San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Do Kids Today Have More Fun?

Today’s children have an unlimited range of toys and games. Not only that, but new toys are capable of doing much more than those of years past. Dolls talk, sing, eat, burp and creep.

Barbie has careers, drives cars, swims, owns her own real estate and gets pregnant.

Cars that operate on remote control spin, speed, hurl ramps and crash at the push of a thumb. Computer games allow kids to pitch major-league baseball, score goals in the World Cup, win the Indy 500 or mow down terrorists. We of yesterday’s generation had to imagine, invent and rely on the games passed down from older siblings.

Does having more toys mean more fun? Or did we kids of long ago have good times too, deprived as we were of television and videos and tons of toys? A totally unscientific but revealing survey of the over-50 crowd, which included North Americans and Costa Ricans, showed that everyone played hide-and-seek.

Called escondido in Spanish, the game is the same. The goal was whatever tree, light post or part of the house was convenient, and in the great outdoors there were plenty of places to hide: behind trees, sheds and corners of the house, lying flat on the ground or inside drainage canals.

“Summer was one long game of hide-andseek,” said one respondent.

Second in importance was playing with mud. Whether it was making mud pies or throwing mud balls, there was something wonderful about squishy, wet mud. Both men and women made mud pies, but women were more inclined to add berries and flower petals.

“We played restaurant and used leaves for money and served mud pies,” said a Tica. Others mentioned mud fights and dirt-clod battles.

The game of statues was remembered by North Americans, with a Tico version called congelado, or “frozen.” In variations of this game, you “froze” in position when the designated “it” tagged you or yelled, “Freeze!”

The game most mentioned by men was marbles, or canicas or bolinchas.Marbles are cheap, and the game requires only a circle in the dust. The rules of the game varied depending on where you lived or how rich you were in marbles, and, according to one respondent, could be so complicated it was a math test figuring out the scores. Big, colorful marbles were treasured and were worth more than dinky glass ones. In Costa Rica, if you didn’t have marbles you could use round chumico seeds. Though none of the women mentioned playing marbles, some collected them.

Among women, playing house, or casita, ranked high, but only two women mentioned playing with dolls. Dressing up was part of the game, and one Tica said they stuck flower petals on their nails for nail polish.

Another who came from a large family in the Southern Zone said they had dolls made of corncobs.

Baseball was popular among U.S. responses, and fútbol or soccer among Costa Ricans.

Field hockey was also mentioned by a few North Americans. Historian Guillermo Villegas said a game called “sticks” was played here, a version of baseball using big sticks for bats and small sticks for balls. Tops, or trompas, for boys, and jacks, or jackses, for girls were mentioned by all Costa Ricans.

Cromos is still a popular pastime for young Ticas; colorful pictures on thin paper are spread on the ground or table and picked up by slapping a flat hand on them. Some girls collected them and bookstores still sell them.

Sports and table games, yo-yos, sliding down hills on cardboard cartons stretched flat, making forts, making stilts out of tin cans tied to feet, having treasure hunts, riding bikes and stealing apples were more ways of having fun.

Sometimes games were invented. In the coffee town of Grecia, west of San José, they played a game called cuartel between two light posts with five boys on each team, who could tag their opponents and jail them at their team’s light post. They could also help team members escape from their opponents’ jail.

“London Bridge is Falling Down” has its counterpart in “Jirón, Jirón, Jirón, Donde Vive Tanta Gente,” in which two kids form an arch to capture those passing under and have them choose a side. Both games end with a big tug-of-war.

Several people mentioned the lack of supervision.

“We just went out and played,” explained one woman. She added that mothers were usually around somewhere.

Today’s children may have more toys and games and organized activities, but one little Tica discovered the joy of inventing games when she visited relatives on a farm.

“It’s fun to throw tomatoes,” she reported.


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