Playground games to help you “visit” a new country

(Excitement around the London 2012 Olympics is building!  The games offer an excellent window to the world for all ages and interests, wherever you’ll watch them from.  This is an excerpt from Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World, to get started in your backyard, nearby playground, or wherever you go outside to play!)


In addition to soccer and many of the Olympic sports, there are so many other universal games to play on the playground or in your neighborhood, from tag to rock-paper-scissors (known as Jan Ken Po in Japanese), sometimes with slight variations. Monkey-in-the-middle in Thailand is called Ling Ching Bon or “monkey snatches ball.” Hide-and-go-seek in Iraq is known as Suk Suk, meaning “home home,” and when a hider is found, they race back to home base to avoid being “it,” just like the Welsh game “Danny one-two-three” (Danny un, dau, tri in Welsh).

Kids playing their invented games in Clif Kid's Backyard Games of the Year, 2011


Tag probably has the most variations. We used to play snake tag, TV tag, and freeze tag when I was  growing up. Variations on snake tag—where the person tagged joins the “it” by hand and the snake or chain grows bigger with each person caught—include l’aranya peluda (“hairy spider” in Catalonia), Kettenfangan (“chain tag” in German), and Mamba (“snake” in southern Africa). The games stay fresh when you discover variations from other cultures—both in how to play it and how to say it. It’s exciting to learn words in a new language and everyone gains a little confidence that they can say something familiar but totally new. Instant translation programs online can fill in words from a particular language. Search the game in that culture, or ask a friend about variations they may remember on the playground in the country where they grew up. Words are more easily remembered in a foreign language during a game because they are being used in a fun context.


If you have a particular country you’d like to learn about with your children, are traveling to, or where a new friend is from, you can try a game from that country as a means to get to know its culture better, and the games can be taken together as a sort of “journey around the world.” With elementary-school-aged kids, you can pretend you are going on a trip to the country whose game you are going to play. What do you need to prepare for your trip? Look at each of the games listed following as a “visit” to that country. The original name of the game in its native language is listed after the English translation—try using the original name as part of your “travels.”


Visit the Netherlands! Play Conquer New Lands (Landje veroveren in Dutch): This is sort of like a physical version of the game Risk, with four to eight players. Object of the game: Remain a free country. Draw a big circle with chalk on the ground, divided into pieces like a pie or a pizza. Each child will be a country. Write the name of each country on one of the pie pieces. To start the game each child stands with one foot in their own country. In the original version, one designated person says, “I declare war on . . . (name of one of the countries).” Then all the children run away from the circle. Only the child/country that war has been declared on (the new “warrior”) stays in the circle, then calls “STOP!” At this call, all the children stop running. Then, all must try to get back into their own country by walking slowly to the circle when the warrior calls, “WALK.” When one or more children get close to the circle the warrior again can call “STOP.” Remaining with at least one foot in their country, the warrior needs to try to tap a child (this also can be done by lying on the ground to extend the reach—the warrior can move around, but only within their own country). Once a child has been tapped, they have conquered the other country. Try to get as many new lands as possible.  Children who reach their pie piece without being tapped are free. The last country to be conquered will be the next warrior.

(You can vary the concept of war by saying instead: “I will UNITE with . . .” Instead of being a warrior, the “it” person can be the UNITER, the UN secretary general,a monarch, or the president.)

Visit Thailand! Play Crow Sits on Eggs (E-Gar Fuk Khai in Thai ): Two circles are drawn, one within the other. The outer circle should be about four feet in diameter and the inner circle just one foot. Small rocks or other similar-sized objects are then placed inside the smaller circle. One of the players is chosen to be the “crow.” That player has to remain within the circle and guard the eggs. The others have to try and steal the eggs from the crow. They can do anything they like to trick and tease the crow. However, they mustn’t enter the circle or be touched by the crow. When all of the eggs have been stolen the crow is then blindfolded.  The players then have to hide the eggs that they have stolen. When they are ready, the blindfold is taken off and the crow has to search for its missing eggs. The owner of the first egg to be found then takes over the role as the “crow.” (This and other Thai playground games can be found at:; search for games.)

Visit Nigeria! Play Catch the Tail: This is a variation on Snake Tag. Kids form two teams; each is a snake. Each team has a tail (handkerchief or scarf ) in the pocket of the last person in the chain. The other team tries to capture the tail in order to win.

[For more games, like those from Wales, South Korea, Mexico and “global” games, and other ideas around play, please see Growing Up Global’s Chapter 3, “Play!”]

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