Games children_don't_play

I wrote this article for Teacher Plus. It was published in  March 2014

Mere yaar patang udaya kar
Kat jayee to gham na khaya kar
(Dr Mathura Das Pahwa, Lahore)

Living in the centre of a city that goes crazy about kite flying during Sankranthi, we, along with some friends, fly kites on our terrace every year. It is something we enjoy doing together and don’t usually miss if we can help it. We buy kites and maanja, get the charkas ready, go to the terrace with all the necessary equipment, keep a tab on the ‘score’ – how many kites we cut vs how many we lost, and shout “kaate” with excitement every time we cut a kite! Others from our building are out on the terrace too, and more than a festival or a sport, it is an experience that we cherish.

This year my teenage daughter, instead of joining us, went with her friends to play Laser tag in a mall! It is a well-known fact that the attraction and comfort of mall-related activities, play stations, computer games and social media have stolen urban children and teenagers away from simpler games that used to provide tremendous amount of fun to generations of children.

Traditional games around the world

Traditional games are games that connect children in some way or the other, to the earth. Every culture around the world has its own set of games. Remember the handkerchief game you played as a child, where you sat in a circle and one person ran around and left the handkerchief behind one of the children? This game is also played by children in Chile, where it is called “Corre, corre la Guaraca, which means “Run, run la Guaraca”! Pakistani children play a game called ‘Oonch neech’, which is also played in India, the Telugu version being called ‘Nela banda’. A version of five stones is played in Korea and it is called ‘Kongk Noli’. Apart from these there are several games that are typical to the culture or environment of a particular region, such as ‘Catch the dragon’s tail’ from China, where the players form two chains, placing their hands of the player in front, and the aim being for the ‘head’ of the dragon to catch the ‘tail’ of the other ‘dragon’! ‘Go-Go-Im’ from Israel is a game where children play with apricot seeds called ‘go-gos’; this game is played during the apricot season. Some European games such as hop scotch, leapfrog, skipping, and ‘oranges and lemons’ are also played in the US and in India too, many of us have grown up playing these games.

In India too, every state and culture has its own games, and in this aspect also, we have a rich heritage that we need to tap into to entertain ourselves in a simple and healthy way. Some games I grew up playing in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh include char pathar, seven stones, the wooden top, kites, hide and seek, I spy, Nela banda, Kabaddi, Vangudu-dunukudu, hop scotch, skipping, five stones, Chain, Salt, Colour-colour, King and Statue. I never really played marbles and gilli danda myself but watched my brother and his friends play these games. Apart from all these, in the rainy season, we played with red velvet mites, those small red insects that we called ‘arudra purugulu’ in Telugu and ’birba buddi’ in Hindi. And every time we went for a picnic next to a pond, we invariably entertained ourselves by skipping stones on the water. Basically,
the environment determined our play and we were outdoors a lot.

Why should we encourage children to play traditional games?
• Most of these games are indigenous and environment friendly…not bought from a toy
shop but played with natural material available close by.
• These games promote much-needed social interaction among children, in days of
mobile phone games and play stations which are single-player games.
• Many of these games give children exercise, help develop sensory skills, and hand-eye
• These games are our part of our cultural identity. They tell us about who we are and
where we come from, and therefore need to be preserved.
• They teach children not only about winning but also about losing.
• Apart from everything else, they are a lot of simple FUN…and that’s what childhood
should be all about.

A small attempt
With the belief that these games are beneficial and need to be preserved, in Vidyaranya High School, Hyderabad, my friend – Kobita Das Kolli – and I, as part of a nature awareness class, have been introducing traditional games to children of Class 4. It is a once-a-week class, and the main thrust is on gardening and nature awareness. But when there is some remaining time after an activity, we spend it teaching them to play some games. The aim of this article is not to explain how these games are played. It is to share our experience in trying to get urban children to play some traditional games.

Hop scotch: The first thing we notice is that several of the 8-9-year-olds in our class cannot hop! And if they can, they cannot balance themselves on one foot to pick up the flat stone they throw. Some of them just can’t get to throw the stone in the right box. These were things most children could do well earlier. But, unlike the earlier generation where this game was predominantly played by girls, in this school, both boys and girls play together, and the boys have no qualms about playing it…sometimes, ignorance is bliss! There are many benefits to playing hop scotch— it improves concentration, needs skill, improves fitness and can be played over days.

Skipping rope: Now, one would think that all children should be able to skip. But this is not so; many of them begin after we introduce it to them. But they get very interested and love it as they realise that they can easily learn to skip. We also make them skip in twos and threes, using a long rope. The benefits of skipping are obvious — fitness, coordination, group play.

Five stones: Just five simple rounded stones picked up from anywhere and one can play this game and get quite addicted to it. We have not had much luck getting children interested in playing this game simply because they are just not able to catch the stones and soon lose patience. However, we have not had the time to make them play this for an extended period of time. Playing five stones improves hand-eye coordination and motor skills, and can be played with many levels and variations.

