All too often in our staff meetings, we have deliberated upon our concerns - how to help our children understand that there is more to playing a game than winning or losing, with the accompanying euphoria or disappointment.

Teachers of very young children have ample opportunities to observe the behaviour of children while playing games, for they offer several contexts within which to explore what winning or losing means. One such opportunity presented itself in our junior school resource centre. I watched a group of students engaged in a traditional game called 'Pallanguzhi' (in Tamil). This is played by young and old in many homes in South India. I believe it is also played inAfrica.

I quote the statements made by the children during the course of the game. Some of the children were onlookers. I was a silent observer. The emphasis is mine, while the statements 'are the children's.

  • 'you are playing a greedy game, you will lose',
  • 'if you share you will win',
  • 'if you purposely try to win you will lose',
  • 'whether you win or lose, all would have shared (the seeds) almost equally',
  • 'even if I 'carefully try to cheat', the game will not allow me to win. So what is the use if cheating? Just play the game'

The value of playing a fair game is evident in every statement.

The Game:

Child A - A's row

0 0 0 0 0 0 0
0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Child B- B's row

The game consists of a rectangular wooden board with two rows of 7 receptacles (cups) each, (see illustration above). Two children sit facing each other and play the game. The row of cups in front of the child is her own. At the start of the game, each child fills each cup in her row with seven tamarind seeds or cowrie shells. Child A picks up all the seeds from anyone of the cups in her row, starts dropping one seed in each cup starting from the next cup on the left hand side and moves to the opponent's row, until all the seven seeds are distributed. Now Child B takes her turn and distributes the seeds in the same fashion as Child A. They take turns alternately to distribute seeds. At some point, during the distribution of seeds, if just three seeds remain in any cup, the child 'wins' these seeds from her row and picks them up. Ultimately, when all the seeds are distributed between the players and no more are left on the board, the game is over. The player who collects more seeds wins the game.

I noticed that children employ many 'strategies' to win the game. They drop seeds within their own row, they see to it that the opponent's cups receive less seeds and halfway through the game, they try to hoard seeds in their own row. Since the game demands that at the end no seeds should be left in any cup in either row, the one who is playing a' smart game' is left with no option but to redistribute what she has been hoarding. Thus the game comes to an end only when all the seeds are used up. Any child who employs the above strategies to somehow win more seeds, loses the game. The child who plays an 'innocent' game ultimately wins. Children have also tested these strategies by playing many times over and have got the same results. At such times, children come out with profoundstatements.

I evolved the above method of playing the game to make it simple for first graders to play, to avoid the confusion of too many rules and to sustain their interest in order to be able to finish the game.

There are two more traditional ways of playing the game. These have more rules, take longer to play and demand more alertness. A friend of mine who played this game the traditional way as a child, remembers the same experiences leading her to learn that unfair strategies do not help in winning the game. She also remembers her mother's interventions while she played, to 'be kind to the one who is losing - so share and do not hoard; once a winner is not always a winner', and so on. She says her mother's words had an impact on her and even now she sees the importance of fairness in a game, as she enjoyed the leisurely game without the pressure of having to win.

Many more children have played this game, many times over. I have watched keenly and have almost always seen children going through. the same experiences and saying: 'don't be greedy, it's better to share than to lose', 'it's okay to lose but I like to play' and so on. The form of the statements is different, but the experiences are the same and the values have stood the test of time.

In contrast to these traditional games there are many modern 'board' games like Monopoly, Trade, Battlefield etc. for children to play. In these games the winner has to manipulate, amass wealth, make use of the opponent's weakness, and so on. He has few 'clever' options to help him win and very often grows impatient to finish off the game. An established 'winner' gathers a cheering group around him / her. Such games are expensive, specialised, and require complex materials. The values of the manufacturers are passed on to children, and these are questionable.

The traditional games are more simple and do not have the negative aspects of modern ones. For instance, in the case of 'Pallansuzhi' the seeds can be replaced by any other natural material like pebbles or shells. They also help children to see that fun does not need specialised toys, play is everywhere, learning is not gathering information, and excitement in a game is not in winning but in experiencing the leisure that a game offers.

The children also noticed something interesting at the end of the year. A box with some extra tamarind seeds which were not used was full of maggots, worms and insects, and some had become rotten too. Whereas, the seeds used in the game and kept in a separate box did not rot; nor were they attacked by insects. They were good for a whole year and remained a bright and shiny brown. The seeds in the other box had grown dull and had become powdery.

A discussion ensued about this observation. The children attributed the preservation of the seeds used in the game to the fact that our hands are warm and it was like drying the seeds in the sun. The seeds shone because our fingers polished them whenever we played. One learned that even a game that children play can give us much to reflect upon.