Ollie Ollie Oxen Free

Today’s guest post was written by Dana Wall.


Hide and Seek is an old childhood game, its rules passed down by oral tradition from older to younger child, with little variation over the centuries. The “little variation” is with the words the person who is “It” calls when he or she is tired of seeking and wants to end the round.

If no player who is hiding has been tagged, the kid who is “It,” is “It” again. Still, when “It” is ready for the next round, he or she can let all the hiding players “get in free.” How?

That depends. I have heard different calls and was told Chicago kids used to say, “Ole, Ole, Oceans free!” I suppose if any play the game in Chicago today, they still do. “It” hollers, “Ole, Ole, Oceans free,” and the hiding kids come in to touch base without getting “caught.”

I have asked three different friends who grew up in Chicago what that means. None knows. “We just said it because that’s what we learned from the older kids when we first played the game.” Exactly.

My wife, who did not grow up in Chicago, reports her neighborhood kids yelled, “Ole, Ole, Olsen, all in free.” Ole Olsen must have been Swedish.

I grew up in Iowa, but I am sure there were variations around the state. What our neighborhood kids said also made little sense. We said “Ollie,” not “Ole.” “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free.” What does that mean? Were kid hiding originally named “Ollie Oxen”? We never asked.

A friend who grew up in a southern state reports a version close to the original. He used to call, “Ollie, Ollie Outsen Free.” He said he never knew what “Outsen” meant nor who Ollie was. Another friend swore they all said, “Ollie, Ollie Out Sin-Free.” Actually, that is close to the original sound.

The original call, from long ago, has easily understood meaning. Those hiding are the “Outs.” Touching the base without being tagged means you are “In.” When whoever was “It” became tired of seeking, that player gave the call to get “in” “free” and originally yelled, “All the, all the ‘outs’ ‘in’ free!”

Try it aloud. “All the, all the ‘outs’ ‘in’ free!” Again. Louder. Say it as kids might. “Ole, Ole Oceans Free,” “Ole, Ole, Olsen, All In Free,” “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free,” “Ollie, Ollie Outsen Free, or even, “Ollie, Ollie Out Sin-Free!” See? It’s a simple little example of how languages can change over time as oral tradition is passed on from older to younger kids. Or from people of any age who hear words differently and pass those variations on to others.

Imagine all the language changes over centuries among wandering tribes and then among nations before there were text books to decree what was standard.

Now tell me — What did you call to end the round, and where did you play “Hide and Seek”?

Dana Wall


I had forgotten about the part of the game that occurred when the it person gave up until Dana sent me this post. Probably because most of the time in our games everyone was found or made a mad dash to beat it back to base so that they could join back in all the fun. I believe we said “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free” or maybe just “home free.” And now I wish I could travel back in time to some dusky dark summer evening when all of us kids were running wild through the holler playing hide n seek and find out for sure.


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  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 14, 2019 at 10:56 pm

    It was “Home Free” here…We played “Kick the Can” more than hide and seek. Kick the can was a variation of Hide and Seek I suppose…Someone in the group brought a empty can. It was placed near the home base..usually tree, rock or just a board on the ground. The chosen one was “IT” (either. “one potato, two potato” or “eenie, meenie miney Mo” decision!” Second choice got to kick the can!…After the can was then kicked, the “IT” had to go get the can and bring it back to the base while all the others ran and hid..(the further the can was kicked meant that “IT” didn’t have time to look where everyone was running to hide…When the “IT” left the can free at the base to look for someone and found them they raced back home…If caught they were out! If not they were “home free” sat down and waited…The fun began as some were found…but when the “IT” would ease out to look for someone, another would take advantage and run and kick the can again…If the “IT” beat them back to base and tagged them, then they became the next “IT” and the previous “IT” got to kick the can….This allowed the home free people a chance to run and hide again…and kept the “IT” busy for quite a while…I absolutely loved this game…I was always afraid to hide too far from home base, because it was dark. A street light shown across part of the field but still shadows cast was “skeery” for me…LOL We would play this game in the summer until ten or eleven o’clock or until someone gave up or had to go home…
    Thanks for the memories.

