teacher resources

High School /College : Games : Overview, Questions, Bibliography

Topic: The Role of Children's Games in Ancient Greece
Written by Alison Schmauch, Dartmouth College, Class of 2004

Ancient Greek children played games strikingly similar to many of the games children play today. They played with hoops, rattles, and knucklebones, a toy from which modern jacks originate; they also played games quite like modern basketball and hockey. Yet, for all the similarities between modern and ancient Greek children’s games, there are noteworthy differences as well. The competitive ethos that pervaded Greek society appears to have influenced children’s play. Greek children’s games tend to delineate absolutely between winners and losers in a way that modern games do not, and an emphasis on trickery and deception in certain games may reflect something broader about a competitive society that valued such trickery as a sign of cleverness and strength.

Like many modern psychologists, Greek adults saw such games as a valuable way to prepare children informally for adult tasks and vocations. Plato wrote, “He who is good at anything as a man must practice that thing from early childhood, in play as well as earnest, with all the attendant circumstances of the action. Thus, if a boy is to be a good farmer, or again, a good builder, he should play, in the one case at building toy houses, in the other at farming, and both should be provided by their tutors with miniature tools on the pattern of real ones. We should see to use games as a means of directing children’s tastes and inclinations toward the station they are themselves to fill when adult.” Likewise, E. J. Harris discusses the possibility that the Greeks’ formal athletic competitions in which some children participated, served as good physical training for war. Even more informal types of games also helped to keep children fit for fighting, an important goal in a society in which military service was nearly universal.

Ample evidence from art and literature points to the existence of ancient Greek children’s games. For example, in the Republic, Plato refers to the “whirling of a shell in the children’s game,” and Aristotle, in a scientific treatise, compares the movements of animals to those of children’s “automatic puppets” and toy wagons. Various ancient works of art also show children at play. Groups of terracotta figurines often depict children playing ephedrismos (Cat. 82, 83), a type of piggyback game, and similar games were also represented on Greek vases. Finally, archaeologists have recovered the remains of some ancient Greek toys, including the brass and glass knucklebones and rattle on display in the Hood exhibition (Cat. 88) and some balls and wheeled carts.

At the same time, much of the information we do have about ancient Greek children’s games is fragmentary and/or problematic. Many of the most common children’s toys that we know about from artistic representations and literary sources, such as hoops and balls, were usually made of wood or other highly perishable materials, and thus no examples of them survive. Likewise, while we know that certain games existed from artistic or literary representations, we do not know exactly what their rules were. For example, we know that Greek children played a game resembling modern-day hockey from a relief on an Archaic Athenian statue base, but we know little about how this game was actually played. Scholars have also encountered similar problems when studying the board games shown on some vases.

Also, it is often unclear whether children played games for amusement alone or as part of religious rituals. While some literary sources indicate that children played informally with toys similar to contemporary tops, other such tops have been found in sanctuaries and appear to have been dedicated as votives. Young girls are frequently shown juggling on fifth-century Attic vases, but it is mostly unclear what they are juggling. While some scholars see these young women tossing round balls of wool, others see apples, which were symbols of love and fertility and might thus suggest that these images have a more religious purpose.

Types of Children’s Games

Ephedrismos was a popular game whose name is derived from the Greek word for “sit upon.” Two players place a stone upright on the ground and throw other stones at it from a distance. The player who fails to knock over the upright stone then carries the other player on his back while the winner’s hands cover his eyes. The pair runs around in this fashion until the losing player touches the stone.

Greek children are commonly shown playing morra as well, a game that is still played in some parts of Europe, particularly southern Italy. Two players make a fist behind their backs and at a signal extend their hands, displaying a certain number of fingers. The first player to call out the correct total number of fingers shown wins the game.

Knucklebones was also a popular game in the Greek world. A quotation from Aristophanes’ Wasps indicates how widespread the game was, in part because of the affordability of knucklebones in comparison to treats like figs:

Boy: There’s something, Father, for which I pine:
Would you grant a request of mine?
Chorus: Certainly, child, tell me what’s the pretty thing
That you’d like for me to bring
Knucklebones, is it, eh, my laddie?
Boy: No knucklebones: figs, please, Daddy.
Chorus: No figs: be hanged, say I.
From my paltry pay I have to try
Flour, wood, and groceries to buy.
Figs indeed—up in the sky!

To begin the game, each player tosses all five knucklebones in the air and tries to catch as many as possible. Each player then repeats the procedure using the knucklebones that he or she caught the first time. The score each player obtains in this way determines the order of turns during the game.

