While many of us will always find traditional children’s games charming, the nostalgic glow that emanates from them has now been given an even keener edge due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stuck indoors and reliant on online technology to supply them with both education and entertainment, kids in Malta and elsewhere are cut off from the freewheeling experience of playing on the street with their friends and neighbours, now more than ever.
But just as it was the case in other areas of life and society, the pandemic may just have inspired us to look beyond our status quo and to help re-discover what we’ve lost. To mention just one factor… traditional outdoor games went on the wane partly as a result of increased urbanisation. With the streets clearing up in the wake of social distancing measures and even government ministers beginning to advocate for car-free spaces in village squares (temporary or otherwise), we may just be at the cusp of a cultural re-awakening that makes playing outdoors desirable and popular once again.
Optimists may agree and pessimists shoot down the notion as unworkable but either way, there’s never really a bad time to remember the games of yore. However, the onset of the upcoming edition of Għanafest – Malta’s annual celebration of Maltese folk song, to be streamed online between June 8 and 13 – is as good a time as any to dig into the history and habits that characterised the way generations upon generations of Maltese kids passed the time prior to total urbanisation and technological consolidation.
We caught up with Joan Agius, Vice Mayor of Zejtun and child and community worker with Sedqa to get a conversation going on the legacy of traditional children’s games in Malta. Agius is quick to confirm the impression that technological and urban advancement had a big part to play in allowing for the traditional games to wane in popularity and believes there’s more that’s lost here than just antiquated habits.
“Children deserve to live in a healthier world,” Agius declares unequivocally. “They should be allowed to play in spaces that are safe and free of harmful emissions. We should strive to impart to them how happy we used to be when we used to play on the streets together. Unfortunately, such an environment doesn’t really exist anymore, so we need to strive to find the places that can still serve this purpose,” Agius says.
In fact, Agius is quick to remind us that these games were played mainly on the roads or in fields, “though one must bear in mind that it was all a lot safer back then. One would only find carts on the roads”. While some of these games will be universally recognisable – such as Noli (hide-and-seek) and Passju (hopscotch) – others have a more Malta-specific flavour, with games like ‘Bum Bum Il-Bieb’ potentially originating during the Knights of St John period.
Source: Bank of Valletta p.l.c. YouTube Channel
Agius also believes there’s something to be said for the activities that have stepped in to fill the gap previously occupied by traditional games.
“Like everyone else, children are thrown into activities that ensure they are kept busy and moving from one thing to another all the time. In a sense, I believe they are losing their free time. So, we need to help them find it once again, and help them enjoy it.”
Some popular traditional Maltese games
Mainly played by boys and possibly still popular today, the game challenges participants to launch a marble ball from a distance at a row of other marbles.
Girls would launch differently coloured beads in a hole in the ground. The last girl to successfully throw their bead into the hole would take home the entire set of beads.
A boy hits a small piece of wood with a larger plank. As it’s launched in the air, the other players would run to catch it, and whoever succeeds will be the one hitting it once the game starts up again.
A player sits on the floor pretending to stir a pot of boiling water. The other players take turns to ask, “Lupu, Lupu x’inti tagħmel?” [‘Oh fox, oh fox, what are you doing?’]. The ‘fox’ answers that they are boiling a pot of water. They eventually get up and begin to chase the other players – the one who’s caught plays the role of the ‘fox’ in the next round.
The name of this game translates to ‘the blind chicken’, the titular player being blindfolded and then sent to chase the other players, who would tempt the blindfolded player into catching them over the others. Whoever is caught by the ‘blind chicken’ takes up the role in the next round.
A simple but fun game enjoyed by boys, who would tie a wire around a disused bicycle wheel and take it for a spin around the village streets.
Iż-Żunżana Ddur Iddur
The players would be seated in a circle on the floor, though one of them would be roaming around, singing “Iż-żunżana ddur iddur fuq il-bejt tal-kaċċatur” [‘The wasp goes round and round the hunters’ rooftop’]. At one point during this chant, they would drop a small object (like a stone or a little ball) next to one of the seated players, who will then get up to chase the chanting player. If the chanting player is caught, they lose the game and would have to go up and about again. If not, they are allowed to be seated and the player who caught them would assume their role.
Bum Bum il-Bieb
A mixed group of boys and girls will form two separate rows and chant a nursery rhyme about a Knight of Malta who’s going door to door to choose a boy or a girl to take with him. The two rows would continue to chant the rhyme in tandem with each other, and then pick one of their number to swap with a counterpart from the other line. They would each be given gifts: one of them being quite desirable and the other being a ‘funny’ gift – a source of great amusement for all the players.