  • Reply
    Sharon Hall
    September 26, 2018 at 9:53 am

    “Ollie, ollie all in free” is what we used to holler in W.Va. when I was a kid.

  • Reply
    August 9, 2018 at 9:22 am

    “Ollie ollie oxen free!” in Massachusetts. Even as a child, I thought it was an odd saying and no one could explain to me what it meant!

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    August 8, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    I never heard any of those sayings. We just said “home free!”

  • Reply
    Joe Penland
    August 8, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    There was a game we played called “Red Rover” but I do not remember how it was played. Can anyone help?

    • Reply
      August 8, 2018 at 4:40 pm

      Red Rover was played by the children lining up in two lines facing each other a few yards apart. All the kids held hands. The leader would pick a kid, call him Jimmy, and the team in unison would chant “Rod Rover, Red Rover send Jimmy right over. Jimmy would run and try to break through the line. If he didn’t break the line his opposing team would keep him. If he did get through, he got to pick one of his opponents and take them back to his side. Then the same same thing repeated in the opposite direction. It kept going back and forth until one team had only one player. Then sides were chosen again and the game started all over.

  • Reply
    August 8, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    Now That’s a pretty neat way to end the game , though we never had an ending call that I remember, usually we played and played till ‘it’s’ didn’t want to be’ it’s any longer, or somebody’s parent ,or work/ homework, or mosquitos hollered or hastened us in .

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    August 8, 2018 at 10:57 am

    I don’t think we yelled anything–just tried to get “home”.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    August 8, 2018 at 10:47 am

    I never heard of “Ole, Ole, Oxen Free”, we played “Whoopie Hide”, but I guess it doesn’t matter, long as kids are occupied. Families came to visit and talk about old times mostly, and brought their kids with ’em. Those were the good ole days, before all this sophistication. I’ll not get started on that! …Ken

  • Reply
    Janis Sullivan
    August 8, 2018 at 9:44 am

    I lived in several states as a child, and all groups of children said, “Ollie, ollie oxen free. Thanks for the memories.

  • Reply
    August 8, 2018 at 8:56 am

    We never played the game like that at all. In the game we played the “Outs” were out of the game. They were the ones that got tagged. They would have to sit out the rest of the game. They all had to wait behind the base. When “It” finally tagged the last “In” the game was over and a new one would start. There was never a general amnesty called. The game ended when somebody had to get home before dark or it got so dark the kids were running into things or other kids.
    “Somebody, Somebody, please help me!
    I stumbled on a stump and run into a tree.” ©eaa

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    August 8, 2018 at 8:40 am

    Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free in New Mexico and Texas.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 8, 2018 at 8:12 am

    If my memory serves, the first time I ever heard “Ollie, Ollie oxen free” was on an episode of “Twilight Zone”. When we played we had no ‘end of round’ expression. I don’t even recall now how we ended one game to start another. If everybody had not been accounted for, I guess IT just said, ‘I give up’ or something similar.

    I like Dana’s explanation both because it makes sense of a mystery and because it is a fun insight to how kids understand, repeat and pass on language. It reminds me of the story of the family recipe that called for cutting up the turkey but nobody knew why. Asking back through the generations finally revealed that the great-grandmothers roasting pan was too small to leave the turkey whole.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    August 8, 2018 at 7:53 am

    I could not remember what I said so I ask my wife what she said. She said, Ollie Ollie out there come in free. I do remember where I played it most. My Aunt and Uncle had a big two story farm house with a large yard. Plenty of places to hide, but my favorite to play there was Annie Annie Over.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    August 8, 2018 at 7:42 am

    We in Pennsylvania said Ollie, Ollie in free. Not as fancy as the others but it worked.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 8, 2018 at 6:45 am

    Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free! That’s the way I heard it as a kid in different states here in the south. I did once or twice wonder who Oxen was but never, ever thought it might actually be All In Free. Kids just repeat their best understanding of what they hear.

  • Reply
    August 8, 2018 at 5:31 am

    I’ve heard of this, but we never did play it that way, we just tried to get back to home base while the one was looking for us back was turned, if you got tagged then you were it, but before, the one tagged would hide his or her eyes and count to what ever we the number would be, then you would try to hide in a place you couldn’t be found.

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