game and your conker in the same instant. That itself can be a valuable experience. Some kids revel in the destruction while others take such pride in the making and owning, or place such importance on the ‘win’, that the loss can be emotional – especially when the conker is a venerable veteran of several campaigns.
But having more conkers to hand can soften the blow considerably, and it can be a great way to develop analytical skills – why did that conker break? Were there cracks or holes already? Was the hole for the string too big? Did they do the sink/float test for hardness? What conker will they choose next? What can they try doing differently next time? Playing – and losing – at conkers actually helps kids experience and learn to cope with loss and losing in a less intense way, and encourage an attitude of perseverance, curiosity and determination when things don’t go their way. Also, as I said before, it’s so much fun!
More Things to Do With Conkers
While we do love playing conkers, there are lots of other things you can do with this shiny treasure, and I’ve picked a few of the best ideas to share with you over the course of the month, so make sure you save a few from being smashed, and come back shortly for some fantastic crafty fun! You can also head over to The Adventures of Meemoo and Pook, to read my guest post on how to make some ever-so cute conker creatures with the kids. While you’re there, be sure to check out the lovely Gemma and Sarah’s other fabulous ideas for autumn play.
More about Playing Conkers from Around the Web
Want more information and ideas for the game of conkers? We found lots of fun stuff on these other sites, all about playing conkers:
- The World Conker Championships have been – and are still – taking place in Northamptonshire, in the UK, since 1965. Their site has loads of information on the history of the game and how to play by the official rules.
- The National Trust has a list of the UK top spots to find champion conkers, with some great tips on how to make yours a winner!
- The CBBC website has a fun quiz on which cheater’s methods for making your conkers unconquerable actually work.
- For history buffs, this article on the History Extra website reveals the fascinating answer to the question ‘Did conkers help win the First World War?’
- And the truth – did the Government Health & Safety Dept. really make kids wear goggles to play conkers?
Looking for more fun things to make and do with the kids? Check out these great activities!