Playing with flight has been a human obsession for thousands of years. Around here, as in history, an adoration for good old fashioned kite-flying developed into a fascination with aviation. Our small girl has been experimenting with a light wooden aeroplane, taking off the twisting rubber bands that spin the propeller, and using it as a glider. Endless fun! My sweetheart made this little short for her, and I’ve borrowed it for you.

Occasionally our flying games require a ladder. But isn’t it pleasing?

toy wooden aeroplane

I’ve fished the tail out of the currant bush and rescued the propeller from the camellia, yet the tendency of this flying machine to come to pieces is also its strength. On meeting with a wall, it simply deconstructs instead of cracking, and we easily reassemble for the next flight.



p>A bit of glue will fix the wood, so it is quite trusty, and thoroughly beloved. No doubt there have been toy aeroplanes for nearly as long as the real thing, and probably one informed the other. After all, so much of learning is play. I’m waiting to hear requests to go up in a hot air balloon, next.

kite flying

To celebrate our younger child’s birthday, we took her into the city to choose a strong and pretty kite, then wandered along a lane together to the best kite-flying park. The rest of the world can be quite still, yet this trusty spot will bluster enough to launch your kite, if anything is bound to.


Simple, joyful stuff. Physics, magic, as you like it.

flying kites

I’d have liked to have constructed a kite with my little girl, perhaps out of bamboo and silk as the first ones were in China, over 2800 years ago! But traditional games are such a pleasure, even if you don’t make the piece yourself.

kite flying

In fact, I once made a kite in art school, and flew it in this very spot. I built a large, transparent kite, and printed it with a life-sized image of me on it, as if I were flying. After three failed kite flying attempts and much consultation with our local, famous, 80-year old stunt-kitesman, who would talk to me about my kite/performance piece whilst flying three kites at once, I finally flew my kite/myself, high in the air. Pure joy! Where have those images gone? Hmm. The piece later informed my street banners, which lined Vancouver’s streets for the millennium.

Kiting has a long and varied history across the world:

The kite was said to be the invention of the famous 5th century BC Chinese philosophers Mozi and Lu Ban. By at least 549 AD paper kites were being flown, as it was recorded in that year a paper kite was used as a message for a rescue mission. Ancient and medieval Chinese sources list other uses of kites for measuring distances, testing the wind, lifting men, signaling, and communication for military operations. The earliest known Chinese kites were flat (not bowed) and often rectangular. Later, tailless kites incorporated a stabilizing bowline. Kites were decorated with mythological motifs and legendary figures; some were fitted with strings and whistles to make musical sounds while flying.

After its introduction into India, the kite further evolved into the fighter kite known as the patang in India where thousands are flown every year on festivals such as Makar Sankranti.
Kites were known throughout Polynesia, as far as New Zealand, with the assumption being that the knowledge diffused from China along with the people. Anthropomorphic kites made from cloth and wood were used in religious ceremonies to send prayers to the gods. Polynesian kite traditions are used by anthropologists get an idea of early “primitive” Asian traditions that are believed to have at one time existed in Asia.

Kites were late to arrive in Europe, although windsock-like banners were known and used by the Romans. Stories of kites were first brought to Europe by Marco Polo towards the end of the 13th century, and kites were brought back by sailors from Japan and Malaysia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although they were initially regarded as mere curiosities, by the 18th and 19th centuries kites were being used as vehicles for scientific research.
In 1750, Benjamin Franklin published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a storm that appeared capable of becoming a lightning storm. It is not known whether Franklin ever performed his experiment, but on May 10, 1752, Thomas-Francois Dalibard of France conducted a similar experiment (using a 40-foot (12 m) iron rod instead of a kite) and extracted electrical sparks from a cloud.

Kites were also instrumental in the research and development of the Wright brothers when building the first airplane in the late 1800s. Over the next 70 years, many new kite designs were developed, and often patented. These included Eddy’s tail-less diamond kite, the tetrahedral kite, the flexible kite, the sled kite, and the parafoil kite, which helped to develop the modern hang-gliders. In fact, the period from 1860 to about 1910 became the “golden age of kiting”. Kites started to be used for scientific purposes, especially in meteorology, aeronautics, wireless communications and photography; many different designs of man-lifting kite were developed as well as power kites.

In other words, pure joy.


Like so many traditional toys, the yo-yo has been popular across cultures for the last 2500 years. It’s had a great history, with a tremendous burgeoning in popularity in the 1920’s and 1960’s, and still it persists. Like jacks and jump-rope, the yo-yo is not as easy as it looks. My own skills are quite sorry in this regard. Fortunately my smallest child has agreed to show us how it’s done.

So, I think the idea is that the moment it touches down, you lift a little bit to encourage it to wind back up. I’ll keep practicing. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do the sleeper, or walk the dog.

traditional wooden yo-yo

traditional ball

Football (soccer!) in England dates back to the eighth century though it seems that roots can be traced ten or eleven centuries earlier in China. Our beloved local traditional toy shop furnished a good old fashioned brown leather football, the hand-sewn sort that was played with clear through to 1950, when fans wanted a lighter shade to be able to distinguish it on the pitch from a distance.

old fashioned football © elisa rathje 2012

The old-time natural leather and laces are richly coloured and beautifully constructed. I like it, it looks to me as if I’m seeing the real thing, just the way I love to see a very simply constructed, undecorated hammer or spade. A handsome object.

old fashioned soccer ball © elisa rathje 2012

Astonishingly, the design of the football continues to change. Such a long history! A four-hundred-and-fifty-year old football was recently found in the rafters of a Scottish castle. It isn’t so different to this traditional ball that we play with in our garden.


Now, jacks is an old-time game that we adore. It’s not an easy one! Like skipping rope or skipping stones, it takes devoted practice, and it’s a thrill when you get it.

jacks © elisa rathje 2011

From our beloved set of pewter jacks, made by good old Cooperman Fife & Drum:

Jacks was played in early America as it had been played for over two thousand years, with small sheep astragali (knucklebones). The game was known as “knucklebones,” “dibs” or “jackstones.” Small pebbles or marbles were sometimes substituted for the bones. Metal jacks, which mimic the shape of the sheep bones were probably not in wide use until the mid-nineteenth century, although a pewter jack found at Fortress Louisbourg in Nova Scotia is thought to be of eighteenth century origin. The rules of play are very much the same today as in early America. Before the introduction of the rubber ball, the pick up combinations had to be completed before a bone or pebble tossed up in the air came back down, making for a much harder game. A wooden ball is included in this set so you can try your hand at this older version of the game. Traditionally the game was played with five bones or pebbles. A modern game can be played with any number of jacks and a ball.

Scatter the jacks on the floor. Toss the ball up. For onesies, pick up one jack without disturbing any other jack and catch the ball in the same hand. If you’re using the wood ball you must complete the trick before the ball comes down; with the rubber ball you must complete the trick before the ball bounces twice. Transfer the jack to your free hand and continue to pick up one jack at a time until all the jacks have been taken. If you complete the trick go on to Twosies; if not, play passes to your opponent. For Twosies, two jacks must be picked up at a time and so forth for Threesies, until at the last round all of the jacks must be picked up at the same time. Accomplished players increase the difficulty of the rounds by adding motions which must be performed while picking up the jacks; for example, you might have to pick up the jacks and clap your hands before the ball is caught.

There are tremendous variations all over the world. I love the tinkling sound of the jacks, and seeing a joyful group of friends gathered round them for a good game.