Excerpts from Pastimes and Games of Native Peoples Around the World

Produced by the Indigenous Peoples Steering Committee
Amnesty International USA
(from the Indigenous People's Rights Resource Notebook)

Suggested Grade Level: All

Time: Varies with level

Materials: See specific games and pastimes


A culture's pastimes and games reflect more than recreation. In order to appreciate and understand indigenous peoples, one must understand the function and significance of their material culture.

Indigenous peoples (or geographic areas) represented and activities included:

North American Indians: No-Tears Formula for Choosing Teams
Australian Aboriginal Children: Aboriginal Infinity Marbles
Malaysia: Wayang Kulit, the shadow-puppet play
Guatemala: PIN, a game of cooperation
Canadian Inuit: Muk (Silence) - the ultimately inclusive game
Malaysia: Kite-Flying
Inuit: Toe Jump and Knee Walk
Buka, New Guinea: Salan Lanai
Inuit: Iglagunerk (laughing game)

A No-Tears Formula for Choosing Teams:

North American Indians came up with two interesting procedures for choosing sides which ensured that no players were excluded or humiliated by being chosen last. In one method the chief sat inside a circle at the center of the field. All the players' sticks (e.g., for lacrosse) were placed in a heap in front of him. After being blindfolded, he picked sticks two at a time and placed one on his right and one on his left until all sticks were gone. Players then ran to the two piles of sticks, found their own, and joined that team. Another method of choosing teams was for the chief to place strips of two different colors of paper in a small pouch or covered basket. Each player drew one slip of paper and was designated to a team by the color chosen. (1)

Aboriginal Infinity Marbles

Played by Australian Aboriginal children and has an interesting no-loser twist. Two players sit facing each other, cross-legged, about 10 feet apart. Each player has a small cluster of marbles on the ground directly in front of him. The players take turns attempting to hit the other person's marbles by rolling one of their own marbles. An astute observer described the game in the following way: "When a 'shot' was successful, the hit marbles were delivered to the successful shooter, who placed them with his others. [If not successful, the marble remains where it stopped.] As a result, this game could go on ad infinitum, as one cluster diminished in size and consequently became harder to hit while the other cluster became easier because of its increased size." (1)

If no place in your town sells marbles, then use bearings donated from the hardware store. Make the playing field much smaller than the 10 feet suggested above and keep reminding the children to "Roll gently." Or modify the game and make a delightful mess with it. Spread out newspapers (so your site owners don't evict you). Put a bit of vegetable oil on large serving trays with rims or in wide shallow pans. Use dried beans to "ping" back and forth on this miniature playing field.


Shadow-puppet play, the favorite after-dark entertainment of the Malay village before cinemas became widespread. Even today on the east coast, wayang kulit is performed on auspicious occasions such as weddings, births or after a successful rice harvest. The puppets, crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks, are held behind a white cloth, and an oil lamp creates the flickering shadows on the screen. The skilled puppeteer, called To' Dalang (Father of the Mysteries), moves the puppets and narrates the story which often involves dozens of different characters. A Malay band plays a haunting accompaniment to tales of the classic Indian epics, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, which first came to Malaysia from the medieval Javanese kingdom of Majapahit. (3)

Hang a wire across one end of a room, or if your event is a wee one, just across a door frame. Drape a white sheet over the wire and pin it securely. Have a very bright flashlight to make the shadows. (Or use battery-powered or electric safety beacons -- NOT candles or camping lanterns, to avoid problems with fire codes.) To make the puppets, use pictures from preschoolers' coloring books for the figures. Paste each to a piece of cardboard and cut it out. Staple it to a paint stirrer from your local paint/hardware store. If enough helping hands are available, have the children make their own shadow puppets. No coloring is necessary, since the shadow is the important thing.

Ask the school librarian or the nearest grandparent for a storybook that one of the AI members (or other adult) can read aloud while the children act it out with puppets. REMEMBER TO THINK "DIVERSITY" -- LOOK FOR ETHNIC STORIES THAT WILL STRETCH THE CHILDREN'S WORLD. The creation stories of many cultures are marvelous "casts of thousands" pieces. Or act out having a Day of Action parade, with the characters the children have created first marching across the "screen" and then acting out a party to celebrate helping their brothers and sisters. Use the Day of Action cassette for the background music.

Is your event a "no-time-to-prepare" version? Then have the children do what you loved to do. Let them make hand shadows or be the shadow figures themselves.


Examples of uniquely Inuit games with a twist of humor.

Toe Jump

Take off your shoes, squat down, and grasp the toes on each foot with the hand on the same side. By extending your bent knees, try to jump forward as far as you can, landing in balance, without letting go of your toes. For an added challenge, try the Tandem Toe jump with a partner. Partners stand side by side (like in a 3-legged run), squat down together, and jump at the same time. Here's the clincher. With his outside hand, one partner grasps the toes on his outside foot but his inside hand grasps the toes of his partner's inside foot. Partners may or may not have to cross their inside legs. A little coordination and trust are needed to get this one together.

