String Games and Brain Development

A child plays with a string game



What are String Games?


String games are one of the oldest games in human history, involving creating various string figures, either individually or by passing a loop of string back and forth between two or more players. With just a simple string, these games have been played for thousands of years spanning various countries and cultures, from the Arctic, Australia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, Native America, Asia, and more.


Anthropologists have found evidence that they were played in the stone ages with the "string" made from native sources like sinew (from kangaroo legs), leather, bark, and even braided human hair.


Unsurprisingly, each culture has its own names for similar string figures. How they perceived these figures can give insight into their way of life; what was important to them spiritually, what kind of animals they had, what pictures they saw in the stars at night, and other significant beliefs. For example, Native Americans made string figures of what they saw in nature such as  "tipi", "deer", and "rabbit" - from the Inuit we see similar figures such as "polar bear", "bird" and "kayak".


Some string games were used to illustrate stories, to represent good luck charms, or to chase away "bad spirits".


The earliest known written descriptions of string figures is from a collection by Greek physician Oribasius in 400 A.D. Today we have many books thanks to anthropologists and mathematicians who have travelled around the world collecting figures and stories. Museums are cherishing string figure artifacts. There are over 1200 in more than 20 museums world wide, including at Harvard University.


String Games and Brain Development


Researchers have found that making string figures helps build the mathematical thought process, as following the steps is very much like following steps in a math problem. Japanese mathematicians do them and teach them to their students; as do the teachers at Waldorf schools all over the world. Learning figures builds dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and encourages the growth of neural pathways in our brains.


String games can range from simple to quite complex so practice and patience are required! We recommend taking one along in your purse or backpack to practice while waiting in line and at restaurants. Many a time we have been surprised by a grandparent or friend who remembers playing string games as a child and teaches us a new one!


Look for books at the library and videos on YouTube with instructions and illustrations.


My kids learned them best when I read them aloud as they did each step. then they would remember how to do them as I promptly forgot!  There are also websites with videos on the subject.


Sarah's Silks String Games are Handmade and dyed in California by my son Noah in all the colors of the rainbow.


You can find more information at www.isfa.org. A string figure magazine and organization.



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