Each year we devote a week of our academic calendar to exploring a chosen theme at a deeper level than usual through immersing ourselves in it as completely as possible. As we thought of a theme for this year, some of us remembered spending entire afternoons outdoors playing ‘unorganized’ games as children— woh kagaz ki kashti, woh baarish ka paani… —the fun of returning home with dusty feet only when our mothers called us home after sunset, and hot summers spent playing saap seedi in the shade. More than anything else, we wanted to share this sense of joy with our students. The challenge before us was how to reach out to the children with that same energy and enthusiasm. We wanted it to be something that they felt drawn to intrinsically, not ‘just another activity’.
We remembered Savita Uday, a former parent of the school who is deeply involved with preserving traditional wisdom and folklore, and invited her to school for discussions and sessions with the teachers. In 1973, her mother had documented 200 traditional games played by the communities in coastal Karnataka. However, when Savita and her mother recently visited the same places again, they discovered that children were no longer playing these games and were instead enrolled in summer camps that imparted vocational training. Savita explained that traditional games used to be played by everyone in the family, thus fostering intergenerational bonding. The very nature of the games encouraged participation and there were no ‘spectators’ watching from the outside. Traditional games cultivated important interpersonal skills such as listening and speaking, and also involved negotiation, decision making, and problem solving, at the same time as challenging the body in creative ways. Moreover, these games promoted a positive sense of cultural identity and belonging, and yet adapted themselves remarkably well to regional differences. The games encouraged creativity and craftsmanship as children learnt to play them using simple materials that were easily available—whether they were growing up at the seaside or surrounded by paddy fields—like shells, seeds, stones, pieces of glass bangles, broken bits of broomsticks, and courtyard floors as boards. Savita made a passionate pitch for not losing touch with traditional games, which provide an alternative to today’s virtual reality.
We felt that rather than talk to teachers about traditional games and their many virtues, it would be more meaningful for all of us to play the games together. So we spent one afternoon playing board games, song story games, outdoor games, and hopscotch, with many teachers remembering their own regional variations, and everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly. We experienced first-hand that traditional games have no teachers and students, and can be learned very quickly and easily. We were keen to share the games with our students and we soon played some of the games with the children of Junior and Middle School.
On Sports Day, we allotted a place to play traditional board games. We thought we would begin in a simple manner. We used sticks, stones, and seeds from The Valley so that everyone would see that traditional games did not require any special materials. The children quickly began to play traditional games in small groups everywhere and enjoyed themselves so much that they had to be encouraged to rejoin the other activities that had been planned for their classes. We organized traditional games for the support staff and parents to play with each other, with children encouraging them and wanting to join in. We were also happy to see the support staff sharing their own versions of the board games while passing by the traditional games area, and a few people started to document those as well. Parents participated enthusiastically, teaching traditional games and helping other students and parents play.
And finally, Traditional Games Week arrived. We devoted an hour at the end of each day for the whole school to play traditional games. We knew it would be impossible for each class to play every game and so each group focused on one game— once they had played it enough, they were welcome to wander into other classrooms, courtyards, and games fields to see what others were playing and join in.
The children were glued to the games in a way we could not have imagined— with Class 10 enjoying the same uffungali game that Class 1 also enjoyed—and our own confidence to teach and play the games grew. As we had hoped, everyone played and we broke away from the “If you are good at the game, then you can play...” mindset of conventional games. The traditional games were inviting and inclusive without requiring any prerequisites or proficiencies. There were some unexpected and heartening exchanges between children of different age groups, a ‘secondie’ playing with a ‘twelfthie’ and delightedly winning too. Still, the beauty of it is that traditional games can be quite complex, requiring critical, analytic, and strategic thinking.
For those afternoons, the school was filled with a wonderful energy as we discovered that traditional games have an intrinsic quality of drawing us all into them which was apparent in the rapt attention and engagement of students and teachers. A life-sized snakes and ladders game was painted on the floor so that children could stand and play instead of using counters. A courtyard was turned into multiple hopscotch courts with five or six different versions being played with different geographical elements like seashores, riverbeds, fields, granaries, kingdoms and courtyards. Since the boys didn’t seem to know that hopscotch was traditionally a girls’ game, they too uninhibitedly enjoyed playing it and continue to do so during their free play time. Lagori and bagh aur bakri were the most popular games on the field. It was an overwhelming response on the ground overall, and we could hear the enthusiastic energy flowing from the games in progress. Even the otherwise self-segregated middle schoolers—who were very particular that they remained boys with other boys and girls with other girls—came together to form a huddle, tug each other without inhibitions, or generally roughhouse together as they played ‘tiger and the goat’ and other outdoor traditional games. We remembered how, earlier in the year when children had been curious about what traditional games were, we had mentioned gilli danda and one child had said, “Oh, I often play it at home…”, and then he went on to elaborate that he played it virtually. We felt glad to have given the children alternatives to the ubiquitous video games and commercial entertainment of today.
We began with the simple but we ended with the sublime. On Friday, we had an exhibition by Mandira Kumar, founder of Sutradhar , Bengaluru, of traditional games that showcased master craftsmanship and highlighted the centrality of traditional art forms in daily life. Made with kalamkari , embroidery, natural colours like indigo, cow dung, papier-mâché, tamarind paste, seeds, stones, metal, wood, collected from all over India and around the world, Mandira’s exhibition traced the evolution of games across time and space—a variation of alugulimane from Africa, ganjeefa that was also found in Persia. From simple counting games to complex strategic ones—tic tac toe, navakankari, pagad atta, chauka bara, pacheesi, pagade, ganjeefa, chaturang, chequers, snakes and ladders, bagh chal, aane nai atta —it was a wonderful journey. We could see the connections between language, history, mathematics, and culture. We marvelled at how traditional games develop a sense of logic and imagination in children as well.
After Traditional Games Week was over, a teacher entered her classroom and discovered the children were quietly playing complex board games with a lot of involvement during their free play time. We were inspired to make traditional games for our annual school mela and the children enjoyed crafting some of the games they had played. The children carried the games with them on excursions as well. Now that the children have tasted the joy of traditional games, we can feel it resonating everywhere.