This is universality about the songs, rhymes, games and practices of children the world over. Whether they are games of guessing, counting, hiding, chasing, miming or song and dance games, whether they are played in the open air or inside the house, by the beach or beneath shady trees, they have been and still are an integral part of childhood. Childhood is that which molds us into what we will be in the future. Since prehistoric times, children's games and songs have been passed on from generation to generation. From the moment a child opens his eyes, he learns to imitate adults. The daily chores of the grown-ups are what make up the major part of his play - i.e. he will play cooking, mother and father, hide and seek, or house cleaning in imitation and in expectation of the life ahead of him.
The elements of nature are what he uses for his "raw material." Sand castles, mud balls, rocks, stones, seeds, pods, grass and straw are, with the help of his imagination, used in the making of these games. When the traditional Thai child saw banana-leaf boat floating in the river during the Loi Krathong water festival, he would shape mud balls into the shape of a toy boat or krathong and decorate it with sticks, leaves and flowers. The seeds of a certain weed found in swamps pop and crack like tiny fire-crackers when placed in water - and this too has been a very popular pastime amongst Thai youngsters.
Nature has its mysteries which never cease to fascinate the children - even the crickets found all over the country and the horned beetles found in the North of Thailand are put in miniature stadiums and urged to fight an imitation of the not-so-innocent betting games of the grown-ups. Wicker, palm and coconut tree leaves were at one time components of the popular "takro" ball game. Today "takro" is still a favorite game amongst both children and adults. Any seed that is available in the area can be brought along to take part in a multiplicity of other games. Tamarind, custard apple and peanut seeds are no exception. Nor are grass, sticks, stones and leaves, Coconut fronds and banana leaf stalks have made many little boys happy for they would be roughly fashioned into the shape of a horse and upon these creatures, many a noble fight would take place.
During the reign of Rama VI, Phraya Anumam Rajadhon, a court official chronicler and historian, wrote of the games played during his childhood. "In those days," he wrote, we did not play with guns, toy cars, trains or leather balls as children do today. Dolls were made from wood, cloth or clay. We would make drums out of the palm sugar clay pots. Once the sugar had been used up we'd wash the pots, put a cloth around the mouth and tie it in place with a banana tree string. Then we'd cover it with a diluted mud mixture. When it hardened we would find a stick and beat it like a drum. The person who could make a drum that resounded loudest was the one most envied.
The Thai people have, since days of old, loved to make merry; dancing, singing, playing games were what they enjoyed during festivals. H. R. H. Prince Wan Waithayakon's translation of the first stone inscription ascribed to King Ramkamhaeng of the 13th century Sukhothai Kingdom gives a description of this festive spirit: For the recital of the Kathin occasion people go to as far as the Aranyik Monastery yonder. On their return to the city, they line up from Aranyik to the border of the open ground, joining together in striking up the sound of musical instruments and lutes, caroling and singing. Whoever wants to play, can play; whoever wants to laugh can laugh; whoever wants to carol, can carol.
Most of the classics and epics mention at one time or another specific kinds of games. While the court ladies would carve elaborate vegetables for the festivities, their provincial counterparts that is, the village women folk, would pound rice and beat flour. A favorite cooking game of the little girls was making gelatin. Here mangosteen or pomelo peels were soaked in water until soft; a red clay mixture (the kind grandmothers eat with betel nuts) was added and the whole concoction, which is by the way inedible, was blended with fingers. Left for a few minutes the mixture would harden into a jelly form to the delight of the young cooks.
