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.
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.
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.
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