Category Archives: Games

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Children’s Games

Why do children play games?

Is it just to pass the time or do they have another significance? The philosopher Bertrand Russell thought that “it is biologically normal that they should, in imagination, live through the life of remote savage ancestors”. A rather bleak assessment! Piaget, the specialist in child development, thought that they allowed children to “assimilate reality” in a safe environment.

Children playing a traditional wooden game

You can play some traditional games in Thame Vicarage at COAM

Two thousand years ago the Greek writer Julius Pollux refers to two games which are still played today – Hide and Seek and Ducks and Drakes (skimming flat pebbles over water). Moreover, in AD 60 a Roman writes about two shepherds playing best of three at Rock, Paper, Scissors. What are now seen as games for young children were once played by older ones too. In the 18th Century and early 19th Century in Britain, boys of secondary school age were playing Hopscotch, Puss in the Corner, Marbles, and Leap-frog.

The names of the games vary wildly through time and place. For example, there are dozens of names for the player who chases the others in Tag, e.g. Het, On it, King, Mannies, Tiggy, Touch, Under, and many, many more. Rock, Paper, Scissors also has other names such as Hick, Hack, Hock and Ding, Dang, Dong.

At COAM, we have two permanently marked out Hopscotch games, one in the garden behind the entrance to the museum and the other next to Thame Vicarage. The “scotch” part of the name here means a scratched line used to mark out the sections. It is a very ancient game, in some opinions Roman or pre-Roman. It certainly exists in at least twenty-five countries all over the world and on every continent. It is not only a children’s game, although in the UK it has become so. In Poor Robin’s Almanack of 1707 we find: “Lawyers and Physicians have little to do this month, and therefore, they may (if they will), play at Scotch Hoppers.” Until the middle of the twentieth century the paving stones of our streets were often decorated with chalk lines by children making a hopscotch game, the chalk lines taking the place of the scratches or scotches that can be used to indicate the squares. The rules of the game vary widely across the country, the essential point being to move a small stone over the grid and hopping to avoid the lines “scotched” on the ground.

Girl on hobby horse

Children can play on the hobby horses at COAM

In Thame Vicarage there care modern examples of one of the oldest playthings of which we know. It is recorded that Aegeilias, King of Sparta, who died in 361 BC and Socrates, the great philosopher, were both found entertaining their children by riding a hobby-horse. The hobby-horse or cock-horse is simply a stick with reins at one end, with or without a horse’s head attached. Our hobby-horses have heads! You could even use your sister’s hair as reins as seen in this German lithograph.

Skipping is a universal children’s game and often accompanied by rhymes to maintain the rhythm. There are many hundreds of such rhymes. Some are very simple: “Salt, pepper, mustard, vinegar”. Others are more complex, such as:

“Ice-cream, a penny a lump
The more you eat, the more you jump!
Eeper Weeper. Chimney sweeper,
Married a wife and could not keep her.
Married another
Did not love her,
Up the chimney he did shove her!”

“Mrs Brown lived by the shore,
She had children three and four,
The eldest one is twenty-four
And she got married to the man next door.”

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer

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Lesser-known Easter Traditions

From orange chasing to football matches, with the Easter period approaching we investigate some of our lesser-known traditions.

Whilst the stories of hot cross buns, Easter eggs, and Simnel cake are well known, there is a huge array of more unlikely customs that a look into our history reveals.


We cannot delve into our Easter past without stumbling upon egg-related stories. A more exerting variation of the traditional Easter egg hunt are the egg chases that take place across the country. Chasing, or hunting, eggs is a clear reference to the story of the resurrection; not only do eggs represent new life, but the emphasis on their discovery is evocative of revealing Jesus’ empty tomb. Chasing after hard-boiled eggs down a hill, known as Pace egging, is a tradition that is said to derive from the Pagan festival of Ēostre that welcomed Spring and new life. Like so many of our traditions, existing Pagan celebrations were appropriated with a Christian message to bring the Christian calendar into established practices. Pace egging has thus also come to represent the stone that covered Jesus’ tomb being rolled away.


Bedfordshire has a unique take on this tradition with oranges, rather than eggs, being chased on Dunstable Downs. Oranges were pelted from the heights, with those chasing after them aiming to hold onto their fruit until the bottom. Some even went to the lengths of donning top hats to attract the attention, and the fruit, of the pelters. However, the shortage of oranges during the Second World War halted the tradition temporarily. Orange chasing was reborn after the war but increasing health and safety concerns and waning support from local businesses meant the custom could no longer be sustained. With the build-up of heavy scrubland on the Downs making the chase virtually impossible, the last revival attempt in 1985 looks unlikely to be repeated.