In the most common variation on this game, the first player throws all of his knucklebones on the ground. He picks one up, which becomes known as the jack. He tosses the jack into the air, picks up another bone from the ground, and catches the jack as it falls. He transfers the picked-up bone to his free hand and throws the jack again. This procedure is repeated until the player has picked up all of the knucklebones. If a player drops a bone, misses the jack, or moves a bone inadvertently, he is out and the next player takes his turn. When a player succeeds at picking up and holding all the bones during one turn of play, he goes on to try to pick up all the bones at one time. When the player has picked up all the bones in this way, he then tries to pick up bones in groups of first three and then four.

Greek children also loved to play a game called ostrakinda. The name of the game is derived from that of the shell that is used during play. Greek children would take a shell and smear one side black. They referred to this side as “night,” while the blank side was “day.” The children then drew a line, divided into two teams, and decided which team was night and which day. One player would toss the shell, and the side whose color came up chased the other team. Anyone caught was forced to carry his pursuer on his back. Plato is likely making an analogy based on this popular game when he writes, “So this, it seems, would not be the whirling of a shell in the children’s game, but a conversation and turning about of the soul from a day whose light is darkness to the veritable day.” Variations of ostrakinda are still played in Europe. English children play a version called “Crusts and Crumbs,” French children one called “Le Jour et La Nuit,” and Austrian children a game called “Schwarz-Weiss.”

Games involving rolling wooden hoops, quite similar to those children play today, were also popular with ancient Greek children. A child with a hoop appears in the Hood’s exhibition on an oinochoe entitled Serving Boy Holding Tray and Hoop (cat. 76). There are abundant literary references to the popularity of hoop bowling: in Euripides’ Medea, Medea’s young sons first appear when “fresh from their hoop bowling.” Similarly, a wealthy magistrate who endowed a gymnasium in Prirene encouraged the young men who frequented it to roll hoops.

Types of Ball Games

Ancient Greek children played numerous types of ball games. Galen described how children blew up pigs’ bladders and shaped them by holding them over fires and rubbing them, thus producing objects resembling contemporary footballs. Plato notes that children sometimes painted these balls different colors to make them more attractive.

Greek children enjoyed playing episkyros, also known as ephebike—a sort of rugby-football type game. The players divided into two teams. Each team stood on one side of a line drawn on the ground. A goal line was drawn behind each team; the two sides then fought to reach the other side’s goal line. Ourania, a game in which one player tosses a ball into the air and others try to catch it, was also popular, as was aporrhaxis, which entailed bouncing a ball and keeping it bouncing. In phaininda, a rugby-like game whose name is derived from the Greek word “to pretend,” players elaborately tried to prevent the other team from intercepting a ball by deceiving them through a series of fake passes. Passé-boule involved trying to throw a ball through a round hole in an upright board embedded in the ground, something like modern basketball. (Cat. 79)

Children at the Olympic and Panathenaic Games

Ancient Greek children participated in more organized forms of sport, including the Olympic and Panathenaic Games. At Olympia, all competitors were considered either boys or men, possibly because the lack of clear birth records to confirm competitors’ exact ages made it difficult to enforce the division of competitors into smaller groups. Contestants were, however, classified as either boys, youths or men at other athletic festivals, and later on, during the Christian era, athletes were divided into still smaller competition groups according to age. Aristotle comments directly on the dangers of following a difficult training regimen at an early age in order to enter such athletic events: “The evil of excessive training in early years is strikingly proved by the example of the Olympic victors; for not more than two or three of them have gained a prize both as boys and men; their early training and severe gynmastic exercise exhausted their constitutions.” Interestingly, Greek competitors did not divide into classes according to any criterion other than age: for example, wrestlers were not divided into classes by weight, as is typical in modern competitions.

Nonetheless, children were barred from competing in some athletic events. Boys were allowed to compete in the pankration, a type of wrestling competition with few rules, only after 200 B.C.E. They had previously been forbidden to do this type of wrestling in the Olympics because the sport was thought too dangerous for young boys, even though boys could fight in the pankration in other athletic competitions. Similarly, it was recorded that boys competed in the pentathlon for one year, in 628 B.C.E., but were forbidden to afterward for reasons that remain unclear.

A notably competitive ethos dominated many of these games. The distinctions between winning and losing were delineated quite clearly. In both ephedrismos and ourania, the winner was known as “king” and the loser as “donkey.” Games with points were virtually unheard of as competitors were interested in knowing only who won and who lost, not how close a given game was. Similarly, in the formal athletic games children competed in, no prizes were given to contestants who came in second or third in any particular event, likely for the same reasons. The emphasis on using trickery in a game like phaininda may also reflect the same sort of competitive ethos, as the Greeks were infamous for valuing trickery and deceit if it allowed them an edge in competition.