Knee Walk

Just what it seems. You really do try to walk on your knees, but first you have to be able to balance on them. Kneel down on the grass or ground, keeping your back straight. Lift your heels toward your rump, and grasp each foot in front of the ankle. You should now be balanced on the top of your kneecaps. See if you can move forward a few knee steps. To start, make it a little easier by grabbing the back of your pants leg instead of the front of your ankle. You can try this one with your partner, too. Just get side by side and grab your own ankle with one hand and your partner's ankle with the other. See if you can figure out a way to do the Knee Walk in a small group! (2)

You'll be lucky to go three inches on the first try of Toe Jump, but keep trying...and keep laughing. Imagine a roomful of toe jumpers! Despite the grass-stained knees, the padding of grass will make the Knee Walk easier on little one's noses as they crash land.


Another Inuit laughing game. Each player faces a partner, generally holding each other's hands. At an agreed-upon signal everyone begins to laugh. The partners who laugh the hardest and longest are declared the winners. Because laughter is so contagious, people sometimes end up rolling on the ground! (2)



Played in New Guinea by Buka women while the food was being cooked. For this game of giving and sharing, the players sat in a circle with two coconut shells in front of each of them. In rhythm with a song, each woman picked up one shell in each hand and moved them one place to her left. Thus the coconut shell that started in front of the left hand was placed in front of the right hand of the person on the left, and the coconut shell that started in front of the right hand was placed in front of her own left hand. This continuous rhythmic picking up and clunking down of shells often continued until the food was cooked. The number of times the coconuts were passed around the completed circle was sometimes used to tell when certain foods were ready. (2)

Next time you are stuck someplace waiting for the fog to clear or for Uncle Edgar's bus to arrive, get paper cups and play Salan Lanai!


A game of cooperation played by Indian children in Guatemala. A wooden pin is set up at a moderate distance from a throwing line. (The group can decide the length.) The object is for the team to work together to get the first ball that is rolled (lead ball) to touch the pin without knocking the pin over. The first player rolls his ball and the subsequent team members try to roll their balls so that they nudge the lead ball closer to the pin. The game is won when the lead ball is touching the pin. If the pin is knocked over, the player who knocked it over starts a new game by rolling the first ball. (1)

The leader of this game should have practiced "nudging" the ball. A bowling alley could sponsor this event, using one of their bowling pins, but NOT their bowling balls. To avoid clobbered children, roll old tennis balls or ask the Little League to share their baseballs.


In the Canadian Arctic, Inuit children and their families play Muk (Silence),which centers around laughter. Players begin by sitting in a circle. One player moves into the middle of the circle. S/he then chooses another player, who must say "Muk" and then remain silent and straight-faced. The person in the middle uses comical expressions and gestures [no sound] to try to "break the muk." The player to break the muk [the person who laughs] is dubbed with a comical name and replaces the person in the middle. (1)

This includes people in wheelchairs, guests not fluent in the event's language, parents with babies in tow. If your turnout is huge, divide into several circles to play Muk, so people can see well and more people get a chance to laugh or be silly. If any participants are blind, just make the procedure for that group be "No gestures or expressions. Only sounds."


A popular seasonal sport in Kelantan, Malaysia for centuries. After the rice harvest, when the hot arid winds blow, farmers gather on the stubble of the rice plains to match their kite in inter-village contests. These elaborate kites, known as wau, measure up to two meters across and soar up to 152 meters. Made of glazed colored paper and mounted on a bamboo frame, with a bow-shaped device fixed to the neck, they emit a humming sound when aloft. Wau may resemble fish, swallows, cats and even frogs, but the moon kite, wau bulan, is the most popular and elaborate with its distinctive crescent-shaped tail. Kelantanese contestants who have the highest-flying and most belligerent kites are the winners. (3)

Option 1: Have the children make or complete kites themselves.

Option 2: Bring finished kites and have the children attending the Day of Action (or your own event) fly them.

The public library will have information on a variety of kites from the most simple flat diamond with a tail of torn sheets to box kites. If you have a kite shop in your area, give the owners the opportunity to sponsor this event, showing off their stock and their knowledge, giving discount coupons for purchases at their store, whatever. A discount department store may stock plain kites that they would LOVE to unload this late in the season at an impressive discount -- or offer them as a donation. Smile sweetly and start tearing up sheets for the tails!

The sources for these activities are:

  1. Terry Orlick, The Cooperative Sports and Games Book: Challenge Without Competition (Pantheon Books, NY, 1978).

  2. Terry Orlick, The Second Cooperative Sports and Games Book (Pantheon Books, NY)

  3. Wendy Moore, Introduction to Malaysia (The Guide Book Co., Ltd., London, 1991).