During the Ramadan fast, 10-year-old Yuceu Dewi Sakinah, like many other children, whiled away time by playing games. She and her friends played ‘sondah’, a Sundanese traditional game similar to hopscotch, in front of her house in this Indonesian city.
Upon seeing them, other girls in the neighbourhood stopped and watched with curiosity. ”What game is she playing?” asked one of them. Although ‘sondah’ is a traditional game in Indonesia, many of today’s city children are no longer familiar with it. They are more familiar with skating or video games, pastimes that have nothing to do with their traditional roots. Yuceu, in other words, is one of not too many youngsters who knows how to enjoy both traditional and ‘modern’ games. She also plays ‘congkak’, ‘beklen’, ‘babacakan’, and other games most of her friends consider strange.
Indeed, a recent study conducted by the Taman Budaya Sunda, or Sundanese Art Park, revealed that at least 55 of 60 traditional games are already ‘dead’, in the sense that they are no longer recognised by Sundanese children in West Java. The remaining are fighting for survival. Fortunately, the extinction of traditional games is mostly occurring in the cities. In the villages, some 80 percent of the games are still being played by Sundanese children, the same study says.
According to Nano Suratno, a Sundanese artist who heads the Sundanese Art Park, the demise of traditional games comes with rapid industrialisation and urbanisation over the decades that has pushed aside traditional values, norms, and products.
”Everyday, new products, new information, including new games, are introduced and pass through your eyes on TV, books, magazines. You have no time to defend and hold on the past. Everyday, we are compelled to try something new, and we have no time to develop and even to defend what we have had,” he says. Limited space in cities is another reason for dying traditional games. ”Many of the traditional games need large spaces. You cannot play ‘gatrik’ (a game that involves using a piece of bamboo and a soft- ball) in a small alley,” adds Lilis Maryati, a researcher into Sundanese traditions. And ”if you play babancakan (a cat-and-mouse-like game), you can use the whole neighborhood,” she explains.
Cultural analysts say Indonesia can learn from other countries when it comes to providing more space for play. In Japan, Suratno says, neighbourhoods are similarly crowded, houses are small and the price of land is much higher. But still, each neighborhood has its own open spaces, sufficient for children to play. ”Here, our children have no room to play,” he laments.
‘On weekends, they will take their children to play ground in malls, supermarkets, rather than teaching them the impractical old games,” Maryati says. If the cycle continues, today’s children will also be unable to teach their own children traditional games.
But how can Yuceu still play these old games? During school vacations and on weekends, her parents take her back to Tasikmalaya, the home of her grandparents. During her stay in that village in West Java, she learned to play these games with other children there. ”I can play video games, skating, computer games, but playing those of the village are much more exciting,” Yuceu says.
In the villages, local games are often played during Ramadan, when children in the villages spend the fasting period playing before returning home late in the afternoons. Often, the youngsters play war games using bamboo pistols they make themselves. The number of participants and space used in these games is unlimited. And every child makes bamboo pistols themselves, a factor that distinguishes them with their city counterparts.
”I think the positive side of our old generation is that they are less dependent. If they want to have a car toy, they make it themselves. Children of the present day ask their parents for money to have it,” Suratno points out. Maryati and Suratno agree that Sundanese traditional games will survive only if people do something about it. Schools and local authorities play a key role in this case. As a senior teacher here puts it: ”If the government can provide huge playgrounds in malls for such commercial games, why can’t they do it for traditional games?”
Trying to promote a revival of traditional games, the Sundanese Art Council recently held a exhibition featuring Sundanese games. Children were invited over to listen to explanations on how to play those games. ”Those ‘modern’ children really like it,” says Maryati. ”There’s no reason to ignore our own wealth.”
The council is also printing and distributing books on the games, which it expects to become one of the references in primary and secondary schools. ”By this way, children will recognise their own possessions,” she explains.
But for the games to be relearned and brought to life with children’s squeals of fun, Suratno says neighbourhood leaders and residents themselves must provide open spaces for youngsters to play. Surely, there should be space for children to run free in this big country, she adds.