Children and play go together like peanut butter and jelly. Children love games, and ancient children were no exception. In fact many of the games that children played during the time of Jesus were already centuries old, and are still quite popular today. Jesus may have played marbles, hockey, or even leap frog as a child. He probably had at least one of the many popular ancient toys such as a leather ball for playing catch, a clay doll or animals carved from wood or clay. Boys even had carved or clay molded “action dolls” made to look like archers or soldiers with little spears or bows and arrows.
While modern children enjoy high tech games like game boys or computer games, children in the ancient world had just as much fun at play time with tried and true inventions like jump ropes, racing games, hoops, and ancient versions of modern board games. While some forms of games were probably enjoyed more by the wealthier classes, children of all classes enjoyed physical games such as various ball games. Using a leather or rubber ball filled with seeds they would play catch, tag, ride piggy back trying to knock each other off or race on teams trying to get the ball to a goal. Leap frog, an ancient version of “Simon says” and “red rover” were all popular among the children of ancient times.
Ancient Egyptian tombs are filled with reliefs of children playing various sports games such as hockey, soccer, wrestling and even a form of baseball. Physical games of all kinds were popular throughout the ancient world. In Greece, children played mini versions of the Olympic games in preparation for participation in the adult versions later in life. In ancient Greece, especially in Athens or Sparta, children played games that would prepare them for future war fare such as archery practice, spear throwing competitions and “war”.
Board games were popular with all ages, though most of the poorer classes used make shift game areas carved out in the dirt for the game, the wealthier classes had board games made for them. Many ancient Egyptian tombs have been discovered with intricately designed board games carved from stone, marble and even glass. Bad-gammon has been a popular game throughout the ages with the rules changing little. Ouija originated as a child’s game in ancient Egypt. Thought of today as a “new age” tool for summoning spirits, Ouija was played by hundreds of children in the ancient world.The ancient Egyptians called it a “luck board” and it was used for amusement to predict the future of the players. Board games were usually played by older children and adults because they involved complicated rules and strategies. Younger children enjoyed games similar to checkers while older children played versions of chess and other games that have been lost to antiquity.
Games specific to the Hebrew culture in which Jesus would have grown up included games such as Kugelach or Five Stones. Probably the forerunner to jacks and dice games, this game has been around for at least 4000 years. A detailed explanation of the rules and how it is played can be found at jergames.blogspot.com. Another traditional Hebrew game is the ever popular Dreidal, which involves a spinning top. Instructions on how to play the game can be found at Kveller.com.
Though Biblical scripture has little detail on the games that children played during biblical times, it is certain from recent excavations that Jewish children played as heartily as their counterparts in the ancient world. Toys such as dolls made from powdered quartz and baked in molds were popular as well as wooden animals on wheels. During Roman times, children played with wooden carved lions and crocodiles with movable parts, rattles, dolls, hoops and clay discus. It is without doubt that when Jesus was a child he enjoyed many of the same games and activities that children today enjoy.