It is impossible to explain some of the games we played as kids to my eight-year old son, Sid. Many times, my descriptions of some of my childhood games sends him into reels of laughter. Sid enjoys his evenings with his friends. But, Sid and his friends usually need a bat, a football, a basketball or a bike for casual play. On rare occasions, they play in the sand. Sometimes, Sid wonders what to play with, in spite of all the options he has. When I hear him lament, I am reminded of my childhood when I played outside in the evenings.
I spent my entire childhood in a small village in southern India. Every day, after school, I would run out of the house to play. There was no concept of play dates nor some older person watching us. We children just got together and played. Many times, all that we needed was a simple rubber ball.
These days, every game is toy dependent. The idea of inducing free play usually begins at the toy store. When we get to the store, the toy packaging describes the list of skills that the toy can enhance in a child. This list sometimes is even longer than the instruction sheet of the toy or a game. Many times, I wonder if I have all the skills that are listed because I grew up with no toys except for a plastic doll whose nose I had bitten off. But, it is apparent to me today, that most games I played as a child imparted many abilities that I was not cognizant of at the time. Those street games offered lessons in team spirit, motor skills, critical thinking, spatial skills, leadership qualities and not to mention social skills.
When groups of people play together, team spirit and competitiveness are natural derivatives. Games like Lagori or Ezhu Kallu in Tamil (meaning 7 stones), Kabaddi and Kho-Kho did exactly that.
I have fond memories of Lagori. Played by four people or more divided into two teams, the game involves piling seven flat stones one on top of the other. Then, each member of one team (the Hitters) get three chances to aim and strike at the pile of stones with a soft ball to knock the stones over. The Getters, the opposing team, try to restore the pile of stones while the Hitters throw the ball at them. If the ball touches a Getter, she is out and the game continues on. A team member can always safeguard herself by touching the opposite team member before the ball hits her. The idea is to pile the stones exactly one above the other without the Hitter team being able to hit any Getter team member with the ball. Once the stones are all piled, the team shouts “Lagori” signaling the end of the game.
This is a simple game with lots of dynamics and team spirit played in an open area outside the house. We used a rubber ball so that it caused no injury. This game compelled us to work as a team. We learnt to aim and shoot the ball, run and evade the ball and because we played within a boundary, it added to the excitement of the game.
Today, Lagori is seldom played. Parents worry that their children would get hurt, or the ball would break window panes or cause any other kind of damage. Will future generation know this game? Only time will tell.
“Human motor skills develop only till the age of 10. What you get by then is what you have for life,” says Sid’s tennis coach often.
Sid takes tennis lessons twice a week. Sid is taught how to move his feet, use the court, swing the racquet, hold the racquet in the right direction and so many other intricate details. These are some skills we learned naturally. Nobody taught us, how to move our feet or swing a bat.
I recall one particular game we girls played when we were young, called Five Stones. In this game, we gathered five round stones tossed them on the floor. Then we picked up one stone and threw it in the air and then rapidly attempted to pick up another stone from the floor while waiting to catch the one hurled above. As we progressed, we had to gather two, three, and then all four stones before the one stone hurled above landed on the ground. I remember trying to analyze distance and speed ratios. We had to figure out how far to throw and how quickly to pick up another stone and catch the one thrown. It was indeed a lot of fun and we learnt to depend on our reflexes and also what the tennis coach called. “our motor skills.”
One other popular game was Hopscotch. I cannot recall another game that is as widely played as this one. It has its versions in every part of the world and is also called by different names. We in southern India called it Paandi (in Tamil) or Kunte Bille (in Kannada). A pattern of 8 boxes is scratched out in the dirt or drawn with chalk on the floor. The first player throws a flat stone starting with the first square, without touching any of the boundary lines. The player then hops from square to square skipping the square that the stone lands in. Who knew that the game of hopscotch, was fine tuning our motor skills. The graffiti of hopscotch boxes was so common during my childhood that it almost looked like the welcome sign outside our home. I do come across one occasionally now and then and the urge remains to hop across the boxes again.
Visual and Spatial Skills
The best childhood memories are etched around games. For my husband, it was marbles. They represented glass trophies to him. The game of marbles probably gave him the advantage of being skilled at Carom Board or Pool, which employs similar skills. The game of marbles involves the art of striking one object with another. It gives us an immense understanding of the laws of motion and the science of vector mechanics.
The game of marbles, or Goli or Kanchey, as it is known in India, originated during the Harappan Civilization in Pakistan. Goli is still popular in many parts of rural India. However, I am told by many elders in the family that there are variations to this game. A favorite version that my dad always played is called Ringer. Here, the players place their marbles inside a circle and each one takes a turn to hit the marbles of other players and get them out of the circle.
There was a simple impartial rule that we employed when we had to choose teams. The leaders weren’t allowed to pick their friends as part of their teams. This helped us sort out differences amongst us. The leaders would toss a coin and choose their team members. Another way of choosing team members required the leaders to stand apart with the rest of us spread out in groups of twos. We gave ourselves intriguing names like Wind and Earth.
Pairs of members would ask the leader to pick one option: wind or earth. Once the leader called out a name, that person ended up in the leader’s group. Today, it seems like every child wants to be leader, and they don’t subscribe to these simple methods of fair play.
These naturally resourceful games are simple, incorporate team dynamics and team spirit and also help in developing some good leadership skills. Since many of us grew up with practically no toys, we relied on being creative for our entertainment. I am sure, my son doesn’t know that we can just roll up a leaf and blow through it like a whistle.
But then, I wonder, aren’t we as parents to blame? As parents we are often extra cautious, and don’t want our children getting hurt or injuring themselves. We don’t let them pluck leaves/flowers for fun because, we want them to be responsible citizens of the earth and also because some of them could be poisonous.
Perhaps, this is what happens when the human race progresses. But then in our hurry to modernize we must make sure we don’t lose our roots. It cannot be denied that some modern games like golf or billiards have their beginnings in the games we played as children.
I look back at the games I played when I was young, nostalgically, for their simplicity and their embedded connection to my childhood. Perhaps, I still love them because, I want to pass it on as a legacy to future generations, which may not happen unless they are developed as a video game. That would be ironical indeed.