Wooden top:
“Teacher! I spun the top four times today!” Sweet words, indeed. An old friend who grew up playing marbles and tops helps us with this class. He demonstrates his skill at spinning the top, at picking it up with the rope as it is spinning and transferring it to his hand, and most impressive of all, flinging it in the air as he spins it and then catching it on his hand where it continues to spin. This gets the children very excited and they become very enthused to try it themselves. Frustrated attempt after frustrated attempt later, some of them do manage to get it! The idea is to give them a taste of the fun that can be had playing these games, and then telling them to buy their own tops and practice at home.

Spinning the wooden top, unlike its modern counterpart—the beyblade—requires skill, there are levels of expertise, and contests too. It costs just about Rs 50, and has entertained generations of children.

Sock ball game: 
Looking for other games on the internet, we found a game that is supposedly played by children in Ghana in West Africa. Thinking that it would be great to introduce a new game, and take the opportunity to tell them it originated in Ghana, we introduced the game of Sock ball. An old sock is filled with tamarind seeds (we used coral bead seeds, available in Indira Park), then folded over, and a rope is tied to the sock ball. Children stand in a circle and one person in the centre whirls the rope around as low as possible. Children must jump to avoid the ball touching their feet. The child whose foot or ankle it touches, is out of the game.

This is a very high-energy game and children simply love it! In Vidyaranya, we were rewarded by a ripple effect when even young children who we had not taught this game to began playing it, having observed older children playing the sock ball game.

I must mention that Ghana did not register or was fast forgotten...they were more interested in playing the game rather than listening to where the game originated from.

Vamana guntalu (Telugu) / Pallanguzhi (Tamil): This game needs quick thinking and strategy. There is a wooden board with 14 pits in two rows, and is played with tamarind seeds. We notice that children like this game instantly. Popularly known as Mancala, this is a very ancient game and is played in several countries. Wikipedia tells us that fragments of a pottery board and several rock cuts were found in Eritrea and Ethiopia in Africa as long back as the 7th century AD! It would be a pity to let such an old game die out.

Kite flying: During Sankranthi, we also make children put rangolis and fly kites, both of which engages their attention and interest.

How schools can help
If anyone can actively help revive traditional games, it is teachers and schools. I do believe that schools should not only acquire equipment and facilities to make children play sports like cricket and tennis, but should also make available traditional games, especially at the primary and middle school levels. It is only when they are available, and when there is an adult excited about playing with them, and when sufficient time is allotted for play, that children will show interest in these games.

How people can help
Ordinary people can help by beginning to play these games once again. In fact, ideally, adults and old people should play them with children. This can also be done in apartment complexes where, instead of sitting inside their individual flats and watching TV or pining for company, people can get together and play games like Vamana guntalu, or Aadu puli attam. Perhaps it would bring back a few childhood moments and help in bonding too.

(For instructions on how to play, check out
and other websites that you can easily find on the net).


Haritha Avula said…
It's a nice article sadhana, I actually took me down memory lane. I think there is so much of essence in what you have written, children nowadays are losing human touch thanks to the technological fecundity, producing oodles of gadgets for our very own children, finally depriving them of their childhood.
I am a huge fan of these traditional games and would love to instil this culture in my children. In fact, I've been looking for vamana guntalu. Any idea where you get that?
Also, if you are planning on any workshop or a group for traditional games, count me in.
Thank you, Haritha. I bought Vamana guntalu at Shilparamam in December 2013. Kreeda Games sells a fancy version which is very expensive. This should be available in Saptaparni. Regarding a workshop, yes, it is a good idea. Maybe during summer holidays. Thanks for the thought...will surely keep you posted! What do you do?
Haritha Avula said…
I am a dentist by profession. My hobbies are photography, travel, adventure, reading, story telling( children).
I have two lovely daughters aged 7 & 4.
What about you?
Yes, let's plan some ' traditional games' play group or something like that. We can have like minded parents together :-)
Haritha, I am a consultant editor. Two daughters...well, all grown up now (20 and 15). Sure, let's be in touch.
Lovely Blog, Sadhana! Actually your description has given me several ideas both as an educator! Maybe you heard, but Michelle Obama Started a "Lets Move" movement to help get over Childhood Obesity. There is a lot of game playing here -soccer, baseball, basketball, hula-hoops, skipping rope, swimming, etc-a lot of it does happen in school, college, university settings as well. Although there is the video game culture, it has not completely obliterated more active games. I think some amount of urban planning has to be involved to allow for open spaces and kid-friendly, kid-safe areas that will allow them to get out and play. In addition to technology- I would also add that another plausible cause for demise of these games is just the overburdening of homework,tests and competitive exams in school on kids today.
Thanks, Arundhati. I agree with is a problem with space and children being overburdened. Well, we are trying to do whatever we can at least in one school. Writing articles could probably help, which is why I do it.
Anonymous said…
A lovely and thought provoking article.There is more to games than it appears!Wish your idea spreads and help to revive the traditional games.Jaya
kapil r said…
That's a long list of games/sports we have forgotten, it's a disconnect with nature that's happening.
I remember spending most part of the day of my childhood on the terrace flying kites and nothing in this world compares, even today to the joys this 'outdoor' life bought! Forget about big cities, even in a small town, I saw just a handful of kites this Sankranti! I look forward to flying kites, but I am not sure if I can make my kids to get interested in them.
Kapil...thankfully kite flying is thriving in Hyderabad.

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