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Geo-Leisure

Museum turns its gallery into a global rec room with 'Games People Play.'

July 16, 1998|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One world, one people. Onesies, twosies, threesies: A game of jacks or Simon Says can turn strangers into friends on the playground.

The folks at the Children's Museum at La Habra have taken that idea a giant step further by turning a portion of the 1923-train-depot-turned-gallery into a kind of global playroom where children get to know other cultures by playing games and puzzles from other lands.

"Games People Play," suitable for children in preschool through grade school, continues through Sept. 6 in the museum's main gallery.

For your playing pleasure, museum curator of exhibits and education April Morales has assembled an impressive array of indoor and outdoor games from around the world. A court for the Italian game of bocce runs the length of the hall. A niche along the opposite wall is dedicated to the all-American game of basketball; in between, board games--from Chinese checkers to chess to mancala--invite visitors to pull up a chair and play a spell.

"We want to show how people around the world are really very similar in their pastimes," Morales said. "And how a lot of the games we play [in the United States] have popped up in different places through history."

Except for an electronic dart board (darts, long popular in the British Isles, are a spinoff of archery), "Games People Play" is a no-tech overview of five basic game types.

There are street and playground games such as basketball (which originated in Massachusetts as an indoor game during one particularly frigid winter) and hopscotch, a game that Morales said is one of the oldest and most widely played in the world. According to one legend, hopscotch was developed centuries ago by Roman soldiers, who played on courts more than 100 feet long (imagine the chalk!) and sometimes hopped the course while carrying heavy loads as proof of their strength.

A festival and party games display features a Mexican pinata (suspended tantalizingly out of reach), darts and the no-accessories-needed English party game Ha Ha Ha. (In this, the first child says a single "Ha," and the game continues around the circle with each player adding another to the string. If you laugh or forget how many ha's to utter, you're outta there.)

In the puzzles, tricks and stunts section, we learn that string games like the ubiquitous cat's cradle are practically universal. The area also includes tangrams, yo-yos and bilboquet, the elegantly named game of dexterity in which players try to catch a wooden ball or other object on the point of a stick.

Throughout the exhibit, illustrations show how games can link generations as well as cultures. Artwork shows a grizzled Eskimo woman playing a version of bilboquet under the watchful gaze of a baby cradled on her back.

*

On a recent afternoon, Marilyn Webber of La Mirada and her granddaughter, Heather Gunning of Battle Ground, Wash., also proved the games' multigenerational appeal. For the better part of an hour, the grandmother kept pace with the energetic 9-year-old, taking her on in board games and watching admiringly as the child lobbed free throws on the mini-basketball court.

Heather, who proclaimed the exhibit "pretty fun," was more concerned with playing new games than reading about them, so Grandma helpfully passed on snippets of information from the gallery cards throughout the display.

Eight-year-old Nicole Thaete spent a lot of time taking on her mom, Mary, in board and table games. Her favorite: mancala, an ancient game involving the strategic movement of polished stones between shallow bins on a wooden board. It can be traced to ancient Egypt and is practically a fixture in American coffeehouses and toy stores.

Nicole and her 5-year-old brother, Jason, didn't burn valuable playtime pondering how games link culture, admitted Mary Thaete, holding her outstretched hands steady while her daughter deftly looped string into a cat's cradle pattern. Nonetheless, Theate said she thinks the games her family played at the exhibit teach a valuable lesson in cooperation and good sportsmanship.

"We play a lot of games together at home," Thaete said as she alternately coached Nicole on the placement of the strings and cheered on her son and husband, Bob, at electronic darts. "It makes us turn the TV off and communicate."

* "Games People Play" continues through Sept. 6 at the Children's Museum at La Habra, 301 S. Euclid St. Through Aug. 15, the museum also hosts "Tales of Enchantment," a traveling exhibit of international children's art inspired by folk tales, myths and legends. Gallery hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Admission is $4, children under 2 are free. (562) 905-9793.

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