With just a simple string, games have been played for thousands of years in many different countries and cultures including in the Arctic, Australia, Pacific Islands, Native America and Asia. There is some 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. Native Americans made figures of what they saw in the outdoors; from them we get figures such as "tipi", "deer", and "rabbit". From the Inuit we have figures named; "polar bear", "bird" and "kayak". In many communities string games were used to pass the time, tell stories and as good luck charms 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 mathmeticians 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.
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 mathemeticians do them and teach them to their students; as do the teachers at Waldorf schools all over the world. Learning figures builds dexetierty, eye hand coordination and encourages growth of neural pathways in our brains.
String games can range from simple to quite complex. 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! Tricks are great to know as they amaze my children.
Look for books at the library 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 web sites with videos on the subject.
You can make your own string, but try to avoid having a knot in it as that makes the figures difficult. Our son Josh, string game expert, makes them for us to sell on our web site and in many shops around the world. You can find them here.
Here is an amazing example of mathmetician Martin Probert's string game explanation of mitosis. It is a moving string game and illustrates a cell dividing in two.
You can find more information at www.isfa.org. A string figure magazine and organization.