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Questions for Further Study:

  • Although we do not know the origin of game playing, what is some of the earliest archaeological evidence of games?
  • Do you think games were invented by adults or by children? Why?
  • What games were played in other ancient cultures? Are they similar to ancient Greek games in terms of what skills one needed to excel at them?
  • Why did official athletic competitions in Greece not include team sports? In what culture did organized team sports first appear?
  • The Mayans played a form of ball game that involved ritual practice. What was this game and how did it differ from the Greek games?
  • What were the differences between the Panathenaic Games and the Olympic Games?
  • How are today’s Olympic games similar to the games played at Olympia in ancient Greece? How are they different?



Lekythos of Zeus Chasing Ganymede
c. 440-430 B.C.E
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly, 47.35
Ex Collections V.G. Simkhovitch; E. Lilly
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 15

The scene on this red-figure lekythos shows the god Zeus chasing the young Trojan prince Ganymede. According to myth, Zeus eventually caught Ganymede and brought him to the gods’ home at Olympos, where Ganymede had to spend his days serving the gods. Here Ganymede is shown playing a game commonly known as “hoop-bowling.” The childish nature of the game Ganymede plays makes him seem younger, more vulnerable to the god; commentators have noted that this scene lacks some of the erotic tension that characterizes other representations of the same myth.

Figure 2
Kylix of Hermes and Youth Spinning Top
c. 480-470 B.C.E
Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University, Archaeological Collection, B9
Ex Collection Hartwig, Rome
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 16

On this red-figure kylix, the painter Douris shows Hermes teaching a youth how to spin a top. Hermes (left) is not shown here with the kerykeion, the traditional wand, so it is a bit difficult to identify him for certain, but this image does resemble several in which he is shown with his traditional attribute.
As Hermes served the patron deity of the gymnasium, he was thought to have a particularly close association with young boys and was said to have invented the spinning top. Accordingly, many Greek male youth brought tops and other toys to sanctuaries to be dedicated to Hermes when they came of age and it became time for them to lay away these childish things.

Figure 3
Chous with Boys Playing Ball
c. 425 B.C.E.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Fletcher Fund, 1925, 25.78.48
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 79

Here two young boys are shown playing passé-boule, a game similar to modern basketball. The object was to toss the ball through a hole in an upright board stuck in the ground. Four other ancient Greek vases, all dating from the latter half of the fifth century, show versions of this popular game.

Figure 4
Terracotta Figurines, Girls Playing Ephedrismos
c. 300 B.C.E.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Rogers Fund, 1907, 07.286.4
Ex Collection John Marshall, Athens
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 83

These two young girls are playing ephedrismos. The game entailed competing to see which of two players could knock over a stone placed upright on the ground by throwing other stones at it. The player who loses then has to run around carrying the winner on his/her back until the losing player touches the stone. The forward leg right leg of the carrier and the backswung leg of the left rider suggest the speed at which ephedrismos was commonly played.
In this pair, the winning girl is especially easy to identify because she wears a stephane, or crown, on her head, while the carrier sports a humbler floral wreath. The presence of these attributes again seems to suggest the competiveness of ancient Greek society.

Figure 5
Chous with Boys Playing Knucklebones
c. 420 B.C.E.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 96.AE.28

This vase has been called one of the finest depictions of knucklebone playing in ancient Greek art. Children typically played this game, often regarded as the ancestor of modern jacks games, with the tarsal bones of sheep or goats.

There were numerous variations on the games of knucklebones, and it’s unclear which one the boys shown here are playing. They might be playing eis omillan, which entails trying to knock over knucklebones that have been placed upright in a clearly defined central playing field. The two boys at left appear to be guarding such upright knucklebones while the boy at right prepares to make a throw that will knock them over.

These boys might also be playing a game called pleistobolinda. In this game, players assign numerical values to each side of the knucklebones, and the players toss the knucklebones up into the air to see whose knucklebones land on the most valuable sides. The player who earns the most points gets to steal the other players’ knucklebones. Usually, though, only two players played pleistobolinda.


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Avedon, Elliot M. and Brian Sutton-Smith. The Study of Games. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1971.

Botermans, Jack and Tony Burrett, Pieter van Delft, Carla van Splunteren. The World of Games. New York: Facts on File, 1987.

Decker, Wolfgang. Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt. Trans. Allen Guttmann. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Harris, H.A. Sport in Greece and Rome. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Milberg, Alan. Street Games. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Miller, Steven G. Arete: Ancient Writers, Papyri and Inscriptions on the History and Ideals of Greek Athletics and Games. Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1979.

Opie, Iona and Peter Opie. Children’s Games in Street and Playground. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.