HOPSCOTCHTang Te or hopscotch is still a popular game amongst the kindergarten and first grade children. Strictly a game for girls (boys run the risk of being called "sissy" if they play), the only equipment needed by each player is a chip about one to two inches in diameter. The ground is usually marked off into numbered squares. This is one of the most universal children's games for it has enjoyed continued popularity through the years and around the globe
HORSEBACK RIDINGKhi Ma Song Muang or "riding horses into town" is a race on horseback which is the Thai equivalent of the piggy-back ride. The horses are none other than friends of the jockey. In this game, each team positions itself at a distance of about ten meters from the other, with the umpire occupying a position at the middle point. The leader of the challenging side walks to the umpire and whispers a name in his ear before returning to his side. Each player of the opposing side takes his turn to report to the umpire what he thinks has been whispered by the leader of the challenger. If the guess is right, the umpire shouts out "correct" and declares the winning team. If the guess is wrong, the umpire simply signals to the next player from the other team. If neither player gives the correct answer, the two teams reverse their roles to start a new round. As an incentive to win, each member from the losing side is required to give a "horsy-ride" to his "conqueror."
SNAKESIn "Ngu Kin Hang" or "the snake-bites-tail game", there are two teams - a mother snake (including her babies) and a father snake one-man team. Mother and father snakes are engaged in a preliminary dialogue which goes something like this:
Father snake: Dear Mother Snake. Mother snake: Yes, Father Snake. Father snake: From which well do you drink? Mother snake. I drink from a well in the stone. Mother and babysnakes in chorus: Each one of us does too.
(The line of baby snakes then sways from side to side.)
The question and answer rhymes go on for quite a while but it all boils down to which part the father snake will eat the mother snake's middle part or her tail both comprising baby snakes. In the end the father snake will try to catch any of the little ones behind the mother snake's back. She, of course, must try to protect them.
PHONG PHANGPhong Phang meaning "dead or alive" is a game played with any number of players. The children draw lots to find out who is "the fish." The one who ends up being "the fish" is blindfolded and made to turn around three times. The others hold hands and walk around him starting a question and answer rhyme: Catch me if you can -The fish swims by - The fish is blind - Catch me dead or alive - What will it be, a dead or a live fish? If "the fish" answers "a dead fish," the other children can move around freely when it comes around to chase them but if it answers, a live fish, everyone must freeze, even when caught. The fish must guess who the person is and if he guesses right he will be replaced by that unlucky person. This game is actually the Thai version of a universal children's game - blind man's buff.
SON HAAnother universal childhood game similar to the aforementioned game is Son Ha or hide-and-seek. The Thai version's rhyme is short, fun and to the point: Cover your eyes tight/Or else they will be polluted/May your parents/Reap only one paddy grain. This game is played with a lot of mystery, screams and laughter.
LUK HINNot all Thai games require singing. Luk Hin or marbles is a game of target hitting and is meant for older children, i.e. children of ten or twelve years or more. A small shallow hole is dug in the ground. The first player must aim his marble, stone or rock at the nearest opponent's; he must hit all the opponents' rocks out of his way with his own rock before proceeding to aim at the hole. If he misses his target, it is someone else's turn.
PRACTICEThe games that children play are good practice for the life that lies ahead for them. Children learn about keeping within the limits of rules and regulations. They learn to make friends, to be honest and to trust. All of these elements are the components of teamwork. At the same time, they must be aware of others to be on guard in self defense. They learn to act and to think faster both individually and in groups. And while at it they get both mental and physical exercise.
The modern toys of today - the guns, the cars, the fire engines and water trucks, the wind-up robots and battery-powered toy boats - are all fascinating; but once the novelty wears off, the children become bored and that is all there is to it. Creativity is at a dead end. These commercial toys seek only to entertain. Although educational toys and game sets are coming out in today's toy market with more of the child's development process in mind, there is nothing healthier or more inspirational than those toys fashioned directly out of the outdoors from the woods, the fields, the beach etc. Being close to nature ensures the child of a healthy, invigorating life and an invigorating attitude as well. The games and toys obtained from nature are not only imitative of the world of adults; for example, the toy horse made of banana tree stem they are also symbolic. In other words, a certain amount of symbolism is needed if the child is to visualize those toys as what he wants them to be.
In 1979, The Year of the Child, the National Identity Committee of the People of Thailand arranged a project to do research on the traditional games and pastimes of Thai children in order to preserve and revive these age-old games. The aim of this committee is to uphold Thailand's cultural heritage. Decaying, ancient ruins must be preserved, our poetry and music too, but so must the very childish games that tell us of the way we were.