In addition to the chases, pace egg plays are a tradition that was rediscovered in the post-war revival of folklore. The plays have roots in Celtic, Syrian, and Egyptian cultures, and the word ‘pace’ itself is thought to be from the Latin ‘pasch’ (passion or Easter); typifying the melange of roots that contribute to ostensibly Christian traditions. As a battle between good and evil, with St George fighting the Slasher, the comical Toss Pot representing the Devil, and revival by a Quack doctor, the plays reflect the resurrection and older themes of new life. The pace eggs themselves, originally boiled in onion skins to give them a golden appearance, were given out at the end of the plays.

Maundy Money is another Easter tradition, with royalty distributing alms for the poor on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday). This tradition of giving relief such as clothing and food to the poor dates to the thirteenth century; royalty would also wash the feet of the poor, following Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Charles II started the custom of giving coins (a four, three, two, and penny pieces), and this became the dominant form of Maundy aid. With the coming of the eighteenth century, washing the feet of the poor disappeared, whilst gifts of food and clothes disappeared the following century. Today, those receiving Maundy Money are pensioners chosen for their services to Christian churches or the community. The number of pensioners receiving the Maundy money is determined by the age of the monarch, with one man and one woman for each year. This custom is unique in that it is the only award where the monarch travels to those receiving the money.

Finally, from chasing eggs and oranges we arrive at the tradition of Shrovetide football. This dates to the mob football played over fields and through rivers in the early middle ages. In Ashbourne, Derbyshire, their football match takes place over Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. The River Henmore divides the townspeople into two teams: the Up-Ards and the Down’Ards, coming from North and South of the river. The game is different in that the aim is to score an own goal; with each goal a millstone set three miles apart across the town. The scorer must stand in the river and tap the ball against the millstone three times to win. Far from whoever has possession of the ball, the scorer is elected en route and is typically an Ashbourne resident. This unique take on football has been given the Royal epithet since 1928, which was formally renewed in 2003.

Looking into some of our more obscure Easter customs shows that the way we mark Easter incorporates our Pagan and Christian traditions, as well as the variety of community activities across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Written by Daniel Bowles, Museum Volunteer

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How to play conkers


If you take a walk through the Museum’s woodlands you’ll see an abundance of shiny, brown conkers, scattered among the fallen, crunchy autumn leaves near the dell. If I pass these horse chestnut trees with my 5, and 7 year old, they get very excited and begin to fill their pockets with conkers. They enjoy it even more if they get to peel the prickly casing open to uncover the encased conker, and there is further excitement if, there is multiple conkers to be found inside. My husband, an avid conkers player in his youth, has taught this historical game to my children, and they love it.

Conker on woodland floor

The fruit from the horse chestnut tree earned the name conker from the traditional game of conkers, which was played in the autumn months by many generations of children, often in the school playground. The game is played by two players, each with a conker threaded onto a piece of string, who take turns striking each other’s conker until one breaks.

According to my good friend, Wikipedia, the first mention of the game is in Robert Southey’s memoirs published in 1821. He describes a similar game but, played with snail shells or hazelnuts. It was only after the 1850s that using horse chestnuts was regularly referred to in certain regions. The game grew in popularity in the 20th century, and spread beyond England. Sadly, the game is not played so often now, due to health and safety concerns in schools.

How to play conkers

Find a nice, firm, undamaged conker and make a hole in the middle using a nail, small screwdriver, or drill. Thread a piece of string about 25cm long through the hole, and tie a knot at the end so that it doesn’t pull through.

How to play conkers

Each player has a conker on a string, and takes turns hitting the opponent’s conker. If it’s not your turn to hit the conker, you must let your conker hang down the full length of the string, keeping completely still, with the string wrapped around your hand. The other player, or striker, wraps his string around his hand in the same way, draws his conker back and releases it to hit his opponent’s conker.


If a player misses their opponent’s conker they are allowed up to two further goes.

If the strings tangle, the first player to call “strings” gets an extra shot.

If a player hits their opponent’s conker in such a way that it completes a whole circle after being hit – known as ‘round the world’ – the player gets another go.

If a player drops his conker, or it is knocked out of his hand, the other player can shout ‘stamps’ and jump on it; but should its owner first cry ‘no stamps’ then the conker, hopefully, remains intact.

The game continues in turns until, one of the two conkers is completely destroyed.

I found the above rules on however; the game of conkers has different rules in different parts of the country.

Trialing the game

Visitor Services Team Leader, George Hunt and Events and Hospitality Team Leader, Yolanda Cooper decided to have a try at playing conkers.

playing conkers

They learnt that it’s a lot harder to hit a conker on a string than you might think.

playing conkers at COAMhistoric games playing conkersConkers winner

After much giggling, George managed to smash Yolanda’s conker and was crowned champion.

Written by Helen Light
Marketing Manager






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